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Raymond Queneau (1903-1976)


French poet, novelist, and publisher, a precursor of postmodernism. Raymond Queneau's internationally best-known novel, Zazie dans le métro (1959), was made into a successful film in 1960, directed by Louis Malle. Queneau often used in his novels and poems colloquial speech and phonetic spellings. After World War II his work formed a bridge between the irrational world of Breton and other surrealists and the philosophical 'absurd' of existentialism.

j'écris quelques poèmes
qui valent je l'espère
ceux que j'élaborais
lorsque j'avais vingt ans
je les signais d'ailleurs
de la même fa çon
u-r-a-i- grec mond

(from 'Vieillir')

Raymond Queneau was born at Le Havre, the son of Auguste Queneau, an ex-colonial soldier, and the former Jeanne Mignot. His parents owned and ran a haberdashery. Queneau once said that his childhood "wasn't much fun" and in the 1930s he underwent psychoanalysis, "which wasn't much fun either."  

Queneau was educated at the lycée in Le Havre and in 1926 he graduated from Sorbonne. While working as a bank clerk, he began to write. Between the years 1924 and 1929, Queneau was active in the surrealistic movement. Their manifest, Permettez!, composed by Queneau, was signed by the entire group, but later he broke with them. When Arthur Rimbaud's statue was inaugurated in 1927, Queneau cited for the horror of the public the works in which Rimbaud expressed his contempt for the Church, the famous 'French taste,' and culture.

In 1934 Queneau married Janine Kahn; they had one son. He became in 1938 a reader for Gallimard and from the late 1940s he was the principal editor of the Gallimard Encyclopédie de la Pléiade and histories of literature published in the Pléiade series. Throughout his life, he contributed to newspapers and journals. Le Monde referred to him as "one of the most universal minds of our time." In 1952 he was elected to the Goncourt Academy.

Queneau collaborated with a number of 'New Wave' film directors. Juliette Greco made popular his song 'Si tu t'imagines.' Although Queneau has been called the creator of le noveau roman a generation ahead of its time, in Le vol d'Icare (1968, The Flight of Icarus) he also parodied among others one of the central writers of the movement, Alain Robbe-Grille. In 1960 a group of leading French writers and mathematicians founded The Ouvrior de LittÈrature Potentielle, the Oulipo, and Queneau became one of its writers. Other Oulipians have been Calvino, Perec, Roubaud, Mathews. Queneau died on October 26, 1976. By nature, he was essentially a secretive writer, but in his early works he used a considerable amount of autobiographical matter, including Chêne et chien (1937), a verse novel. Queneau's Journal 1939-1940, which was published in 1986, reveal a man concerned with spiritual self-transformation, who finds inspiration in neo-Platonist thought, Chinese philosophy, and Christian mysticism.

From a very early age Queneau was interested in language. During his military service in North Africa in 1925, he found out that he did not understand the ordinary language of the ordinary French soldier. Years later he visited Greece and became involved in discussions about the differences between classical and demotic Greek. He saw that modern written French must free itself from the conventions of style, spelling, and vocabulary that date from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. His first book, Le chiendent (1933, The Bark Tree), Queneau began to write on his journey in Greece in the summer of 1932; Robbe-Grillet has called it the first real New Novel. The story, structured on mathematical principles, was set in Paris and dealt with a search of an immense sum of money. Le chiendent was noted for its slangy use of language and is considered Queneau's best. Its title has many meanings, but in parts of North America chiendent is known as witch grass.

Language was not for Queneau simply a means of expression. He argued that the real subject of his work is language itself. Many's of Queneau's novels and poems are very difficult to translate - they are experimental, based on spoken French, and play with words, spelling, puns, and slang. Zazie starts with the word 'Doukipdonktan' which is a phonetic transcription of 'D'où est-ce qu'ils puent donc tant?' (What part of them is it that stinks so much?). Si tu t'imagines (1952) contains most of Queneau's central poems. The work has been noted for its Joycean wordplays and neologisms. Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961, One Hundred Million Million Poems), which consists of a set of ten sonnets in separate 14 strips, fused mathematic with poetry. It is possible to construct one hundred trillion poems from its lines.

Queneau's novels portrayed unpretentious ordinary people, characters from margins of society, and such urban locales as metro stations, small cafés, suburban cinemas. Occasionally he played with the conventions of the gangster genre. On est toujours troup bon avec les femmes (1947, We Always Treat Women Too Well ), a thriller set in Dublin that never was, first appeared under the covers of "Editions du Scorpion," in the wake of James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and Boris Vian's  J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Spit on Your Grave), both of which enjoyed great success in France, but Queneau's novel did not reach out to the masses. He deliberately turned the basic situation of Chase's novel - a young helpless woman at the mercy of psychopaths - upside down: now she seduces her kidnappers, a group of IRA men, and destroys them.

Pierrot mon ami (1942) was a detective story, perhaps without a crime. Queneau has noted that in the American crime novel writers are no longer concerned with the puzzle as much as with the characters. The detective story has become existentialist in the journalistic sense. In Loin de Ruel (1944) the protagonist turns into the hero of films he sees - like Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924) or much later the young movie fan in Arnold Schwarzenegger's underrated Last Action Hero (1993).

Exercices de style (1947) explored linguistic conventions. Queneau presented ninety-nine different versions of a single, totally insignificant anecdote - a man gets on a crowded Paris bus, Route 'S', sees a youngish man complain that his fellow-traveller is stepping on his feet. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself on to it. Later Queneau sees the same man talking to a friend on a street - the friend says: 'You ought to get an extra button on your overcoat,' and shows him where. The story is told among others as an official letter, as a blurb for a novel, as a sonnet, and in 'Opera English.' Queneau creates ninety-nine times a different atmosphere with inventive, different choice of words, and makes the reader to pay attention to the manner in which a story is told. 'At the hour when the rosy fingers of the dawn start to crack I climbed, rapid as a tongue of flame, into a bus, mighty of stature and with cow-like eyes, of the S-line of sinuous course.' (Noble style) Queneau's work has inspired Matt Madden's graphic novel 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (2005), in which a man gets up from his computer, walks into his kitchen, speaks to his wife and opens his refrigerator, only to discover that he can't recall what he was looking for.

In Zazie dans le métro a young girl comes to Paris for a few days. Zazie spends time with her heterosexual uncle Gabriel, who works as a dancer in a gays' night-club. After finishing his act, a lady says to Gabriel, 'You were so amusing!' - and he answers, 'Don't forget the art in it, though. It's not just amusing, it's also art.' Zazie has an obsession: she wants to ride on the métro. But the métro workers are on strike and she crisscrosses Paris in a cab, taking part in a series of farcical events, and making rude comments on the grown-up silliness. Her favorite expression is 'my ass.' Again Queneau writes in a semiserious way and uses widely dialogue, meaningless everyday language, swearwords, and phonetic spelling - Zazie drinks 'cacocalos' and wears 'bloudjinnzes.' When her mother comes to collect her, she asks 'did you see the métro?' 'No', 'What did you do, then?', 'I grew up.' The novel was adapted for the screen by Louis Malle in 1960. Pauline Kael described the film in The New Yorker as 'bold, delicate, freakish, vulgar, outrageous and occasionally nightmarish.' Malle played with the conventions of film like the author had played with language.

Up till now he had always thought that language ought to formulate the truth, and silence hide it. The words he would use to Madame Saphir's customers, male and female, it wouldn't even be zones of error that they would form, but zones of confusion in which illusion might remain in suspense until the end of a life. (from The Sunday of Life)

Le Dimanche de la vie (1951, The Sunday of Life) was Queneau's tenth novel, cheerful as the later Zazie, and it also gained popularity as a film. The central figure is Valentin Brû, ex-Private, whom Queneau follows during the period of 1936-40. In the sardonic story Valentin is selected by two sexually-frustrated older women as the ideal mate. He marries Julia, but she is busy with hordes of customers. 'Have to admit, said Julia, have to admit that a marriage without a honeymoon, that doesn't exist.' The book contained one of Queneau's most famous words, 'Polocilacru,' meaning 'Paul aussi l'a cru' (Paul believed it too). Another new fine word, translated by Barbara Wright, is 'somnodribblin.'

For further reading: Raymond Queneau by J. Bens (1962); Queneau by A. Bergens (1963); Queneau by J. Guicharnaud (1965); Raymond Queneau by P. Gayot (1966); Jeu et profondeur chez Raymond Queneau by J.-M Klinkesberg (1967); Raymond Queneau by J. Queval (1971); Les poèmes de Raymond Queneau by R. Baligand (1972); Critical Essays by R. Barthes (1972); The Flowers of Fiction by V. Kogan (1982); Queneau's Fiction by S. Shorley (1985); The Lyric Encyclopeadia of Raymond Queneau by J.A. Hale (1989); The Representation of Women in the Autobiographical Fiction of Raymond Queneau by M. Velguth (1990); Literature and Spirituality, ed. by David Bevan (1992); Rewriting Greece: Queneau and the Agony of Presence by Constantin Toloudis (1995); 'Raymond Queneau', ed. by Mary Campbell-Sposito, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1997); Naming & Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau by Jordan Stump (1998); Queneau's Fictional Worlds by Nina Bastin (2002); Queneau's Fiction: An Introductory Study by Christopher Shorley (2012) 

Selected works:

  • Le chiendent, 1933
    - The Bark Tree: A Novel (translated by Barbara Wright, 1968) / Witch Grass (translated by Barbara Wright, 2003)
  • Gueule de Pierre, 1934
  • Les derniers jours, 1936
    - Last Days (translated by Barbara Wright, with an introduction by Vivian Kogan, 1990)
  • Odile: roman, 1937
    - Odile (translated by Carol Sanders, 1988)
  • Chêne et chien, 1937
    - Raymond Queneau’s Chêne et Chien: a Translation with Commentary (translated by Madeleine Velguth, 1995)
  • Les enfants du limon, 1938
  • Un rude hiver: roman, 1939
    - A Hard Winter (tr. 1948)
  • Les temps mêlés: roman, 1941
  • Pierrot mon ami: roman, 1942
    - Pierrot (tr. 1950) / Pierrot mon ami (translated from the French by Barbara Wright; preface by the translator; afterword by Inez Hedges, 1988)
  • Les Ziaux, 1943
    - Les ziaux = (Eyeseas) (translated with an introduction by Daniela Hurezanu & Stephen Kessler, 2008)
  • En passant, 1944 (play)
  • Foutaises, 1944
  • Loin de Rueil, 1944
    - The Skin of Dreams: A Novel (translated by H. J. Kaplan, 1948)
  • L'instant fatal, 1946
  • Pictogrammes, 1946
  • À la limite de la forêt, 1947
    - At the Edge of the Forest (with The Trojan Horse, tr. 1954)
  • Bucoliques, 1947
  • On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes, 1947 (under pseud. Sally Mara)
    - We Always Treat Women Too Well (translated by Barbara Wright, 1981;  introduction by John Updike, 2003)
  • Exercises de style, 1947
    - Exercises in Style (translated by Barbara Wright, 1958)
    - Tyyliharjoituksia (suom. Pentti Salmenranta, 1991)
  • Une trouille verte, 1947
  • Monuments, 1948
  • L'Instant fatal, 1948
  • Le Cheval troyen, 1948
    - The Trojan Horse (with At the Edge of the Forest, 1954)
  • Saint Glinglin, 1948 (includes revised versions of Gueule de Pierre and Les Temps mêlés)
    - Saint Gliglin (translated by James Sallis, 1993)
  • Bâtons, chiffres et lettres, 1950 (rev. ed. 1965)
    - Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70 (translated by Jordan Stump, 2007)
  • Petite cosmogonie portative, 1950
  • Journal intime, 1950 (as Sally Mara)
  • Le Dimanche de la vie: roman, 1951
    - The Sunday of Life: A Novel (translated by Barbara Wright, 1976)
  • Si tu t'imagines 1920-1951, 1952
  • Le dimanche de la vie, 1952
  • Monsieur Ripois, 1954 (screenplay, with René Clement and Hugh Mills)
  • Anthologie des jeunes auteurs, 1955 (editor)
  • Histoires des littératures, 1955-58 (3 vols.; editor)
  • Lorsque l'esprit, 1956
  • La Mort en ce Jardin, 1956 (screenplay, with Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza)
  • Le Declin du romantisme: Edgar Poe, 1957
  • Le chien à la mandoline, 1958 (rev. ed. 1965)
  • Sonnets, 1958
  • Zazie dans le métro: roman, 1959
    - Zazie (translated by Barbara Wright, 1960) / Zazie in the Metro (translated by Bargara Wright; with an introduction by Gilbert Adair, 2001)
    - Zazie - Pariisin päiviä (suom. Jukka Mannerkorpi, 1995)
    - film 1960, dir. by Louis Malle, screenplay Paul Rappeneau, starring Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noire. "In the double spirit of parody and celebration of language (visual in this case) that we have examined in Queneau, Malle, like many other New Wave directors, reached back to the old Hollywood traditions to make audiences conscious of film-as-film while also imaginatively expanding the potential for those conventions, traditions, and genres to reflect contemporary reality." (Andrew Horton in Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation, ed. by Andrew S. Horton and Joan Magretta, 1981)
  • Un Couple, 1960 (screenplay, with others)
  • Cent mille milliards de poèmes, 1961 (afterword by Francois Le Lionnais)
    - 100,000,000,000,000 Poems (translated by Stanley Chapman, 1961) /  One Hundred Million Million Poems (translated by John Combie, 1983)
  • Texticules, 1961
  • Entretiens avec Georges Charbonnier, 1962
  • Les œuvres complètes de Sally Mara, 1962
  • Bords; mathématiciens, précurseurs, encyclopédistes, 1963 (illustraterd by Georges Mathieu)
  • Les fleurs bleues: roman, 1965
    - The Blue Flowers (translated by Barbara Wright, 1967) / Between Blue and Blue: A Sort of Novel (translated by Barbara Wright, 1967)
  • Une histoire modèle, 1966
  • Courir les rues, 1967
  • Un conte à votre façon, 1967
    - Yours for the Telling (tr. 1983)
  • Battre la campagne, 1968
  • Le vol d'Icare, 1968
    - The Flight of Icarus (translated by Barbara Wright, 1973)
  • Fendre les flots, 1969
  • Poems, 1970 (translated by Teo Savory)
  • Queneau et verve, 1970 (edited by Jacques Bens)
  • De quelques languages animaux imaginaires..., 1971
  • Du Langage Chien Chez Sylvie Et Bruno, 1971
  • Bonjour, Monsieur Prassinos, 1972
  • Le Voyage en Grèce, 1973
  • La Littérature potentielle, 1973
  • Morale élémentaire, 1975
    - Elementary Morality = Morale élémentaire (translated by Philip Terry; with an introduction by David Bellos, 2007)
  • Correspondance Raymond Queneau-Élie Lascaux, 1979 
  • Les Œuvres complètes de Sally Mara, 1979
  • Contes et propos, 1981 (preface by Michel Leiris)
    - Stories and Remarks (translated by Marc Lowenthal, 2008)
  • Pounding the Pavement, Beating the Bushes, and Other Pataphysical Poems, 1986 (translated by Teo Savory)
  • Journal 1939-1940; suivi de, Philosophes et voyous, 1986 (edited by Jean-José Marchand)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1989-2006 (3 vols., edited Claude Debon)
  • Traité des vertus démocratiques, 1993 (edited by Emmanuël Souchier)
  • En passant; suivi de, De quelques langages animaux imaginaires et notamment du langage chien dans Sylvie et Bruno, 1995
  • Lettres croisées, 1949-1976 / André Blavier, Raymond Queneau, 1998 (ed. Jean-Marie Klinkenberg)
  • Oulipo Laboratory: Texts from the Bibliotheque Oulipienne (Anti-Classics of Dada.), ed. by Raymond Queneau et al., 1996
  • Journaux (1914-1965), 1996 (edited by Anne Isabelle Queneau)
  • Histoire des Litteratures 1-3, 2000 (paperback)
  • Cher monsieur-Jean-Marie mon fils: lettres 1938-1971, 2003 (edited by Anne Isabelle Queneau)
  • Dessins, gouaches et aquarelles; précédé de "Raymond Queneau et la peinture" par Dominique Charnay, 2003

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