Exercises in Style

Raymond Queneau, trans. Barbara Wright

New Directions, 228 pages.

This review first appeared in The Globe and Mail, August 28 2009.

The story itself is ordinary, even banal: one man jostles another on a bus. But then Raymond Queneau tells it again. And again. And again. And then he tells it ninety-five times more.

A writer’s investigation, an etymologist’s game, and a mathematician’s rigorous inquiry, Exercises de Style was first published by Gallimard in France in 1947 (English translation in 1958). Imaginative and arithmetic, mischievous and meticulous, the slim volume is a literary riff on Bach’s Art of the Fugue: ninety-nine iterations of the same story, from Anagrams to Spoonerisms to Zoological, from Blurb to Ode to West Indian. It’s as playful a meditation on story and how we make meaning as it is profound. I challenge you to read it without laughing aloud in sheer delight.

A contemporary of Camus and Sartre, Raymond Queneau was a man who can’t be easily categorized. He was an eclectic thinker who sought unity among disciplines. Mathematician, poet, novelist, philosopher, playwright, screenwriter: Queneau was a polymath who was a member of both the Académie Goncourt and the Société Mathématique de France and who critics say influenced the work of Jacques Lacan, among others. With Francois Le Lionnais, he founded Oulipo (Ouvoir de Littérature Potential/Workshop for Potential Literature), whose members included Italo Calvino and George Perec. He was also, in the words of one of his most constant translators, Barbara Wright, a man who “doesn’t take himself over-seriously. He’s too wise.”

But to get to the heart of the man, you’d need to understand how deeply held were his convictions that math and literature were hand in glove. Having run into difficulty with another experimental work, Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (a Hundred Thousand Billion poems), he consulted a mathematician, his friend Le Lionnais. The resulting work was a flipbook of ten sonnets that goes well beyond the poetic math of metric and syllable: each line of each sonnet could be interchanged with any other thirteen lines from the other sonnets in the book. (The published book had one poem per page and the pages were cut so that each line occupied a separate strip, but it has found several homes on the internet, where you can click through its variations.)

Along the way, Oulipo was born. Having parted ways with the Surrealists, with whom he kept company in his early career but whose automatic writing practices he couldn’t abide, he encouraged Oulipo writers to “escape that which is called inspiration.” Structures, he felt, particularly mathematical ones, yielded a greater supply of ideas.

To make sense of the ninety-nine variations he settled on (he wrote at least 124) you could sort the variations of Exercises into categories, such as literary style, senses, speech mannerisms, and voice. But to do so would be to miss the cumulative power of the iterations; it is a book that works best if read in one or two sittings. There is much play here—Official Letter, Alexandrine, Opera English, Cross-Examination are particularly delightful—but the work as a whole burrows deep into language itself. Cockney and Hellenisms give way to Paragogue, Apocope, Apheresis, and Epenthesis (each of which describes morphological development).

And then there are the variations entitled “Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 & 5 letters” in which the story is told in non-words that fit the constraint. This version is followed by another using groups of 5, 6, 7 & 8 letters, and then the same thing is repeated with groups of words. And here we reach the deconstructed heart of the book, the part that could only have been written by someone who trades in numbers as well as words: while these versions might have lost their ability to communicate the story, the book continues to probe the meaning of language even as Queneau unravels it. So a language is built, so it can be dismantled.

The first to insist that his intention with Exercises was not destruction but agitation in the interest of renewal, Queneau was hopeful that the product of his experiment “may possibly act as a kind of rust-remover to literature, help to rid it of some of its scabs.” While there is plenty of gleeful parody of literary style in these pages, it’s clear that idle malice was not his intention. Parts of Speech, for instance, sorts the story into its constituent parts. Seeing it laid bare as groups of nouns, verbs, articles and so on demands that we interrogate the concept of story itself, and Exercises in Style does challenge first precepts: What is story? What is language? How do we make meaning from the black marks on a page?

Of all of his books, this volume is the one that Queneau most wished to see translated, though Wright says that at first she thought him crazy to propose the idea, as the book was an experiment in French language. But she came around to the idea as she realized that “Queneau’s attitude of enquiry and examination can, and perhaps should?—be applied to every language.” Substantial credit for achieving an English version, needless to say, rests with her considerable and faithful labour.

Don’t read Exercises in Style for its philosophic value alone. Read it also for the undiluted pleasure of language and story that this experiment delivers and for the many literary surprises in its pages (the final iteration, fittingly, is “Unexpected”). Queneau would have urged as much.



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