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Queneau, Raymond 1903–1976
A French novelist, playwright, poet, screenwriter, essayist, editor, and critic, Queneau was a master of colloquial speech, slang, and varied rhetorical devices. Like Joyce, he was concerned with the relationship between written and spoken language, and he continually toyed with the conventions of written French. Viewing literature as a category of speech, Queneau attacked traditional rhetoric through parody, and his works are imbued with the surrealist's taste for the ridiculous aspects of ordinary existence. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
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Queneau's Exercices de style (1947) is an intriguing and at times immensely amusing book, but it is just what its title implies, a set of exercises; and to suggest, as George Steiner has done, that it constitutes a major landmark in twentieth-century literature, is to mislead readers in the interest of promoting literary "future shock."
The instance of Exercices de style is worth pausing over briefly because it represents one ultimate limit of the whole self-conscious mode. Queneau begins his book by reporting a banal anecdote of a young man with a long neck and a missing button on his coat who is jostled in a crowded bus. He tells this anecdote ninety-nine times, constantly changing the narrative viewpoint, the style, the literary conventions; going as far as the use of mathematical notation and anagrammatic scrambling of letters in one direction, and the resort to heavy dialect and badly anglicized French in the other; even rendering the incident in alexandrines, in free verse, as a sonnet, as a playlet. All this is extremely ingenious, and, I would admit, more than ingenious, because as one reads the same simple episode over and over through all these acrobatic variations, one is forced to recognize both the stunning arbitrariness of any decision to tell a story in a particular way and the endless possibilities for creating fictional "facts" by telling a story differently.
The controlling perception, however, of Exercices is one that goes back to the generic beginnings of the novel; and to see how much more richly that insight can be extended into fictional space, one has only to think of Sterne, where a "Queneauesque" passage like the deliberately schematic "Tale of Two Lovers" is woven into a thick texture of amorous anecdotes that critically juxtapose literary convention with a sense of the erotic as a cogent fact of human experience. Precisely what is missing from Exercices de style is any sense—and playfulness need not exclude seriousness—of human experience, which is largely kept out of the book in order to preserve the technical purity of the experiment. I don't mean to take Queneau to task for what he clearly did not intend; I mean only to emphasize that criticism need not make excessive claims for this kind of writing. Queneau, of course, has written full-scale novels of flaunted artifice, both before and after Exercices de style, that do involve a more complex sense of experience. (pp. 211-12)
Over against Exercices one might usefully set a novel like Le Chiendent (1933), Queneau's remarkable fictional farce in the self-conscious mode. At the center of this grand display of verbal highjinks, parodistic ploys, hilarious stylizations, and satiric illuminations, stands a death—that of Ernestine the serving-girl, which, for all its abruptness, improbability, and absurdity, has large reverberations in the novel. "When a tree burns," says Ernestine, dying on her wedding night, "nothin's left but smoke and ashes. No more tree. That's like me. Nothin left but rot, while the li'l voice that talks in your head when you're all alone, nothin's left of it. When mine stops, it ain't gonna talk again nowhere else." (p. 221)
[In] a final paragraph, Queneau dissolves his joined characters into separate and unconnected entities, concluding with a single silhouette, not yet a realized character, one among thousands of possible alternatives—which was precisely the image of the novelist-artificer's arbitrary choice in the making of fictions that began the whole novel. And yet the arbitrary invention is one that has been elaborated in order to reveal something about the real world. The whole farce is in fact a sustained metaphysical meditation on the dizzying paradoxes of being and nonbeing, in life and in fiction; and that meditation culminates in these last two pages, where the characters are finally shuffled back into the shadowy pre-world of fictional beginnings…. (pp. 221-22)
Robert Alter, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by TriQuarterly), Spring, 1975.
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Raymond Queneau remains unclassifiable. It is as fruitless to group him with a single literary school as it is to reduce one of his intentionally bad puns to a single meaning. Recalling the Surrealists, Queneau rolls words like dice. Anticipating the "new novel," his plots come unravelled like scarfs caught on a snag. With the publication of Le Vol d'Icare and its translation, the "franc-tireur" of French literature has struck again, casting about the literary scene with thrusts of a rapier wit. It should come as no surprise that The Flight of Icarus is neither fish nor fowl, that it explores several topics, and dabbles with several genres all at once.
A light-hearted pastiche of the "new novels'" narrative austerity; a historical reconstruction of literary circles in the 1890s; a spoof of the clichés of the mystery story; and a novel about the novel told in the form of a play complete with stage directions and 74 scenes, Queneau's book is a heady literary cocktail which provides amusing reading. (p. 160)
For all of its sparkle and verve, or perhaps because of them, toward the end The Flight of Icarus often seems a bit forced and breathless, rather like an elaborate Peter de Vries joke-novel running down. Here, as in Les Fleurs bleues, Queneau's satirical target is to a large degree topical, and a reader unaware of the debate ranging in France in the '60s over the role of characters and plot may well miss some of the fun. Doubtless these effects are intentional, however, and they help focus attention on the plays on words and the juxtaposition of levels of language. On the positive side, Queneau remains the master of this kind of inspired juggling…. In short, The Flight of Icarus is a witty, contagiously funny treatment of literature and language whose humor palls as one realizes that all there is behind the character's flight and words themselves, "c'est du vent." (pp. 160-61)
Robert Henkels, Jr., in French Review (copyright 1975 by the American Association of Teachers of French), October, 1975.
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Morale élémentaire, while it holds few surprises for the reader familiar with Raymond Queneau's earlier writings, represents nonetheless an important and fascinating achievement. Surrealist, poet, mathematician, novelist, humorist, linguistic explorer, Queneau is most of these again in his latest book. It has three parts, a sequence of fifty-one identically constructed verse poems and two groups of prose poems, a series of sixteen texts followed by a series of sixty-four. With one exception (the last poem in part two), no text takes up more than a page. The prose texts blend the narrative with the descriptive mode in such a way as to keep the "moral" just beyond our grasp, and all are graced with Queneau's characteristic wit.
The verse texts, a stunning tour de force, give us Queneau the student of linguistic production and the inventor of poetic forms at his best. Every text has precisely the same structure and appearance and can be read either from left to right, line by line from top to bottom (i.e., according to the usual procedure for reading a poem), or from top to bottom within each of the three columns that appear on the page. Each poem is fifteen lines long. Except for a part of the middle column (always the same part) which reads like a seven-line poem, the columns comprise only two words per line, a noun and its modifier. Each phrase so formed seems a variant of another such phrase in the text; a semantic element in one phrase appears to derive from or to engender another phrase by tautology, antithesis or metonymy. The miniature "poem" inserted in the middle column is as rudimentary in its way as are the noun-modifier phrases that literally surround it.
It is obvious that we are once again dealing with a kind of exercises de style, but this time everything is on a more elemental level, with the author more concerned with the production of writing itself than with narrative voice variations and thus more concerned than ever before, perhaps, with every writer's morale élémentaire. (p. 833)
Robert W. Greene, in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 4, Autumn, 1976.
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In all his novels, Raymond Queneau questions the process of history. Individual lives are drawn into historical disasters…. Les Fleurs bleues stands out as one novel in which history, as it relates individual and group experience, does not appear only in the dénouement….
Queneau makes no pretense to careful observation and recording of social mores. Rather, he examines the metaphysics of history, the rapport between general and particular circumstance, between event, experience and invention—his own, or that of his characters. Such problems inevitably lead him to be concerned with perception, both in life and in art, both conscious and unconscious. (p. 323)
Queneau's novels recognize none of the traditional criteria for vraisemblance except for that of cohesion. They shamelessly present pure fantasy instead of the judicious observation of verifiable realities. His adhesion to the actual instead of the abstract does not, for him, preclude gratuitous invention. He neither records history nor imitates it. How then does he make of it an element of major importance?
A similar paradox exists in Queneau's treatment of individual characters. Although interest in psychoanalysis is strikingly present in all of his books, his characters are never psychologically complex. They are never the case studies of realist novels, never individualized psyches through which he can reach more general problems of society and history. Instead they are simple, emblematic, almost allegorical at times. (p. 324)
It is … the Duke's individual actions, spanning several centuries, that constitute linear time in the novel. Suspense demands on recognizing what period he is in at a given moment, anticipating the next stage and wondering about the outcome. In this sense, Les Fleurs bleues is teleological and corresponds both to earlier conventions of the novel and to the western concept of history…. Queneau carefully identifies the development of his story with the progression of history, all the more so since the Duke is directly involved in many historical events of each period. Each slice of history is characterized in the same ways: by its food, its monuments, its inventions and, most important, by the unique historical events in which the Duke takes part. (pp. 324-25)
We learn to expect this range of topics in each period. A recurrent pattern is thus set up. Yet at the same time, by contrasting the Duke's experiences in each age, we become sensitive to change and progression….
The focus remains clearly on society's changes, not on the Duke's. Even more important, it is because his character remains the same throughout that society's evolution stands out in contrast. (p. 325)
While linear progression is … strongly established in Les Fleurs bleues, the very parallelism between [the Duke's and Cidrolin's] personal lives provides a fine example of Queneau's efforts to counterbalance linearity in his novel…. Such patterning has many functions. Its improbability constantly destroys narrative illusion, pointing up the novel's existence as a verbal construct. At the same time, like rhyme in verse, it reveals unsuspected meanings linking the two instances thus paralleled. For our purposes, however, its most important function, again similar to that of verse rhyme, is to break up the linearity of the novel's progression and to institute a strong sense of cyclical organization, both on the level of language and on that of represented action. (p. 326)
In Les Fleus bleues, linear and cyclical time function as … potential systems. At the same time, the many echoes suggest that somehow Queneau's heroes were united all along, in some other, nonlinear dimension. (p. 327)
Queneau's debt to Flaubert [is evident] in the depiction of banality in its link with progress, and Les Fleurs bleues continues the preoccupation of earlier novels, to some degree. Not only does Queneau create a strong sense of the meaningless proliferation of objects, language, and event familiar in so many writers since Flaubert, he also under-lines in this way Cidrolin's loneliness and isolation….
Queneau's history shows us the individual more and more controlled by group opinion. Part of the modern "bêtise" Queneau denounces is the determination of values by general concensus, particularly with regard to normalcy. (p. 329)
Queneau suggests both the irrelevance of consciousness to events and on the tendency of the latter to become cyclical…. The linking of imagination with historical process, in Cidrolin's dreams and the Duke's acts, is established firmly at a level beyond logic and conscious perception.
Both of Queneau's heroes, however reprehensible their behavior might seem at moments, remain strongly sympathetic to the reader. Partly this is because of the schematic presentation of character which mitigates the Duke's violence in particular, giving it the effect of cartoon or comic strip action, but mostly it is because both men represent, in complementary ways, the creative power of imagination. In fact, both the heroes in this novel suggest the artist. For the Duke, art is a means of directly creating history—or the fiction of history, since his cave drawings will provide conclusive evidence that pre-Adamite man existed. Cidrolin, in his much more modest if equally self-directed art, is not only a painter but a writer, a graffitomaniac. Much has been made by critics of Queneau's famous games with language, his inventions of words, his mixtures of the conventions of written and spoken language, his imaginative use of naming and all the other techniques, so often catalogued. While a major function of such exercises de style is to point up the literalness of language and the status of fiction as a language construct, to increase the reader's awareness of the texture and matter of the medium, in Les Fleurs bleues these devices also underline language as an historical reality. (pp. 331-32)
Les Fleurs bleues creates a softened,… promising fatality, allowing greater possibilities for personal invention…. As for Cidrolin,… he need not be crushed by or even involved in history. His Ark comes equipped with a small rowboat in which he and Lalix set off on their own…. The contemplative hero safeguards his detachment when he "detaches" the rowboat. Again, of course, the narrative is metaphorical, almost allegorical, but the abstract term of the allegory remains open to many interpretations. Only the general tone is unambiguous: in this book, it is by no means disastrous. If Les Fleurs bleues remains Queneau's most affirmative novel, it is largely because of the close connection made between historical time, both linear and cyclical, and creative invention. History can be presented fantastically because it is itself a story, a fiction, a privileged balance between imagination and event. It is concrete and localized, like the intrigue of fiction, yet universal, like poetry. In Les Fleurs bleues time does not destroy the magic but creates it.
Queneau has obviously rejected the connection between writer and society, between language and event, that [Balzac wrote of in La Comédie humaine]. Far from being the expression of action, language is itself action; history, like an individual act, is a verbal construct. By showing us historical process and social behavior through the texture of language, Queneau underlines the creative potential of language as a kind of cultural index…. Les Fleurs bleues emphasizes its own existence in historical time, without sacrificing its status as created object. (pp. 333-34)
As presented in this novel, the cycle of history has no privileged origin, no central point of reference which gives meaning. The search for pre-adamite man and the Duke's phoney evidence sufficiently parody the nostalgia for beginnings and render it ridiculous…. Queneau portrays in his novel [in the words of Jean Hippolyte] "a history which no longer has anything to do with eschatological history, a history which loses itself always in its own pursuit, since the origin is perpetually displaced." The fiction, then, cannot be told but simply experienced. It is not a report on history but an historical construct. Movements towards awareness means growing realisation of the shaping role of language in consciousness; various equilibria between event and invention give more and more place to the texture of language, to relationships between signifiants as they both create and reveal our experience, rather than to those between signifiés. (pp. 334-35)
Louisa E. Jones, "Event and Invention: History in Queneau's 'Les Fleurs Bleues'," in Symposium (copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press), Winter, 1977, pp. 323-36.
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Queneau confesses his debt to Céline and Joyce, but we probably ought to situate him closer to Nabokov than to either. There is a similar word-play, of course, but there are also similar touches of sentimentality, a similar aloofness, a similar elegance, and the same dim view of history. The Sunday of Life was Queneau's tenth novel, published in 1952, and if it doesn't quite have the verve of Zazie, it has almost everything else that makes Queneau such an appealing and elusive writer….
If there isn't much room for high moral exploits in Queneau's world, it is not because he is a cynic, or because he wishes, as Barbara Wright suggests in her introduction to The Sunday of Life, to portray "humble characters" or to stay close to "the common man." It is because high morality is almost always spouted by frauds, and people who live in falling countries should not throw stones….
Queneau's characters, like his eccentric spellings, are energetic alternatives to a false nobility, and their charm lies in their persistent intelligence and their absolute refusal of respectability. (p. 38)
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), May 12, 1977.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne said that happiness is like a butterfly that evades you if you chase it and may light on you if you sit down. The Sunday of Life is a novel about a man whom happiness follows like Hawthorne's butterfly. The report of how this marvel occurs is so droll that one could read it as a … smile—which would miss the larger wonder of how playfulness turns serious, which we often call art….
[Like] some of the better French wines, [Queneau's] fiction doesn't travel well. It has an ambiguous philosophic cast that doesn't square with conventional Anglo-Saxon morality.
Furthermore, Queneau doesn't really write stories. He writes points of view. He illustrates ideas, most of which come from Queneau's romance with Hegel. The essence of spirit is freedom. War defines mankind. We cannot reach truth without passing through contradictions. Some of this Queneau believes. Some he spoofs. Some he throws in to make sure we're paying attention.
Queneau's young hero, Pvt. Valentine Bru, glides through life as though demonstrating Freud's principle that pleasure is the absence of pain. Absurdity is visited on him without effect. Queneau has Bru look at life in odd pieces that bear no apparent relationship—new prime ministers and statues in a park, heavy necking in a tunnel of love and business failures. Yet the pieces must be integrated into a perception of the whole, regardless of how boring, undramatic, and perhaps pointless the whole may be. Such considerations plunge Bru "into an abyss of stupefaction."…
Queneau's novel is about all the things it appears to be about: being nobody, lost in history, but content; clouds of gloom with comic linings; the tranquilizer imagination; the struggle of doing good (the recalled Pvt. Bru tries sainthood and gets captured); and how time becomes the money of our lives. And it's about stretching the limits of the novel form. The Sunday of Life refracts philosophy into fiction. It bends ideas into jokes and characters that form a comic reconstruction of the philosophy. Valentine Bru is Charlie Chaplin posing as Hegel in a state of innocence. And the book leaves open other possibilities as well. After all, Queneau's favorite character in fiction was Dostoyevsky's Idiot. (p. K10)
Webster Schott, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 3, 1977.