Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) was a critic, editor, poet, and novelist. This is his most famous work, consisting of a pointless anecdote told in 99 different ways.
Exercises in Style
This is a celebration of storytelling (along with dry wit and cynical humour). Taking one mundane story and turning it into a multitude of (increasingly bizarre) literary styles.
It’s a masterclass in rhetoric. And in this modern Alma Classics edition, there’s a foreword from Umberto Eco and an essay by Italo Calvino (of the Cosmicomics fame).
Queneau (dangerously close to Hipster foodstuff quinoa, there) starts off the tale with chapter 1: Notation. The narrator tells the story of:
- Getting on the “S” bus in Paris.
- Witnessing an altercation between a “zazou” with a long neck (plus an odd hat) and another passenger.
- Then seeing the long neck man a few hours later at the Gare St-Lazare.
Now a “zazou” was, apparently, a French subculture during WWII. This is where young men and women dressed in garish clothing. They’d also dance in ridiculous fashion to jazz.
You can’t help but draw a comparison to Hipsters these days, eh?
Anyway! After recounting this mundane tale, Queneau heads off into wordplay land. There are 98 variations on the story in various forms of rhetoric. Including:
- Passive (a rather witty ignorance of active voice)
- Mathematical formulas
You get the idea. It’s a rampaging onslaught of increasingly ridiculous ways to tell a ridiculously simplistic story. Absurdity and all that.
He also just invents a few ideas as he goes along. Such as using fillers, which we always pick up on during conversation. He called this chapter You Know.
"Well, you know, the bus arrived, so you know, I got on. Then I saw, you know, a citizen who, you know, caught my eye, sort of. I mean, you know, I saw his long neck and I saw the plait round his hat. Then, you know, he started to race at the chap next to him. He was, you know, treading on his toes. Then he went and, you know, sat own. Well, you know, later on, I saw him in the Cour de Rome. He was with a pal, you know, and he was telling him, you know, the pal was: 'You ought to get another button on your coat.' You know."
The point of Exercises in Style isn’t to be a pretentious know-it-all, though, it’s all about witty (if not outright silly) humour.
The book is funny, whilst leaving you to marvel at Queneau’s inventiveness. For him, language was a playground—something to mess about with and see what he could create in his linguistic sandpit.
The Passive chapter (about passive voice) we like, given we just came out of a copywriting role where management was infatuated with active voice.
"Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which hat was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. A long neck was sported by the young gentleman. The man standing next to him was being grumbled at by the latter because of the jostling which was being inflicted on him by him."
Or there’s Precision. A pedantic account of the affair, which enters the land of absurdity.
"In a bus of the S line, 10 m long, 2 wide, 6 high, at 3.6km 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, 1.72 m tall, weighing 65 kg and wearing a hat 35 cm in height, round the crown of which was a ribbon 60 cm long, addressed a man aged 48 years, 4 months and 3 days, 1.68 m tall and weighing 77 kg, by means of 14 words whose enunciation lasted 5 seconds and which alluded to some involuntary displacements of 15 to 20 mm. Then he went and sat down about 1.1 m away."
Some chapters focus on deliberately pretentious rambling, such as in Hellinisms.
"In a hyperomnibus full of petrolonauts in a chronia of metarush I was a martyr to this microrama; a more than icosimetric hypotype, with a petasus pericycled by a caloplegma and a eucylindrical macrotrachea, anathematized an ephermeral and anonymous outis who, he pseudologues, had been epitreading his bipods, but as soon as he euryscoped a coenotopia he peristrophed and catapelted himself onto it."
And that’s how the work plays out. 99 retellings of one pointless anecdote, with all manner of weirdly wonderful variations.
If you’re into linguistics, grammar, or just the surreal, then Exercises in Style is the book for you. It’s drawn a great deal of fascination from the literary world.
As Umberto Eco notes in his insightful introduction:
"In short, reading the Exercises shows us that while Queneau doesn't try out everything there is in the ars rhetorica, he tries out all sorts of things which are included in it. His book becomes an exercise on rhetoric itself, indeed a kind of demonstration that rhetoric is to be found everywhere."
Indeed it is, Signore Eco. Indeed it bloody well is.
About Monsieur Queneau
Queneau’s influence on French society is subtle, but impressive.
For example, his lyrics for a song called Si tu t’imagines were a hit in the hands of singer Juliette Gréco. She, incidentally, just died at the age of 93 on 23rd September 2020.
When not busy penning hit singles, Queneau was a busybody in the world of novels and poetry. He was also an editor.
But his chief love in life, it seems, was his obsession with constrained writing techniques.
This led him to found Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a gathering of intellectuals to mess around with French.
He founded that organisation in 1960, shortly after his first proper success in the literary world with Zazie dans le Métro (1959).
From 1924 until 1930, he was heavily involved with the French Surrealism movement, which prompted him to take an interest in psychoanalysis.
Queneau became good friends with the likes of Georges Bataille, another Surrealist and a noted French philosopher.
And in 1928 he married Janine Kahn—the couple had a son, who’s a painter. They remained married until her death in 1972.
For us, reading Queneau’s work was remarkably enjoyable. Not least in its sense of intellectual fun—it’s a book for people who love language.
But it’s not big and clever, it kind of revels in its ridiculous stupidity. Taking all that intellectual, historical, didactic might and turning it into a farce.
The Exercises in Style writer dedicated himself to a lifetime of putting pen to paper. For which we must doff our cap to him. He lived and breathed it all.