An Undiscovered Master
The French writer Raymond Queneau has had in his own country both a popular success and a succès d'estime. In England, where translations of his books are not too hard to find and where most literary people read French anyway, he is fairly well-known. But in the United States he is almost entirely unknown—and this is a great pity, for he is one of the most interesting writers alive in any language. Queneau, who was born in 1903, has written books on mathematics and essays in philosophy and linguistics; many poems, some of which have been made into songs, most notably “Si tu t'imagines,” a modern-day slang version of Herrick and Ronsard which became one of Juliette Greco's most popular chansons; and dialogue or scenarios for films by Bunuel, Clément, and Resnais. But his central achievement is as a novelist who has published fifteen novels, at fairly regular intervals, over the past thirty-four years.
Queneau's novels are extremely hard to describe, for they are very original and do not lend themselves easily to paraphrase or analogy. In large part this difficulty is a matter of language, for Queneau is one of those virtuosos of style in whose work the value of what is said depends almost entirely upon the way it is said. What are the characteristics of Queneau's style? To begin with, there is his use of colloquial French which, although frequently a source of comedy, originally derived from quite serious theoretical considerations. Very early in his career, Queneau became concerned about the enormous gap between literary and spoken French, a gap which he felt was having a sterilizing effect on French literature. Indeed his first novel, Le Chiendent, grew out of an attempt to put Descartes's Discourse on Method into modern French slang. Attempts to approach or duplicate spoken French preponderate in all of Queneau's novels. The least frequent but most striking method, employed quite sparingly, is a form of phonetic spelling to approximate actual pronunciation. Thus “monsieur” is almost always written “meussieu,” “à cette heure” become “asteure,” and whole sentences are run together as in actual speech, the most famous example being the first “word” of Zazie dans le métro, “Doukipudonktan,” a phonetic transcription of D'où estce qu'ils puent donc tant? (“Where do they stink so?”). Queneau will also imitate the spoken word order, or change tenses in mid-sentence, in ways that radically violate traditional grammar. To translate such devices into English is not only difficult, it is sometimes futile or misleading, for they frequently serve a function in French which has no parallel in English. Finally, Queneau makes use of a colloquial, sometimes a vulgar, vocabulary, familiar to any reader of the novels of Céline or Sartre.
But Queneau is too much of an artist to be bound by a single theory, and the simulation of spoken French is only one of his stylistic tools. One of his best-known, most ingenious, and most enjoyable books is his Exercices de Style, in which he rewrites a banal anecdote ninety-nine different ways (excerpts from this book, in French, may be found in Dwight Macdonald's anthology, Parodies). Only a few of the “styles” practiced here resemble anything in Queneau's novels or, indeed, are viable outside such a mechanical context (nor are they parodies, as Macdonald admits), but the conception behind the book is wholly characteristic of Queneau's work, which is in large part an exploration of the variegated possibilities—often the comic possibilities—of language. A frequent device (almost in contradiction to the use of colloquial language) is circumlocution. Queneau writes, for example (in Pierrot mon ami), of a public quarrel: “The principal physiological functions of the human body were invoked by both groups, as were various organs situated between the knee and the waist,” or, with the aid of a pun, that Zazie's mother, gazing down at her naked lover asleep on the bed, looked at “the object which had occupied her so much during a day and two nights.” But the technique of circumlocution is not limited to the obscene: Queneau simply enjoys describing any object or action in a vague, general, or indirect fashion. On the level of diction this consists in writing “vehicle” for “car,” or “moistening their ingestive tubes” for “drinking.” At its most successful, this approaching of the ordinary through indirection provides more than comedy: paradoxically it brings the ordinary back to us with a new vividness and wonder. Queneau, of course, is hardly the first writer to realize that by having to recognize the familiar clothed in unfamiliar language, by having to find our way back to the commonplace as though it were the end of a maze, we are rewarded by rediscovering it as though we had never seen it before.
Like Rabelais, Queneau displays an enormous erudition, not only in the size and abstruseness of his vocabulary, but also in the breadth of literary, historical, and scientific allusion which finds its way into his novels. And, also like Rabelais, he is given to comic lists and enumerative passages, such as this marvelous description (from Loin de Rueil) of a strange passerby (whom the hero, Jacques, is following), in terms of what he does not do:
What is the guy doing? There's no way to tell. He doesn't stop in front of any stores, he doesn't turn around to follow women, he doesn't say minh at cats kss at dogs or psst at taxis, he doesn't pat children's faces, he doesn't try not to walk on the cracks in the pavement, he doesn't ask cops the way, he doesn't go into any urinals, he doesn't cross the street without looking to the left and then to the right, he neither sneezes, belches, nor farts, he doesn't give breadcrumbs to little birds or to fat pigeons, he doesn't wait for any bus or streetcar, he doesn't stick his finger in his nose, he doesn't swing his arms as he walks, he scratches neither his arm nor his anus, he doesn't take out his handkerchief to wipe his face or to blow his nose, he doesn't take out his handkerchief at all, he doesn't wipe his face, he doesn't blow his nose nor does he spit on the ground, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't put his hands in his pockets, he doesn't throw bits of paper, bus or trolley tickets in the gutter, he doesn't limp, he has no tics or twitches, he is such a model citizen that Jacques is wondering how he can go about attaining this degree of perfection and self-effacement when the guy suddenly grabs a woman's purse and runs off at a clip.
This passage gives some indication of how hard it is to characterize Queneau's novels by talking about them. But Queneau's language is only half the problem. The best of Queneau's critics—complaining, similarly, about the impossibility of paraphrasing or extracting the meaning of a Queneau novel—have compared his novels to poems; they are referring, in this case, not to the language of the novels but to their structure. In this, such critics in part take their cue from Queneau himself, who has written of his efforts to impose on the novel rules analogous to those of the old established poetic forms or of the classical theater. For example, Le Chiendent (Queneau's first and most complex novel, as well as one of his best) is made up of seven chapters of thirteen sections each (these numbers come from Queneau's private “mythology”). With the exception of the thirteenth and last section of each chapter, every one of the ninety-one sections of the novel is a unit: first in that it observes the classical unities of place, time, and action; and second in that it is limited to a single and consistent mode of narration: pure narrative, pure dialogue, narrative with dialogue, interior monologue, letters, etc.
Besides rules like these—which seem largely imposed from the outside and which, in general, grow more relaxed and less arbitrary in his later, simpler, more linear novels—Queneau in his novels takes over from poetry other characteristics which are more directly experienced by the reader. Among these are “rhyme” and repetition (the division between the two is not definite) of events, phrases, and words throughout each novel. Thus in Le Chiendent, the hanging of the young man, Narcense, toward the end of the novel, rhymes with the hanging of the dog, Jupiter, toward the beginning of the novel; and when at the end of Loin de Rueil the poet des Cigales takes Michou to the movies, where the star of the Western (although they don't know it) is Michou's father, Jacques L'Aumône (now James Charity), this rhymes with an incident near the beginning of the novel when Jacques, as a little boy, met des Cigales in a Western at the same movie theater. There are also leitmotifs which recur, like the refrain of a poem, throughout each of Queneau's novels. Sometimes these devices do more than ornament or give rhythm to the novel: they may also be a means of conveying the plot. For example, the only way we know that the Borgeiro Indian and “the man in the red vest,” whom Jacques meets in South America in the ninth chapter of Loin de Rueil, are in fact two characters named Horace and Tonton, is that they repeat, almost word for word, a conversation they had in a bar in Rueil, outside Paris, in the fourth chapter. Perhaps the structural characteristic most important to the meaning of the novels is the “structure in a circle” (in a sense a broader form of rhyme or repetition) by which the opening of a novel is recapitulated at the end in exact or similar form.
This studied formal manipulation may sound academic in theory, but in practice it is anything but. One must realize, first of all, that in many cases these structural devices and cross-references, stated here so explicitly, are woven with considerable subtlety into the texture of the novel. In discovering these hidden connections, the reader experiences the same order of satisfaction as that afforded the listener to a Bach fugue when he first becomes aware of an inversion of the main theme hidden in one of the inner voices. By his form as well as by his language, Queneau is simply bringing into the novel the pure aesthetic pleasure, the “play element,” which is basic to music, poetry, dance, and—sometimes—to theater and film, but which is seldom found with much intensity in any but the less “legitimate” forms of fiction such as detective stories and particularly children's books. It may, indeed, be just this aspect of Queneau's work which has kept its “legitimacy” in doubt for many people, especially for those businesslike readers who want to dispense with the funny stuff and get on to the grand statements. Such people are bound to be put off by Queneau's novels, for Queneau has a horror of grand statements, and much of his technique can be regarded as a system to guard against them. In this connection Queneau's Surrealist experience is pertinent and illuminating, although not so much for its positive influence upon Queneau as for his reaction against it.
Queneau was active in the Surrealist movement from 1924 (when he was twenty-one) to 1929, when he broke abruptly with André Breton and went off on his own. Surrealism's main tenet of creation was, of course, a belief in untrammeled free association, in letting the unconscious do its work without outside interference. At the same time, Surrealism tried to be far more than a literary movement: dominated by Breton's powerful personality, it aspired to consideration on religious and philosophical grounds and (in its brief and far-fetched relationship with the Communist party) on political ones as well. The pretentiousness of Breton and the Surrealists is satirized for all it is worth in Queneau's semi-autobiographical novel, Odile. At the period of his life which corresponds to the end of this novel, Queneau felt, as he has indicated elsewhere, that the aesthetic anarchy of Surrealism had brought him to a creative impasse: in breaking with Surrealism, there was no place to go except back to “classicism,” that is, to self-imposed rules and extreme structural consciousness. (Of course this “classicism”—learned from English and American rather than from French examples and applied to material whose richness was in part fostered by Surrealism itself—was quite a different thing from the classicism of Racine or Mme. de Lafayette; it was something totally new in French literature.) Thus we can think of Queneau's novels, in part, as a reaction to Surrealism. It is as though, in response to Surrealism's free mode of composition, and its enormous extra-literary pretensions, he set out to create self-enclosed works, written to satisfy the most stringent formal requirements—works which would mean nothing beyond themselves.
“One can say of Queneau what Beckett said of Joyce,” Claude Simonnet has written: “‘He is not writing about something: he is writing something.’” Yet when all is said about the “purely aesthetic” value of Queneau's novels, their hermeticism, we must turn right around and say the opposite: that the “something” he is creating is “about something”—namely, about our world—and that if it weren't, we would not enjoy it or be moved by it and there would be no point in our paying attention to it. It is not simply that, as Jacques Guicharnaud has indicated, those apparently self-referential “exercises” in style and form are transmutations (one might even say “codifications”) of Queneau's private obsessions (one only has to turn to his wonderful autobiographical poem, Chêne et chien, to find these obsessions in a much more explicit form); Queneau's private obsessions are not necessarily of interest to us. It is that at his best, Queneau has created in art a vision of our world, which is funny, moving, recognizable, and true.
Yet like other modern literary worlds, Queneau's world may strike us as odd before it strikes us as true. One characteristic of this world is that all phenomena—large and small, abstract and concre—tetend to be presented as equal and to be given equal stress. Just as Queneau heightens the commonplace and the trivial by an unwonted lyricism and by the technique I have loosely called circumlocution, conversely he brings the highflown and the abstract down to earth by putting them into ordinary, nonliterary language—by making them appear, so to speak, in their work clothes. “Consciousness, death, the meaning of life, nothingness—these are subjects worthy of our consideration. But the weather, potato peelers, the sale of picture frames, the breeding of lice, the art of sweeping—what kind of foolishness is this?” So Jacques Guicharnaud begins his excellent essay on Queneau, expressing with mock disapproval the bewilderment the reader initially feels before this equality of subject-matter, this disconcerting absence of hierarchy.
But something more profound, more praiseworthy, and more difficult than an “equalization” or leveling-off process is at work: for this apparently nihilistic writer is in fact creating a kind of synthesis of the abstract and the concrete, thereby restoring the world to us whole. Queneau is notorious for always putting his metaphysical statements and speculations into the mouths of concierges or other lower-class characters, where they are couched in the most common and frequently vulgar language. The comic aspect of the procedure is undeniable, but those readers and critics are wrong who suppose that Queneau is mainly out to ridicule either concierges or philosophy. Rather he means to bring them into the same sphere, to make them relevant to each other; for if metaphysics cannot apply to and be discussed by concierges—he seems to be asking—what possible use is it? Hence, much more than a linguistic commitment is implied by undertaking to translate Descartes into slang; and much more than a purely linguistic achievement is to be found in the body of novels fostered by this seemingly modest goal.
For, at his most brilliant, Queneau has given flesh to abstract ideas in a way that is extremely rare, if not unique, in literature. I am thinking particularly of the episode of Ernestine's death in Le Chiendent, in my opinion one of the greatest and most moving passages in all literature. Toward the end of Ernestine's wedding to le père Taupe, the bride suddenly falls ill, and the doctor announces that she has only twenty minutes to live. First the wedding guests sit downstairs, each one asking himself the question, “Who is Ernestine?,” each one answering differently according to the relationship he has had with her, but all thinking, “It's something upstairs which is dying. Ernestine, that's not me.” The next section is largely a monologue in which Ernestine explains to the guests (now upstairs in her room), in the crudest and most vulgar language possible, what it means to be dying (“When anything disappears, that's already pretty funny. But me. Now that's really incredible.”) and to have lived. In substance, then, this sequence is a philosophic inquiry into life and death (Claude Simon-net finds echoes of Heidegger in Ernestine's speech); yet its crude but poetic directness of language makes it comparable to Villon's “Les regrets de la belle Hëaulmiere”—and it deserves to live as long. Queneau means to change Death back into death, to de-abstractify it, to recognize it existentially as something which—as Ernestine herself declares—is happening to her alone, yet without robbing it of the cogency it had as an abstract idea.
Another dominant fact of Queneau's world, a sort of corollary to the apparent equality among all phenomena and states of being, is that there is no “progress”; nothing ever goes anywhere. This is expressed by the circular structure of so many of his novels. If Gide, as he wrote in his journal, wanted the reader to say at the end of Les faux-monnayeurs, “Could be continued,” Queneau in his novels might be construed as wishing the response, “Might never have happened.” Indeed, in the most artificial and least successful application of the circular structure (in Le Chiendent) the author simply intervenes on the last page and brings everything back to the beginning. Less artificially, the circular movement is manifested sometimes (as in Loin de Rueil) by the recurrence of a situation similar to that of the beginning, sometimes (as in Pierrot mon ami) by the awareness that the events of the book have led to nothing. In the latter novel (the most nearly flawless of the seven of Queneau's novels I have read), Pierrot, a sort of comic version of Camus's Meursault, goes through a series of oddball adventures which, finally, never touch him. He holds, and is fired from, a series of jobs; he is in love with a girl who, on every one of their repeated and often bizarre encounters, barely remembers who he is; he is peripherally connected with a possible case of arson; he is offered an inheritance, which he passes up out of sheer negligence. In the epilogue, as he looks back on these events, they are more blurred for him than they are for the reader; they might never have happened. For Pierrot the past simply has no reach into the present. The novel is a sort of shaggy-dog story, in which an extremely involved and tightly controlled plot structure leads the reader to expect—and then find absent—those elements which such a structure has traditionally conveyed: changes in characters and in their situation and the development of relationships among characters. It is a novel in which many things occur and nothing happens.1 Pierrot is typical of Queneau's heroes, who (like the hero of Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player) are momentarily drawn into life, only to recede again into their natural state of passive anonymity, observing with bemused detachment the sound and fury around them.
The essential modesty of his heroes also characterizes Queneau himself. Exhibiting what Lionel Trilling found in E. M. Forster, a “refusal to be great,” Queneau would certainly approve (though it is hard to imagine him making) such statements of Forster's as the one about betraying his country before his friend and the one (made in 1941 in response to the feverish postwar planning of people like H. G. Wells) that “To me, the best chance for future society lies through apathy, uninventiveness, and inertia.” But any comparison with Forster must end there. In Queneau's world there is no more humanism, virtually no human relations, no past and no future—only the shadows of these, and the nostalgia brought on by their absence. What is left is the individual, stripped down to his essential, daydreaming self, and the moment and its pleasures which, as though in compensation for all that has been lost, are granted a kind of absolute value (as Andrée Bergens has written, for Queneau “Le Bonheur n'existe pas, mais les bonheurs existent”). Like Descartes, Queneau returns us to the essentials, where we are on firm ground. Yet the atmosphere of his novels is not spare and arid (like that of Beckett's plays) but rich and poetic: for all around we sense the whole world, eluding one's grasp, but resonant, mysterious, and undeniably there.
Clearly Queneau is—we cannot withhold the word any longer, however vague and overused it has become—a writer of the absurd. (Like other writers of the absurd, Queneau depends greatly on the distortion of reality, on the exaggeration of certain aspects of reality at the expense of others. Thus, when I said earlier that Queneau's work was “true,” I did not, of course, mean a literal truth.) But he may seem to exemplify even better a word which is not nearly so well-known: 'Pataphysics. 'Pataphysics is a school of thought originated by Alfred Jarry and now embodied in the form of the Collège de 'Pataphysique, which counts among its officials Eugène Ionesco, René Clair, Jean Dubuffet, Jacques Prévert, and—Raymond Queneau. As Roger Shattuck has written (in Evergreen Review):
'Pataphysics is the science of the particular, of laws governing exceptions. . . . 'Pataphysics relates each thing and each event not to any generality (a mere plastering over of exceptions) but to the singularity which makes it an exception. Thus the science of Pataphysics attempts no cures, envisages no progress, distrusts all claims of “improvement” in the state of things, and remains innocent of any message.
For 'Pataphysics, all things are equal. The 'pataphysician . . . rejects all values, moral, aesthetic, and otherwise. . . . 'Pataphysics preaches no rebellion and no acquiescence, no new morality or immorality, no political reform nor reaction and certainly no promise of happiness nor unhappiness. What would be the use, all things being equal?
In many ways this is the perfect description of Queneau's vision of the world. Yet in his best books, Queneau is not a true pataphysician, for he only appears to possess another of the pataphysician's requisite traits: imperturbability.
If Queneau has been often misunderstood by daily reviewers, he has been very fortunate in the critics who have devoted separate studies to him. Works by Jacques Bens, Claude Simonnet, Andrée Bergens, and Jacques Guicharnaud are all, in their different ways, excellent and illuminating.2 Yet if there is one fault in all these works (with the possible exception of the one by Bens), it is a tendency to take the absurd and pataphysical nature of Queneau's books too much at face value. Thus in a section of her book called “Gratuité de l'oeuvre,” Mrs. Bergens sums up Queneau's work by saying, “The world is absurd and the work of literature is just an exercise in style [my italics]. . . . Because of the acceptance of the absurd, which is not freely chosen but rather forced upon one by necessity, Queneau's characters are not driven to modify their condition. Queneau's work, indeed, is characterized by the absence of conflict; thus there is no dramatic tension [ressort dramatique]. This is a formidable handicap which the thinker has imposed on the writer.” These remarks are subject to some modification. It is true that Queneau's characters, on the whole, do not act to change their condition and that, as Mrs. Bergens says, “Queneau is led to renounce all the heroic themes—action engagement, revolt—whose meaninglessness he knows in advance, philosophically.” But there is a conflict, and that is the felt discrepancy between actual absurdity and the possibility of meaning, between what life is and what it should or could be. The attempt to bridge the discrepancy is expressed by the characters not physically, in action (for action is futile), but emotionally, in daydreaming and longing. Indeed, the pervading feeling of Queneau's best novels is nostalgia—not nostalgia for this or that, but a vague, unspecified, aching nostalgia for a meaning lost in some unknown time or place. We have felt this nostalgic mood elsewhere, surely: in Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player, in Proust and in Beckett, the contemporary writer who is temperamentally closest to Queneau. Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot don't try to change their condition; they wait for Godot, and when they say they're going to leave, they continue to sit there. Yet we know what the conflict is, and our concept of the “dramatic,” far from excluding the play, had to be modified to include it.
The tendency to take Queneau's 'Pataphysics at face value seems to lead to a sort of infection, by which these critics are led to judge Queneau's novels 'pataphysically, i.e., as if they were all forcibly of equal value. On the whole, the critics I have mentioned tend to demonstrate brilliantly the presence of certain themes in each novel (as well as in all of Queneau's work) and the interrelationships among the parts of the novel without ever asking the question, “How good is this novel?”—which is as if one were to describe a girl in terms of her height, the color of her hair, the length of her nose, etc., without ever saying if she were beautiful or ugly. Now the ugliness or beauty of a Queneau novel has a lot to do with the absence or presence of conflict, with whether the “themes” are simply lying static, in a collection of gimmicks, or whether, on the contrary, they are embodied in the technique and “go somewhere” emotionally. Moreover, it is unjust to place Queneau's good novels, which are wonderful, on a level with his poor ones, which verge on the junky. (One must be particularly careful to make this distinction in Queneau's case because his best known and most successful novel, Zazie dans le métro, which is many readers' first and only taste of Queneau, is in the second category.)
I mention these matters because Queneau's most recent novel, Les Fleurs Bleues, published here in 1967 as The Blue Flowers in a translation by Barbara Wright,3 would certainly pass muster by pataphysical standards; it displays Queneau's technical virtuosity considerably, yet remains a completely unsatisfactory work of art.
The Blue Flowers is Queneau's spoof on history, his attempt, I believe, to do for history what he did for the individual life in Pierrot mon ami: show that it comes to nothing. Its two main characters are Cidrolin, a pale replica of Queneau's earlier passive-sweet heroes, and his alter ego, the Duke of Auge, a pugnacious hell-raiser and blasphemer and Cidrolin's antithesis. Whenever Cidrolin falls asleep, he dreams he's the Duke of Auge, and vice versa. The situation suggests Voznesensky's clerk, Bukashkin, with face as “gray as blotting paper,” who dreams of Anti-Bukashkin, the “demon-magician”: “But Anti-Bukashkin's dreams are the color/ Of blotting paper, and couldn't be duller.” Cidrolin lives idly, in 1964, on a barge perpetually moored on the Seine; Auge, on the other hand, keeps reappearing throughout history at 175-year intervals beginning in 1264, thus being able to make mischief under four kings of France and finally to meet Cidrolin in 1964.
Much ingenuity and erudition have gone into this historical mock-reconstruction and into the playing with anachronism which draws upon it. In 1264, the Duke conscientiously derives from the Latin the as-yet-non-existent words siesta, handkerchief, and barge to designate certain properties of his dreams. In 1614, the Duke's son-in-law tells him, “‘You're a real Don Quixote.’” “‘What's that?’” asks the Duke. “‘Don Quixote? The best foreign book to appear in the year 1614. I read it in César Oudin's translation.’” “‘What a pedant,’” says the Duke. It is almost superfluous to go to the Encyclopedia and discover that César Oudin is indeed the first French translator of Don Quixote. Much ingenuity has gone as well into the book's word-play, in which the pun, mostly the bad pun, predominates. And a kind of mechanical ingenuity has gone into the book's structure, by which the sections concerning Cidrolin and the sections concerning the Duke are cleverly made to balance, parallel, alternate with, and complement each other.
But ingenuity, like money, is a means, not an end; it is not nourishing in itself. Having little besides ingenuity to offer, The Blue Flowers—like the earlier Zazie—begins to seem like a long and rather tasteless collection of jokes and gimmicks, many of them rather stale. There are too many remarks of the caliber of “you don't take the Bastille every day of the week, especially in the 13th century.” And when the clichéd joke about people being surprised and frightened by a talking horse had been repeated for about the third time, I could not help thinking nostalgically of the subtlety of Queneau's story, “Le cheval troyen,” the point of which (though never stated) was to treat a talking horse in an otherwise realistic context as perfectly ordinary—and merely annoying.
Thus, although The Blue Flowers permits the same kind of detailed cross-referential analysis that Claude Simonnet devoted to Le Chiendent, it does not deserve it; indeed if it were not by Queneau, it would hardly deserve being talked about at all. One has the impression of a lot of technique feeding cannibalistically on itself because there is no felt content for it to control. Whereas there are worlds of suggestion and feeling behind the sentences of Le Chiendent or Loin de Rueil or Pierrot mon ami, the language of The Blue Flowers is a brittle papiermaché façade. The book is, in relation to Queneau's good novels, what Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits is in relation to 8½: an example of an artist corrupting his own style by removing it from its source and using it where he has nothing genuine to say. Yet it is not exactly fair to say that the book is not about anything, since there are potentially interesting but stillborn ideas in it: the indeterminacy of dream and reality, the simultaneity of all history and its essential pointlessness, the brutal man of action and the idle dreamer as being two sides of the same coin, etc. One should perhaps say, rather, that the book is not what it is “about”—that its form is not an embodiment of its themes but a receptacle for them. In any case, it is a book quite unworthy of its author.
But it would be criminal to end on a negative note. At least three of Queneau's novels (I can speak only for what I have read) are works of great beauty, in fact masterpieces: Le Chiendent, Pierrot mon ami, and Loin de Rueil. They should be read. This may seem too much to ask, given the virtual absence of English translations of these novels,4 but anyone who reads Stendhal or Gide in the original should not hesitate to undertake Queneau, so long as he supplements his Larousse with a dictionary of French slang.
When Queneau's novels are finally widely read, I think he will be seen as one of the first writers to make ordered and enduring works out of the ephemeral chaos of Surrealism, and as a precursor of Beckett and Ionesco and other important writers of the past decades. (We must remember that Queneau's first novel, Le Chiendent, appeared in 1933, nine years before The Stranger, seventeen years before The Bald Soprano, nineteen years before Waiting for Godot.) But the crucial thing is not Queneau's “place” in literary history; the crucial thing is that his books are alive now. Their “obscurity” is contingent rather than necessary. Moving, sad, yet extremely comic, they speak for themselves. All they need is readers.
1 To Pierrot, that is. Many changes occur in the situations of the other characters, but these characters are seen from the outside, and their efforts and vicissitudes appear slightly ridiculous.
2 The essay by Prof. Jacques Guicharnaud of Yale, which appeared in the Columbia Modern Writers series, is probably the best introduction for someone who has not read a lot of Queneau. It is also the first, and only, separately published work on Queneau in English.
3 Atheneum. 224 pp., $5.00.
4 Queneau has been very unfortunate in the translation and publication of his books in the United States. The first to be published here was Loin de Rueil, brought out in 1948 as The Skin of Dreams by New Directions, in a translation by H. J. Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan was one of the first and only Americans to recognize Queneau's importance; but he certainly didn't do a very careful job of translation and sometimes completely misconstrued the sense of the original. And The Skin of Dreams has been out of print for years. The other books to have appeared here are Exercices de style (wonderful for what it is), Zazie dans le metro, and Les fleurs bleues, all well-translated by Barbara Wright. As for the French editions of the three books I praised above, they are all in print, published by Gallimard; Pierrot mon ami is also available, more cheaply, as a Livre de Poche.