Raymond Queneau and the Pleasure of Discovery
65th Anniversary Edition
by Raymond Queneau
Review by Alan Limnis
Those unfamiliar with the book are no doubt wondering just what these “exercises” are. Exercises in Style is Queneau’s virtuoso collection of literary variations on a simple theme. “Oh, yes, you know,” Wright explains in her preface from 1958, “It’s the story of a chap who gets into a bus and starts a row with another chap who he thinks keeps treading on his toes on purpose, and Queneau repeats the same story 99 times in a different ways [sic]—it’s terribly good…”
Yes, it is, but WARNING: Do not buy this book for your friend or relative who likes “a good story.” Because by “story,” Wright means that what we are looking at is just, in many of the versions, a couple descriptive paragraphs: first, the narrator noticing a young man on a bus, and second, seeing the young man later in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. That’s it. What Queneau does, though, is have tremendous fun filtering this anecdote through a multiplicity of voices, named at the beginning of each exercise. The “Hesitation” exercise, for instance, begins:
I don’t really know where it happened…in a church, a dust-bin, a charnel-house? A bus, perhaps? There were…but what were there, though? Eggs, carpets, radishes? Skeletons? Yes, but with their flesh still round them, and alive. I think that’s how it was. People in a bus.
That version of the story is followed by the “Precision” exercise, which opens:
In a bus of the S-line, 10 metres long, 3 high, 6 wide, at 3 km. 600 m. from its starting point, loaded with 48 people at 12:17 p.m., a person of the masculine sex aged 27 years 3 months and 8 days, 1 m. 72 cm. tall and weighing 65kg and wearing…
It goes on, with the “Precision” version being roughly the same length (about a page) as the “Hesitation” version, and conveying the same events, but with an entirely different feeling. There are 99 of these exercises in the original collection, and ten more that Queneau suggested as substitutions or published elsewhere. The exercises read like flashes of light that illuminate for a moment the linguistic contraptions and conventions under the hood of any number of written forms and genres. It’s hard not to read the “Hesitation” exercise, for instance, without immediately sensing behind Queneau’s comedy the very sober and serious uncertainty that forms the voice of countless memoirs, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, and much of Kafka. But when we turn the page to “Precision,” we imagine the narrator now to be an engineer, a cop, or, if you’re me, your D&D-playing friend from childhood who, every time he was allowed to be the Dungeon Master, immediately brought the game to a crawl with this kind of detail. (Yes, Jacob, I am still claiming you are a shitty Dungeon Master. We don’t need to know exactly how tall and wide every orc or mage is, or what kind of rock the cave had been formed out of, and how many eons it took to be eroded exactly that way. It’s unnecessary information! Just let us play the game!)
Raymond Queneau. His approach to literature "preserves a sense of pleasure via discovery."
A member of the famed Oulipo collective, Queneau is happy to create variations of the exercise by using word and letter substitutions or similar syntactical games. These exercises possess a mathematical interest (for the really mathematically inclined, turn to his “Set Theory” exercise), but the moments I enjoyed most were the more traditional voicey stuff. It’s hard to read “Reactionary” (“Naturally the bus was pretty well full and the conductor was surly. You will find the cause of these things in the 8-hour day and the nationalisation schemes”) without feeling yourself in the company of a Marxist friend or Fox News-imbibing neighbor, and the beginning of “Modern Style” (“In a bus one day it so happens that I was a witness of the following as you might say tragi-comedy which revealing as it does the way our French cousins go on these days I thought…”) had me wondering whether Queneau’s inspiration was Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, or if he was just casually aping an entire literary generation at once.
The ten “exercises in homage” from contemporary writers are of less interest, if only because the writers have been placed in an impossible position. Queneau compiled his exercises over the years, for fun, and the pleasure of reading them comes primarily from the fact that he quickly finds the essential joke or solution to a new variation, jots it, and is done—the brevity is intrinsic to the wit, and the consistency of the wit is more impressive than any one exercise. The contemporary writers, however, have each written just one exercise, and some write versions much longer than Queneau’s. They are clearly polished attempts at being an Experimental Writer of Considerable Talent and Importance, which seems precisely opposite Queneau’s point. These non-Queneau exercises form just a small section at the back of the book, though, and are easily ignored.
So Queneau’s exercises aren’t for your friend who wants a “good story.” Instead, they’re for you, if you are a writer, sometime-writer, or a writer prone to getting stuck because you always fall into trying to make everything “good” and “serious.” (So okay, yes, by “it’s for you,” I mean it’s for me.) What Queneau and his fellow Oulipians were good at was maintaining an approach to writing and literature that preserves a sense of pleasure via discovery. Literature is a bit of a game, Exercises in Style reminds us—so we should play.
Alan Limnis is a writer of fiction and occasional book reviews. He recently reviewed Sergio Chejfec’s novel The Planets.