Word-composition and whyexplaining: the jouissance of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style

April 26, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

When we speak of technique, then, we speak of nearly everything. For technique is the means by which the writer’s experience, which is his subject matter, compels him to attend to it; technique is the only means he has of discovering, exploring, developing his subject, of conveying its meaning, and, finally, of evaluating it. And surely it follows that certain techniques are sharper tools than others, and will discover more; that the writer capable of the most exacting technical scrutiny of his subject matter will produce works of the most satisfying content, works with thickness and resonance; works which reverberate, works with maximum meaning.

– Mark Schorer, “Technique as Discovery”

Exercises_in_StyleOn the one hand, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style is a superb illustration of Schorer’s assertion that “exacting technical scrutiny” will produce a written text “of the most satisfying content.” On the other hand, Queneau’s book flies in the face of Schorer’s fundamental assumption that technique and subject matter – or, more commonly, form and content – are inextricable and indivisible. Queneau’s book, first published by Editions Gallimard in 1947, is a frontal assault on the notion, more or less accepted as gospel truth, that form dictates content and vice versa.

Queneau’s objective in the Exercises is focused more on language than on subject. As his English translator, Barbara Wright, asserts in the introduction to the 2012 New Directions edition:

His purpose here … is, I think, a profound exploration into the possibilities of language. It is an experiment in the philosophy of language. He pushes language around in a multiplicity of directions to see what will happen. As he is a virtuoso of language and likes to amuse himself and his readers, he pushes it a bit further than might appear necessary – he exaggerates the various styles into a reductio ad absurdam – ad lib., ad inf., and sometimes – the final joke – ad nauseum.

If Wright is correct, and there is little reason to doubt that she is, then perhaps it is possible to argue that Schorer’s assessment does apply to the Exercises,  because Queneau’s experiments in “the philosophy of language” depend entirely upon the nature of the story he has to tell.

The final proof of Schorer’s notion might be in the reaction of a reader to having Exercises in Style described to her. On its surface, the book sounds ludicrous, a low joke, or at the very least a crushing bore. That it is none of these things is a testament to Queneau’s protean ability to twist language into new and startling forms, his curiosity, and his almost farcical sense of humour. (Not for nothing does Wright point out that when she tells people she is translating Queneau, the reaction is often, “Ah.”)

But Exercises in Style fundamentally resists reduction to pithy aphorisms. It is utterly inadequate to describe the book in a sentence or two and hope to convey even a fraction of its effect. In short, Queneau tells the same story ninety-nine times, in ninety-nine different ways. The subject matter is straightforward and mundane; the approach is anything but.

Here’s the story: A man gets on a crowded bus and notices another man, in his twenties, with a long neck and a hat with a plaited cord rather than a ribbon. The young man becomes irate with another, older passenger, who continually trods on his toes whenever someone wants on or off. Thinking this is intentional, the young man confronts the other passenger, but quickly abandons an incipient argument when a vacant seat becomes available. A few hours later, near the gare Saint-Lazare, the narrator of the story overhears the young man being advised to add another button to his overcoat.

Raymond_QueneauThe utter banality of this story is essential to Queneau’s project, which is concerned not with the story itself, but how the story is told. Queneau imagines the story told from the perspective of the narrator witness, the young man, and the older bus passenger. He recasts it as a three-act comedy, a telegraph message, and an office memo. He changes the verb tense from past to present. He tells the story in the passive voice. He breaks the story down into its constituent parts of speech. In three successive sections – “Apheresis,” “Apocope,” and “Syncope” – he removes, respectively, the first, last, and middle letters of the words.

One short example will perhaps suffice to demonstrate Queneau’s inventiveness and his broad humour. Here is the story told as an exercise in “Word-composition”:

I was plat-bus-forming co-massitudinarily in a lutetio-meridional space-time and I was neighbouring a longisthmusical plaitroundthehatted greenhorn. Who said to a mediocranon: “You’re jostleseeming me.” Having ejaculated this he freeplaced himself voraciously. In a posterior spatio-temporality I saw him again: he was saint-lazaresquaring with an X who was saying: “You ought to buttonsupplement your overcoat.” And he whyexplained him.

The neologisms may at first appear off-putting, but the description of the “plaitroundthehatted greenhorn” is obvious enough in context, and sufficient to elicit a laugh merely from its euphony (a testament to translator Wright’s skill in rendering Queneau’s text into English). The same is true of the unnamed figure’s advice that the greenhorn “buttonsupplement” his overcoat, followed by the hilarious new verb form “whyexplained.”

It is part of Queneau’s genius in organization that the initial exercises are relatively straightforward, allowing readers to acclimatize themselves to the details of the story, so that when they reach a section such as “Word-composition,” they are already familiar with the facts of the case, so to speak (another exercise, called “Cross-examination,” is related in the manner of a court transcript), and are free to indulge in the linguistic pyrotechnics. It is amazing how readily even the most jarring and unfamiliar presentation lends itself to a smooth reading once a reader has become comfortable with what Queneau is up to.

The section quoted above recalls the James Joyce of Ulysses and anticipates the Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange. Queneau displays a deep knowledge of literary history and acts as an inspiration for future writers. His facility with language and playfulness of style, however, is unique to him; the “Homage Exercises” included in the New Directions reprint, written by modern-day authors such as Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, and Lynne Tillman, are by and large less interesting than Queneau’s originals. The exception is the last one, by Enrique Vila-Matas, which casts the story as a metafictional tale of Vila-Matas on a bus, paging through a recently purchased copy of Exercises in Style. (That Vila-Matas is a Spanish novelist is perhaps not incidental; he shares Queneau’s European sensibility, whereas Lethem, for instance, is much more rigidly North American.)

Exercises in Style can easily be read in a single sitting, although it need not be. Nor do the various exercises demand to be read in order from front to back. But it is a worthwhile text for writers to keep handy as a reminder that there is never only one way to tell a story, and for readers who want to remind themselves of the potentially unbridled jouissance of literature.