Queneau, Raymond 1903–
Queneau, a French surrealist writer, is the author of many novels, one play, screenplays, poetry, and essays. For Queneau, life is so absurd that only laughter makes it tolerable. He has been called a "virtuoso of style" and master of "bawdy language growing in a field of glorious rhetoric." In addition to his creative work, Queneau planned and edited the immense Encyclopédie de la Pléiade.
Queneau is not the first writer to contend with literature. Ever since "literature" has existed (that is, judging from the word's date, since quite recently), we can say that the writer's function is to oppose it. What distinguishes Queneau is that his opposition is a hand-to-hand combat: his entire oeuvre cleaves to the myth of literature, his contestation is alienated, it feeds on its object, always leaving substance enough for new meals: the noble edifice of written form still stands, but worm-eaten, scaling, dilapidated. In this controlled destruction, something new, something ambiguous is elaborated, a kind of suspension of formal values: rather like the beauty of ruins. Nothing vengeful in this impulse—Queneau's activity is not, strictly speaking, sarcastic, it does not emanate from a good conscience, but rather from a complicity.
This surprising contiguity (this identity?) of literature and its enemy is very apparent in Zazie. From the point of view of literary architecture, Zazie is a well-made novel. It embodies all the "virtues" criticism likes to inventory and praise: "classical" construction …; "epic" duration …; objectivity …; a full cast of characters …; a unified social milieu and setting …; variety and equilibrium of fictional methods (narrative and dialogue). In other words, the entire technique of the French novel, from Stendhal to Zola. Whence the work's familiarity, which is perhaps not foreign to its success, for we cannot be certain that all its readers have consumed this good novel in an altogether distant fashion: there is, in Zazie, a pleasure of cursive reading, and not only of contour.
Yet once the novel's entire positivity is established, Queneau, without directly destroying it, couples it with an insidious void. As soon as each element of the traditional universe solidifies, Queneau dissolves it, undermines the novel's security: literature's solidity curdles; everything is given a double aspect, made unreal, whitened by that lunar light which is an essential theme of deceit and a theme characteristic of Queneau. The event is never denied, i.e., first posited then negated; it is always divided …, mythically endowed with two antagonistic figures.
The moments of deceit are precisely those which once constituted the glory of traditional rhetoric. First of all, the figures of thought: here the forms of duplicity are countless: antiphrasis (the title itself [Zazie dans le métro], since Zazie never takes the metro); uncertainty (is it the Panthéon or the Gare de Lyon, Sainte-Chapelle or the Chamber of Commerce?); the confusion of contrary roles (Pedro-Surplus is both a satyr and a cop), of ages (Zazie "ages"), of sexes, this last doubled by an additional enigma, since Gabriel's inversion is uncertain; the error which turns out to be right (Marceline finally becomes Marcel); negative definition (the tobacco shop which is not the one at the corner); tautology (the cop arrested by other cops); mockery (the child who brutalizes the adult, the lady who intervenes), etc.
All these figures are inscribed within the texture of the narrative; they are not conspicuous. The figures of words, of course, effect a much more spectacular destruction, one familiar to Queneau's readers. These are first of all figures of construction , which attack literary dignity by a...
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running fire of parodies. Every kind of writing is attacked: epic, Homeric, Latin, medieval, psychological, anecdotal, even the grammatical tenses, favorite vehicles of the myth of fiction, the historical present, and the Flaubertianpassé simple. Such examples indicate that Queneau's parody has a very special structure: it does not parade a knowledge of the model being mocked; there is no trace of that Ecole-Normale complicity with high culture which characterizes Giraudoux's parodies, for instance, and which is merely a deceptively off-hand way of showing a profound respect for classical-national values; here the parodic expression is frivolous, it dislocates en passant—a scab picked off the old literary skin. Queneau's is a parody sapped from within, its very structure masking a scandalous incongruity; it is not imitation (however subtle) but malformation, a dangerous equilibrium between verisimilitude and aberration, verbal theme of a culture whose forms are brought to a state of perpetual deceit.
As for the figures of speech, they obviously go much farther than a simple naturalization of our orthography…. Queneau's reductions … produce, in place of the word pompously draped in its orthographic gown, a new word, indiscreet, natural, i.e., barbarous: here it is the francité of the writing which is undermined, the noble Gallic tongue, the doux parler de France abruptly dislocated into a series of stateless vocables, so that our Great Literature, after the detonation, might well be no more than a collection of vaguely Russian or Kwakiutl fragments (and if not, only because of Queneau's pure kindness). Which is not to say that Quenalian phoneticism is purely destructive (is there ever, in literature, a univocal destruction?): all of Queneau's labor on our language is inspired by an obsessional impulse, that of découpage, of cutting-up: this is a technique in which riddling is a first step, but whose function is to explore structures, for to code and to decode are the two aspects of one and the same act of penetration, as was indicated, long before Queneau, by the entire Rabelaisian philosophy, for example. (pp. 117-20)
[Conforming] to the most learned definitions of symbolic logic, Zazie clearly distinguishes the language object from metalanguage. The language object is that language which dissolves into action itself, which makes things act—it is the primary, transitive language, the one about which we can speak but which itself transforms more than it speaks. It is exactly within this language object that Zazie lives, she never distances or destroys this language….
And it is from this language object that Zazie occasionally emerges in order to paralyze, with her murderous clausule, the metalanguage of the grown-ups. This metalanguage speaks not things but apropos of things (or apropos of the primary language). It is a parasitical, motionless, sententious language which doubles the act in the same way as the fly accompanies the coach; instead of the language object's imperative and optative, its principal mode is the indicative, a kind of zero degree of the act intended to represent reality, not to change it. This metalanguage secretes, around the letter of utterance, a complementary meaning—ethical, plaintive, sentimental, magisterial, etc.; in short, it is a song, an aria: in it we recognize the very being of literature. (p. 120)
For Queneau, literature is a category of speech, hence of existence, which concerns all of humanity…. It is not "the people," in Queneau's eyes, who possess the utopian literality of language; it is Zazie (whence, probably, the profound meaning of the role), i.e., an unreal, magical, Faustian being, since Zazie is the superhuman contraction of childhood and maturity, the superposition of "I am outside the world of adults" and of "How much I have lived." Zazie's innocence is not a bloom, a fragile virginity, values which could belong only to the romantic or edifying metalanguage: it is rejection of the aria, and a science of the transitive; Zazie circulates in her novel like a household god, her function is hygienic, counter-mythic: she calls to order. (pp. 120-21)
Zazie dans le métro is really an exemplary work: by vocation, it dismisses both … the serious and the comic. Which accounts for the confusion of our critics: some have taken it seriously as a serious work of art, suited to exegetical decipherment; others, judging the first group grotesque, have called the novel absolutely frivolous ("there is nothing to be said about it"); still others, seeing neither comedy nor seriousness in the work, have declared they did not understand. But this was precisely the work's intention—to wreck any dialogue about it, representing by the absurd the elusive nature of language. There is, between Queneau and the serious and mockery of the serious, that very movement of control and escape which governs the familiar game, model of all spoken dialectic, in which paper covers stone, stone smashes scissors, scissors cut paper: one always has the advantage over the other—provided both are mobile terms, forms. The antilanguage is never absolute….
[Zazie's] role is unreal, of an uncertain positivity, it is the expression of a reference more than the voice of a wisdom. This means that for Queneau, the contestation of language is always ambiguous, never conclusive, and that he himself is not a judge but a participant. (p. 122)
Queneau is on the side of modernity: his literature is not a literature of possession and fulfillment; he knows that one cannot "demystify" from the outside, in the name of an ownership, but that one must steep oneself in the void one is revealing: yet he also knows that this compromising of himself would lose all its virtue if it were spoken, recuperated by a direct language: literature is the very mode of the impossible, since it alone can speak its void, and by saying it, again establish a plenitude. In his way, Queneau takes a position at the heart of this contradiction, which perhaps defines our literature today: he assumes the literary mask but at the same time points his finger at it. This is a very difficult and enviable operation; it is perhaps because it is a successful one that there is, in Zazie, this last and precious paradox: a dazzling comedy yet one purified of all aggression. As if Queneau psychoanalyzes himself at the same time that he psychoanalyzes literature: Queneau's entire oeuvre implies a quite terrible imago of literature. (p. 123)
Roland Barthes, "Zazie and Literature" (1959), in his Critical Essays, translated by Richard Howard (copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill.), Northwestern University Press, 1972, pp. 117-23.
[Zazie dans le métro was] the first genuine success scored by … Raymond Queneau, who had, up to then, been greatly admired only by a small élite of connoisseurs. There was a contrived and highly self-conscious humor in some of his earlier volumes, Loin de Rueil (1944, translated as The Skin of Dreams), Le Dimache de la vie (1951), too wry and too geometrically calculated to arouse generous laughter. The author is immensely learned and the organizer and editor of several encyclopedias…. Not unlike Joyce, he has for years centered his meditations on language, and, not unlike Wordsworth in his famous preface, he has attempted to bring the French language 'near to the language of men.' Respect for their polished, perspicuous, often stylized language, laden with nuances which reveal the class stratification of the country, is the only cult which had survived the shattering downfall of most idols for the French people during the propaganda era of World War II. Queneau's words are artfully printed as they may be spoken by the unrefined and supposedly naïve common people of Paris. The effect is entertaining for a while, then soon palls upon the reader as it becomes monotonously mechanical. The characters are all wooden puppets and the teenager, Zazie, is a vulgar and would-be innocent little girl, about as tedious as the Lolita of the New World. (pp. 353-54)
Queneau … is perhaps not a great novelist but he is a great writer and an incomparable virtuoso of style. His chief concern seems to be re-creating language through effective use of colloquial speech, of slang and of many of the devices of rhetoric, entertainingly used. But he owes as much to Charlie Chaplin as he does to James Joyce. His Pierrot mon ami …, which relates the hero's vicissitudes in an amusement park, in a truck in which he rides with apes, and his frustrated love affairs, is a masterpiece of hilarious comedy, as was his first and perhaps best novel, Le Chiendent…. Le Dimanche de la vie … has excellent parts on naïve and winning fools at odds with wily women and escaping scot-free, like Chaplin or even like Dostoevski's idiot, from the ordeals of modern life. The stumbling blocks for Queneau are probably his immense store of knowledge, rivaling that of Joyce and occasionally intruding into the tale as pedantry, his total disregard of the structure of his novels, hence some monotony in the 'flat' comic characters, and an ending usually unequal to a brilliant beginning. Zazie dans le métro … is in our opinion a strained and artificial tour de force; like many of the comic attempts by the author, it seems to have been synthetically contrived by a geometrician versed in philology. (p. 435)
Henri Peyre, in his French Novelists of Today (copyright © 1955, 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967.
American readers who have come to know the inimitable comic universe of Raymond Queneau through the charming but inconsequential Zazie or through the stylistic pyrotechnics of Exercises in Style [in which Queneau recounts the same anecdote in ninety-nine ways], can finally savor his first novel—and one of his best—The Bark Tree (Le Chiendent), published in France in 1933 [and translated into English in 1971]. Then, as now, Queneau was preoccupied with problems of language. French, as it was written, he felt, no longer related to the way people spoke; he wanted the written idiom to reproduce the slang and colloquialism of ordinary street conversation.
Queneau set out to do a modern slang translation of Descartes' Discourse on Method; fortunately, he was carried further than he had expected and produced this strange, hilarious novel, which is a masterpiece of black humor and at the same time a meaningful, philosophic meditation….
It would be almost as difficult—and as pointless—to "tell" the plot of The Bark Tree as to give a synopsis of a Marx Brothers film. Suffice it to say that everyone becomes hopelessly entangled in a search for a huge amount of money supposedly hidden behind a door by an old recluse junk dealer. After countless improbable happenings, it turns out that there is no treasure; behind the door there is nothing, only a wall: the old man had hung the door on the wall as one hangs a mirror, and all the competing devious plans to rob him of his purported wealth are foiled. The gratuitous, madcap quality of Queneau's novel is somewhat reminiscent of Gide's Lafcadio's Adventures, probably the only one of his meticulously styled works that the younger writer could stomach….
The many colloquial philosophic monologues and dialogues are at once substantive and parodic. Queneau clearly views life as absurd (already!) and dwells insistently (though playfully) on the shadowy line that divides the actual from the imagined. The Bark Tree is also a caricature before the fact of Sartre's meditations in Nausea on existence, nothingness, contingency.
This fascinating novel is prophetic in other ways too: not only does it presage the anti-novel so much in vogue in France since 1950 (concerned not with outward events but with the impossibility of narrating a story, The Bark Tree was hailed by Robbe-Grillet as a "new novel" twenty years' premature); it is also a pioneer work in stressing the very contemporary concern with communication and the crisis of language.
In Queneau's hands, language—vocabulary, spelling, syntax—is manipulated, squeezed, and pulled until it fairly explodes and becomes a "neolanguage" of slang and colloquialisms. These innovations, inspired by Joyce and Céline most of all, make translating Queneau a nightmarish task,…
But the English version retains more than enough fun to delight the reader.
At the end of the novel Queneau escalates the level of comedy, of satire and parody. Suddenly he launches into a mock-heroic conflict between France and the Etruscans, which enables him to draw a devastating caricature of war and of human greed and stupidity. Again there are echoes of Céline's ferocity though without his bitterness. Queneau is cynical but not pessimistic. No one who writes as funny a book as this could really be a pessimist. (p. 25)
Tom Bishop, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 7, 1971.
"The Bark Tree" is full … of nonsense and … naked contrivance…. A palpable Paris takes shape through a multiplicity of fine strokes … [and] Queneau's wonderful gift for simile tempts one to compile a list…. And above [the] odd events, [the] overanimated souls and artifacts, a real humanity presides; Queneau not only permits each character the dignity of eloquence but rises himself to a fury of sarcasm when he contemplates the chauvinistic farce of the "Etruscan" war: "even the strategists … said they'd never seen a simpler, easier, more amusing war."
Queneau's sympathy peculiarly falls upon the banal—upon the empty routines, that is, whereby human ordinariness propels itself along the quotidian. He says of certain conventional greetings that "their apparent complexity concealed a profound simplicity." Pierre, overhearing some clichés about the weather, "notes with some bitterness that these banalities correspond perfectly to reality." Perhaps, since Flaubert, banality is the challenge to serious novelists: the gales of romance have died, and the novelist is a sailor on a close reach, trying to use the constant wind of ordinary living to make some kind of headway against it. The melodrama by Queneau's plot is manufactured by the characters, as a vacation from boredom; his own vacation comes in the intervals of metaphysical speculation, and these—though he would not have written the book without them—seem rather mannered and pat. When Pierre talks to the reader about his boredom and his masks, or when Étienne drops the aphorism that "there isn't any gospel, there are only works of fiction," we are aware of an author pressing his claims upon our intelligence; when Ernestine, dying, formulates death as the disappearance of "the little voice that talks in your head when you're by yourself," we are in the presence of human experience and shared terror. Gertrude Stein said it: literature isn't remarks. What we want from fiction, and what fiction is increasingly loath to give us, is vicarious experience. Exiled from the great naïveté that nurtured the nineteenth-century masterworks of the novel, Queneau yet is old enough—humane enough—to spin, amid a metaphysics of relativity and uncertainty, affectionate images of human life in its curiosity, rapacity, and fragility. Compared to Queneau, [some younger] authors seem tired; a distance that cannot be exactly measured in generations or wars separates them from an instinctive belief that men are significant and that art must embody enduring principles. (pp. 138-39)
John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1971 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 25, 1971.
Undoubtedly, Queneau was born before his time. His early novels were both more experimental and more ambitious than his later, better-known ones. Perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, Queneau became discouraged by the poor reception accorded his early experiments and allowed his energy to be diverted into other channels, notably his poetry and the immense enterprise of the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, the planning and editing of which required all his vast knowledge as a modern polymath. Poetry and encyclopedic learning coalesce in his extraordinary work, Petite cosmogonie portative ("A Little Portable Cosmogony"), which takes for its province the history of the solar system, the evolution of life on earth, and the progress of human knowledge and invention down to the computer. (Published in 1950, it appeared too soon to include the exploration of outer space.) Its division into six chants challenges direct comparison with Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. While relatively shorter … than the great works of antiquity, Petite cosmogonie portative, by virtue of its tremendous range, entitles Queneau to be considered a modern Lucretius or Hesiod—endowed, however, with a sense of humor that his great predecessors might have considered a handicap. (pp. 44-5)
[There is] the possibility that Queneau may win his most lasting reputation as a poet rather than a novelist….
Crucial influences were Joyce's Ulysses and Faulkner's Sanctuary…. Conrad's Lord Jim also influenced Le Chiendent. Later Queneau discovered Tom Jones…. Other important later discoveries were the notebooks of Henry James, The Making of Americans and other works by Gertrude Stein, and Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle. This of course does not exhaust Queneau's knowledge of English literature, which can be traced in the excellent index to his volume of selected criticism, Bâtons, chiffres, et lettres (1950)…. [He] acknowledges a general debt "to the English and American novelists who taught me that a technique of the novel existed, and above all to Joyce."
A carefully planned—and carefully concealed—structure, so important in the novels of Robbe-Grillet, Butor, and (sometimes) Simon, almost became a fetish with Queneau during the years of his discipleship to Joyce…. (pp. 45-6)
Queneau could hardly have known in 1933 of the variations upon a four-part organization that Finnegans Wake (then known as Work in Progress) would display when finally published in 1939. But, besides being as fascinated by numerical symbolism as Joyce was, he had an almost professional knowledge of mathematics entirely outside the scope of the Irish writer. As Queneau reveals in Technique du roman, two of his first three novels [Le Chiendent and Les Derniers jours] had elaborate arithmetical structures. (p. 46)
Guele de pierre (1934) is less complex, mathematically at least…. However, each of [its] three parts also corresponds to one of the domains of nature—animal, vegetable, and mineral—and the third contains all twelve signs of the zodiac….
[In Bâtons, chiffres et lettres, Queneau commented:] "… I wrote … with this idea of rhythm, this intention of making a sort of poem out of the novel. It is possible to make situations or characters rhyme together just as one makes words rhyme; it is even possible to content oneself with mere alliteration…. I always compelled myself to follow certain rules which had no justification other than their satisfying my taste for figures or some purely personal whims…." (p. 47)
Implicit in this quotation is an attitude toward the reader which Queneau shares in greater or lesser degree with all the New Novelists. He is an author of the "age of suspicion," to employ Nathalie Sarraute's term, and the reader must be constantly on the alert to make sure the author is not outwitting him in some way. Even so popular a book as Queneau's Pierrot mon ami conceals something basic from the unwary reader, namely an important complication of the plot; this in addition to whatever philosophical concepts, learned allusions, or symbolism there may be lurking for the more sophisticated reader to ferret out….
Queneau has from the beginning taken full advantage of his awareness that he is writing in an age of suspicion. By the end of Le Chiendent it is impossible for any reader, however naïve, to believe that the characters are real people, but an explicit warning is given much earlier. Pierre le Grand, the intelligent observer through whose eyes we watch much of the early action, tells Narcense, "I am observing a man." "You don't say! Are you a novelist?" "No. A character." In other words, the person we readers have hitherto been most ready to identify with tells Narcense and us explicitly that he is nothing more than a character in a novel….
Occasionally, in Queneau's later books, one finds a character one can believe in, but by so believing, one probably thwarts the conscious intent of the author. (p. 48)
One apparent link between Queneau and certain of the New Novelists—Robbe-Grillet, Cluade Mauriac—is his devotion to the film….
Queneau, like most of the New Novelists, has drawn on the experiments in sentence structure, punctuation, verbal "montage," and point of view engaged in by Joyce, Faulkner, and others, especially the Dadaist and Surrealist poets, between the world wars. Curiously, however, he has made almost no use of their very free handling of time…. Generally speaking, his narratives follow the accepted chronological order, and the only freedom he regularly allows himself is that of discontinuity: he will break off his narrative abruptly and resume it hours, days, or years later without any explicit indication of the passage of time, though of course implicit indications soon appear. There is one major exception (seemingly) to the above generalizations about Queneau's use of time—namely, the circular form of Le Chiendent…. To give Queneau full credit for his originality, we should take note that the circular structure of Finnegans Wake—which "ends" in the middle of a sentence, the continuation of which "begins" the book again—was not fully revealed until its publication in 1939.
Queneau differs most sharply from the New Novelists in the scope of his experiments with language. Like Joyce, though not to the same extreme point, he cannot remain content to experiment with word order, punctuation, and sentence structure; the individual word must also be liberated from convention. Most important among Queneau's linguistic preoccupations is his awareness of the gulf between most written and most spoken French. In both his novels and his poetry he constantly strives to write the spoken language. (pp. 49-51)
Queneau's copious use of argot, the French equivalent of slang, partly explains why so few of his novels have been translated into English. (p. 51)
Much of Queneau's attempt to capture the spoken language is, paradoxically, directed to the eye rather than the ear, through the use of phonetic spelling. (p. 52)
As a disciple of Joyce, Queneau does not balk at neologisms and portmanteau words, although he uses them sparingly. In Bâtons, chiffres et lettres …, he presents a translation into Joycean of the opening passage of Gueule de pierre. It shows a great many characteristics of the style of Finnegans Wake, though the basic language is French instead of English. (p. 53)
Another product … of his discipleship to Joyce is the extraordinary Exercises de style (1947), in which a brief prose anecdote is recounted in ninety-nine different styles. Among the weirdest variations are those called "Permutations": one written in groups of from two to five letters; one in groups of from five to eight; one in groups of from nine to twelve. Here we see again the mind of a mathematician rather than of a literary artist at work. The only similar permutations I can think of—and they are far from identical—are found in Beckett's second novel in English, Watt (completed in 1945, though not published until 1953)….
The literary critic who must analyze Le Chiendent cannot help wishing that Queneau shared still another trait of the New Novelists, their tendency to eliminate plot. In this work, as in almost all his novels, Queneau provides a most elaborate one, full of complications, coincidences, concealments, and discoveries. The reader, alternately baffled and surprised, wonders why Queneau felt it necessary to work so hard. To understand why, we must bear in mind Queneau's analogy between the novel and poetry—a very traditional kind of poetry, furthermore. In discussing Le Chiendent he has said:
I set up for myself rules as strict as those of the sonnet. The characters do not appear and disappear by chance, nor do the scenes, nor the different modes of expression….
Paradoxically, in Le Chiendent and Pierrot mon ami at least, this extreme artifice has at times the effect of naturalism; the arbitrariness of the plot resembles the arbitrariness of life, so that a single impulsive deviation from everyday routine can set off a chain of unforeseeable consequences prolonged virtually to infinity. (p. 54)
Of all the novels in which characters "talk philosophy" … Le Chiendent is probably the earliest which shares the preoccupations of mid-twentieth-century philosophers. This is hardly an accident; Georges Bataille wrote in 1948 that this novel marked "a beginning of existential philosophy in France." (p. 61)
Concern with plot and with philosophic content has led us to slight an important aspect of Le Chiendent: its experiments in the technique of narration and dialogue. It is true that these are not as radical as Queneau's experiments in philosophic exposition; probably no narrative device used by him is more than a variation on something already to be found in Joyce, the Surrealists, Rabelais, or Sterne. Indeed, one has to admit that certain passages in Tristram Shandy, which expound or exemplify—or simply plagiarize—the theory of association of ideas as treated in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, anticipate Queneau's attempts to present philosophic ideas in colloquial language. (p. 64)
[The] ninety-one sections of Le Chiendent display a technical virtuosity akin to that of Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce employed a different technique in each of his eighteen episodes; Queneau does not claim to have employed ninety-one different techniques, but he has gone a good distance in that direction: no section is exactly like those which immediately precede and follow it. (pp. 64-5)
[Yet] Le Chiendent,… in spite of its careful structure, does not succeed in conveying the idea of a fundamental unity underlying its almost infinite variety. Perhaps the point implicit in its return to the status quo ante at the end is that no final resolution is possible for all the contradictions presented by life. The strange title of the novel may help us here…. Ultimately, each reader must give his own meaning to the title of Le Chiendent. (p. 66)
Saint Glinglin might be described as the perfect foil to Le Chiendent in both form and content. To the complex plotting of the earlier book it opposes the broad, free movement of myth. In place of the rigorous intellectual discipline of logic, existential philosophy, and mathematics, it offers the less stringent methods of the social sciences…. Though Saint Glinglin contains two lengthy philosophical meditations, the intellectual life is on the whole subordinated to the instinctual. (p. 67)
Despite a certain amount of willfully self-indulgent whimsicality on Queneau's part, Saint Glinglin is a remarkable work of fiction. While not as ambitious as The Magic Mountain or Ulysses, it can be mentioned without incongruity in the company of those tragicomic masterpieces. In its own way, it has something of their encyclopedic quality: instead of discussing some of the great ideas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it exemplifies them in rather lighthearted parables. Existentialist philosophy in its German manifestation, Freudian psychology (at least in regard to father-son relationships), and some of the discoveries of cultural anthropology are implicit in the structure of Saint Glinglin…. Saint Glinglin is by turns strange, beautiful, ludicrous, and intellectually stimulating. Nothing in Queneau's later work except Petite cosmogonie portative reaches the same level. (pp. 76-7)
Un rude hiver (A Hard Winter) … like Odile, is a short exercise in the traditional novel. Unlike Odile, however, this little work is a masterpiece, written with the precision and economy of a craftsman who has learned most of what there is to know about narration. Queneau, in fact, has never had much difficulty in telling a fascinating story; his self-imposed difficulties have arisen from his desire to make the novel do so much more than this: to become a poem, a myth, a philosophic discourse. (p. 87)
In Le Dimanche de la vie Queneau has succeeded in creating a world virtually without dualism, without conflict. Even World War II, as presented here, becomes part of "the Sunday of life," and its real horrors are ignored…. If this be a Hegelian novel, it represents a period of synthesis in which the conflict of thesis and antithesis has been resolved. Here at last Queneau has escaped from the pessimism of his earlier work, and it is significant that Valentin is characterized not as a Gnostic but as a "benign atheist." His atheism, far from being a revolt against a God who permits evil, allows him a vision of the world that lies beyond good and evil. In spite of its characteristic touches of originality, this book is in no sense a New Novel. Perhaps its optimism would be sufficient to disqualify it, but in any case it is a carefully disguised didactic novel, more closely related to the romans philosophiques of Voltaire than to any later school of novel-writing. (pp. 97-8)
Queneau gave Zazie dans le métro an epigraph in Greek from Aristotle: "Ho plasas ephanisen." It means, roughly, "He who created it razed it to the ground"…. This epigraph could also have been prefixed to Le Chiendent, to Pierrot mon ami, and to several other novels by Queneau. They remind us of those notoriously elaborate pieces of contemporary "sculpture" in the Dadaist tradition that, when set in motion, more or less efficiently destroy themselves…. [Many] other New Novels … are circular and/or self-destructive, from Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers to Simon's The Flanders Road and Pinget's The Inquisitory. All such works embody an anxious search for reality and a profound skepticism about the existence of the object of their search. But the priority in time belongs indisputably to Queneau…. (pp. 102-03)
Vivian Mercier, "Raymond Queneau: The Creator as Destroyer," in his The New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux; copyright © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1971 by Vivian Mercier), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 43-103.
It is hard to imagine a novel lighter than ["The Flight of Icarus"] that would seriously engage the mind. Yet …, though it is continuously absurd, [the novel] never strikes us as silly. The style is chaste and swift, ornamented with inventions translated as "obnubilating," "spondulics," "ostreophagists," "petroliphagious," "cantharodrome." The many threads of the cat's-cradle plot are complicated and regathered with an impressive efficiency. (pp. 122-23)
Objecting to the plot's basic fantasy, the reader might say that one does not meet fictional characters on the street; the answer would be that one is not on the street but reading a book, where one meets fictional characters all the time. The reader's demand, that is, for reality is turned back upon itself. The characters are uniformly real, "characters" or not. And the milieu is perfectly convincing. (p. 123)
John Updike, "Mortal Games," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 25, 1974, pp. 122-23.