A quick review of the works of Raymond Queneau
By Gary Levinson
Raymond Queneau was one of the most creative and internationally influential French authors of the 20st century. Here are some concise reviews of his works:
Le Chiendent: Queneau’s first novel. Fantasy-full and enthralling. A masterpiece
Un rude hiver: a typical WW2 romance. Well written but boring.
On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes: an insight into the Irish Civil War. Should be on the recommended reading list for all Irish / GB history classes. Funny
Les Fleurs Bleues: an anticlerical quasi-biblical account of the last 800 years in France. Which is real the dreamer or the dreamed? Or both? Can a person simultaneously have more than one exsistence? Outstanding.
Zazie dans Le Metro: a funny anti-establishment psychological thriller. Are people really who they seem? Should be an entry in everyone’s cultural lexicon.
Pierrot mon ami (1945): This novel, unsettling in the haphazard way the reader’s desires are dashed – rather a reflection of the true random and accidental nature of life, reminded me, because of its unpretentious nature, of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (1971). In its simplicity it was similar to the Buddhism-influenced The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac(1958). The unsettling nature of this novel is perhaps understandable given the time during which the book was written, the period towards the end of the Second World War. It is less challenging and less satisfying than the Queneau masterpieces Le Chiendent and Les fleurs bleus.
Loin de Rueil (1944): After reading the first third of this novel, I thought to myself “finally, a book from Queneau that really is uninteresting,” but then at about this point, it became clear that the first part of the book was only providing the background necessary to make the second 2/3s of the book possible. Loin de Rueil is the story of the search for a personality – “Who will I be?” – reminding me of the Clash’s Lost in the Supermarket (1979) or Al Stewart’s Life and Life Only (1969). One of Queneau’s second tier novels, the main theme of this story is revealed in the famous quote by Konrad Adenauer: “We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.”
Saint Glinglin (Gallimard 1948) A novel from Queneau that I can’t recommend, Saint Glinglin is a work which would never have been published if its author wasn’t so famous. A compilation of separate and already-begun-but-abandoned novels from 1933 to 1941, Saint Glinglin is simply too long, and without the author’s usual incisive wit. The only point of reference I could find is a passing allusion at the end to being a Passion Play. Your time will be better spent by reading another of Queneau’s works instead.
Le dimanche de la vie (Gallimard 1952) This story about a simple soldier named Valentin Bru, whose destiny is shaped by Chantel, the merchant who spied him walking along the street and who decided to make him her own. Marring her, he leaves the army, enters the business, practises self-reflection (“…le temps a coule sans que je l’aie senti fondre entre mes doigts.”), takes Chantel’s advice, becomes a fortune teller, and ends as a near religious figure. The story takes place right before the outbreak of WW2, and at the departure for his deployment, Didine, a friend of Valentin’s “l’embrassa sur les deux joues et lui souhaita de pacifiques hostilites”. The story remined me of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, with Valentin being the Chauncey Gardiner of the story. Well written, it is still one of Queneau’s second tier works. At the end I was waiting for a proper ending.
Sally plus intime (from: Les œuvres completes de Sally Mara; Gallimard 1962) Sally plus intime is a 12 page collection of Queneau’s own clever aphorisms. They are imbued with Queneau’s wit and sophisticated sense of language. Some of them are easily understandable, in some the words are understandable but the jeu-de-mot is not clear, and some are just not totally understandable (at least for your humble reviewer). Two of them that I really liked are: “Dieu: Le non-être qui a le mieux réussi a faire parler de lui.” and “De l’usage des mots: On aime le camembert et l’on ne dit pas a un camembert : je t’aime.” This will be of interest mostly to Queneau scholars.
Journal intime (from Les œuvres complètes de Sally Mara; Gallimard 1962) Journal intime is the witty and not especially politically-correct coming of age story of a young Irish woman. Innocently told, and with Queneau’s masterly feel for language and words, this personal journal is funny (mostly) and lighthearted. That is until we get to the end when it hits us squarely between the eyes. A hidden gem; should be on every secondary school’s French reading list.
Exercices de style (Gallimard, 1947) is a Queneau classic. Ninety-nine different ways to tell the same simple story. Although some seems forced (for example Épenthèses or Paragoges) many are quite interesting, and a few are even eye-opening, given the way they allow us to see repetitions of the same basic story from different points of view. (for example Tanka, or Interjections). Recommended for budding authors and others interested in the different permutations possible of one simple story. It is the tale of a cowardly quarrelsome long-necked bus rider who has a misplaced button. According to Jean-Perre Renard in the very interesting Notes and Dossier appendix, Queneau wrote this hard-to-classify book while living in Neuilly-sur-Seine (a suburb of Paris) at 9, rue Casimir-Pinel. He lived there up until his death in 1976.
bâtons, chiffres et lettres (Gallimard, 1965) Not one of Queneau’s fictional works, this is rather a collection of essays, reviews, prefaces, and some other hard-to-describe texts, that will be mainly of interest to literature aficionados. These texts dating from 1928 to 1951 cover a wide range of subjects, and are filled with many interesting ideas, remarks, and anecdotes, as well as less interesting material. The book starts with a series of essays about the discrepancy between spoken and written French, with Queneau’s firm belief in the need for a new form of written French, continues with some prefaces that Queneau wrote for other French authors’ novels, some chronicles from the recently freed France towards the end of the Second World War, a discussion of various authors’ works, some epigraphical and typographic contributions, an analysis of Miro’s symbolism, and ends with a speech given about ‘potential literature’, or the Ou li po (Ouvrière de littérature potentielle) group. This book will mostly be of interest to Queneau scholars, and students and admirers of French literature.
Works with a connection to Raymond Queneau:
Dossier by Jean-Pierre Renard (Gallimard, 1995) This dossier is an appendix to Queneau’s Exercices de style. An interesting analysis of the various Exercices texts, and offering some historical background, it is divided into sections about the context of the texts, about their themes, their forms and the language used, as well as a discussion of the interpretations of Exercices that have appeared in film and on the stage. Included are also a few paragraphs about Oulipo. This work (in conjunction with Exercices) makes an excellent course book for creative writing classes, and can be used equally at the high-school or college level.
Album Raymond Queneau; Iconographie choisie et commentée, by Anne-Isabelle Queneau (Gallimard, Paris 2002) This very interesting and well annotated biography of Raymond Queneau was written and assembled by Anne-Isabelle Queneau, his daughter-in-law. It traces his history from his ancestors in the Indre-et-Loire region up until his death, accompanying this journey with a myriad (more than half the content) of photos and documents. A high-quality well thought-out book, not only interesting for Queneau aficionados, but all those who appreciate French literature. This leather bound (poor cows!) volume is the 41st in the series Album de la Pléiade, and would enrich any library that has a significant section devoted to French literature.
L’oulipo, mode d’emploi
by Jean-Claude Guidicelli and Frédéric Forte
reviewed by Gary Levinson
This documentary made at the end of 2010 in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Oulipo is a made-for-TV film. It consists of archive material, present day interviews, on-location segments, and special effects. Some of the present day interviews are mildly interesting, while the special effects (used in splicing together film clips, still photos, or segments) are nauseating. However, this film’s saving grace is the original archival material about Oulipo, especially interesting were the videos and shots of Raymond Queneau and the very early Oulipian years. For newbies, this film gives a worthwhile introduction into the Oulipian workshop, and for people who already know about Oulipo, it is also worth seeing, if only for its archival segments.
reviewed by Gary Levinson
review copyright Levinson 2012