Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Sunday of Life is an important example of Queneau’s belief in the deep wisdom of simple people. Viewed with a detached irony, his characters confront age-old problems, such as marriage, death, and war, with a simplicity of spirit that may result in some pratfalls but always eventuates in a kind of peaceful resignation and understanding. For Queneau, humor is a way of life, a way of commenting and thus overcoming some of its bleaker or more tragic aspects.

Situational humor abounds in Queneau’s writings. A woman teases her sister about an attractive soldier walking down the street and ends up arranging their match. The happy couple cannot agree on when to take a honeymoon, so the groom sets off on the trip by himself. At the funeral of their mother, the two couples end up arguing over the existential status of raw oysters. These situations, as well as many others, become a sort of repertoire for Queneau and allow him to represent in miniature, through the intimacy of a few people together, larger issues of life and death. That philosophers treat these same issues in terms of metaphysics worries Queneau not at all. He would rather explore the understanding of simple people, an understanding which by implication is always more real and thus more profound than any abstract theorizing.

Besides the humor of situations, Queneau’s main vehicle for humor—and understanding—is language itself, especially spoken language and slang. Yet he is also capable of using an extremely erudite vocabulary for the same purpose. In the scene at the restaurant, the oysters are referred to as “ostreicultivated animals,” “goblike mollusk,” “lamellibranchia,” and “raw mollusks.” Though this display of erudition may send German philologists scurrying to their learned editions, the effect in the scene is one of highly effective counterpointing to the simple truth of the thoughts expressed. One is left wondering, at the end, whether the knowledge of the erudite person is any more profound than the implicit wisdom of the vulgar person.

It is in language, finally, that Queneau’s characters and situations have their being. The characters may be ludicrously simpleminded and the situations filled with incongruities, but the total effect of the novel is to make one realize the incredible richness and diversity in the most mundane setting, sparked by the endless creativity of language itself.