(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Raymond Queneau’s The Sunday of Life is a bright, cheery work that looks with an ironic distance on the small foibles of ordinary people. The title is taken from a celebrated phrase in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s discussion of Dutch painting, in which the philosopher speculates that because of their innocence and cheerful spirit, the peasants in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting must be close to the Ideal. Queneau seems to share this belief, which keeps the often-mordant humor of the work from becoming a negative judgment on his simple characters.

The novel opens in a popular quarter of Paris, where “popular” signals a working-class orientation and lack of sophistication. Two sisters, Julia and Chantal, are viewing the street scene from the window of their mother’s haberdashery. Chantal is happily married to Paul Batragra, but Julia’s sharp tongue and shrewish nature have kept her from finding a suitable match, and she is now in her mid-to-late thirties. When they see a handsome soldier walking down the street, Chantal teases her sister that she should marry him. Unknown to Private Valentin Bru, the machinations are already set in motion that will lead to his marriage with Julia.

First, Chantal makes the necessary inquiries at Valentin’s regimental headquarters. Having learned his name and where he is stationed, her husband, Paul, begins the next round of inquiries by tracking Valentin to his favorite cafe where he is always to be seen drinking vin blanc gomme. After a long conversation, his head spinning with repeated drinks offered by Paul, Valentin agrees to marry Julia. Valentin’s commanding officer agrees to his temporary discharge, and, together with Julia, he helps to run the haberdashery after their marriage. The couple runs into a problem immediately as to whether they can neglect the family business long enough to take a honeymoon. Together they deliberate:No, of course, not, said Valentin. You see, then, said Julia. And yet, said Valentin, and yet it’s obligatory, a honeymoon....Maybe we could put the honeymoon off until our next vacation, suggested Valentin. And when will we take the vacation, then? Julia objected. And he had no answer to that. They ended up by adopting...

(The entire section is 915 words.)