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Posts Tagged ‘Raymond Queneau’

In Raymond Queneau’sThe Flight of Icarus‘, the novelist Hubert Lubert discovers one day that the main character in the novel he is working on, Icarus, has disappeared from the pages of the book. He is not able to proceed further with his novel in the absence of the main character. He is upset. His author friends suggest that he hire a detective who can find Icarus and get him back. Hubert hires this detective. Meanwhile, Icarus has jumped from the novel manuscript into the real world, ends up in a bar, learns to drink absinthe, meets a beautiful woman, and goes home with her. Before long, more and more crazy stuff happens, Icarus starts living his life in the real world, the detective is looking for him, two other characters leave the pages of the book to come in search of him, and another character leaves another book, because he doesn’t want to do what the author wants him to. How all this craziness ends and the situation is resolved forms the rest of the story.

The Flight of Icarus‘ is regarded as the only Queneau novel written in the form of a play. I have heard of novels-in-verse, but this is the first time I am hearing of a novel in play form. I thought that something which is written in the form of a play is a play. I don’t know why it is called a novel. Well, whether it is called a novel or a play – which is all just semantics anyway – it tells a fascinating story. This kind of story – a character jumping out from a book into the real world – has been done to the death in the 21st century by authors including Cornelia Funke, Jasper Fforde and even Jodi Picoult (with her daughter Samantha Van Leer), but when Queneau wrote this book, he was probably the first to do it in modern times. For readers unfamiliar with this plot device, this book is innovative and mind-blowing. It is a classic Oulipo experimental work which we would expect from Queneau. The other writers probably borrowed this idea from Queneau’s book.

The fact that the book is written in play form works in its favour, because the story moves through dialogue, it is engaging and the pages fly by fast. The vintage Queneau humour and puns are on glorious display throughout the book. Queneau even sneaks in philosophical passages in a conversation in humorous ways. In one scene, there are two characters having a conversation, and the first one is called Jean and the second one is called Jacques – we almost expect a third character called Rousseau there 🙂 I loved all the characters in the story, they all play their roles perfectly, but my favourite was one called LN – she is the person Icarus meets when he ends up in the real world. She is cool, no-nonsense, speaks her mind, and does what her heart wants. At the beginning of the book, the translator Barbara Wright talks about the challenges of translating Queneau into English, and the challenges of translating in general, and it is very fascinating to read.

I loved ‘The Flight of Icarus‘. It is a pioneering book and it was lots of fun to read. I think out of the three Raymond Queneau books I read recently, this is my favourite.

Have you read ‘The Flight of Icarus‘? What do you think about it?

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When I was trying to explore French literature a few years back, one of my friends recommended Raymond Queneau’sZazie in the Metro‘. I couldn’t read it at that time, but finally got to read it today.

Zazie arrives at Paris from the countryside where she lives. Her mother hands her over to her uncle for the next two days. Zazie has one dream that she wants to realize during her time in Paris. She wants to travel by the metro. But the metro is not operational that day because the metro employees are on strike. Zazie is not interested in anything else and is bored at her uncle’s home. Then she decides to step out of her uncle’s home and wander the streets and meets a stranger and one thing leads to another, and before she knows she is involved in one adventure after another. I thought the book would be about Zazie’s adventures, but at some point the cast of characters in the book expands, the action explodes, things get crazy, there are surprises revealed, and before long the story resembles a screwball comedy.

Raymond Queneau’s prose has a lot of wordplay and it is very enjoyable to read. For example, this sentence :

“‘Coming!’ she replied, just loudly enough to enable her words to cleave the air with the desired speed and intensity.”

And this one :

“…analysing this strange behaviour, some according to deductive reasoning, others according to inductive…”

And this one :

“…whose nascent passion had not entirely obnubilated her native cartesianism”

And this one :

“At the hour when one is wont to drink soft drinks of strong colour and strong drinks of pale colour…”

And this one, which made me smile 🙂

“Zazie has joined Laverdure in somnia.”

Wordplay is very difficult to translate from one language to another, especially between two languages which have very different grammatical structures like French and English. The English translation of the wordplay is enjoyable, but one can’t help wondering whether it is an accurate translation (and whether such a thing is possible) or an acceptable anglicized one, and how much more beautiful the French version must be. Zazie and many other characters also seem to speak in a regional dialect of French and that contributes a lot to the atmosphere, the style, the mood and the humour in the story. The translator has attempted the impossible task of rendering this in English, and one can’t stop admiring her heroic effort, but it is also hard to avoid the sneaky feeling of despair that this is a fool’s errand.

A few times, Queneau sneaks in some philosophical passages, without revealing his intentions – we are not sure whether we should contemplate seriously on them or whether we should laugh aloud because of the underlying, understated humour 🙂 One of my favourites of these philosophical passages was this one :

“Being or nothingness, that is the question. Ascending, descending, coming, going, a man does so much that in the end he disappears. A taxi bears him off, a metro carries him away, the Tower doesn’t care, nor the Panthéon. Paris is but a dream, Gabriel is but a reverie (a charming one), Zazie the dream of a reverie (or of a nightmare) and all this story the dream of a dream, the reverie of a reverie, scarcely more than the typewritten delirium of an idiotic novelist.”

Zazie in the Metro‘ is a rip-roaring, irreverent comedy from the beginning to the end with wonderful wordplay. Zazie, with her sharp wit and repartee, wisdom beyond her age, and the ability to annoy grown-ups effortlessly with her intelligent retorts and quick wordplay, is one of the cool, stylish characters in fiction. ‘Zazie in the Metro’ is probably very different from other Raymond Queneau books, because the Raymond Queneau who wrote this book was not the nerd Queneau, the ‘intellectual and polymath of the highest order’ who founded the Oulipo group. The Raymond Queneau who wrote this book was a person who loved fun, who loved humour, who loved wordplay, and who revealed his boyish, fun side to us through this book. I enjoyed very much seeing this side of Raymond Queneau. This book was adapted into a film too, and it was well-received when it first came out. I want to watch that sometime.

Have you read ‘Zazie in the Metro‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Raymond Queneau’sExercises in Style‘ for many years. I finally got around to reading it today.

Raymond Queneau was one of the founders of the literary movement called Oulipo. Writers who were members of this movement, experimented with the structure of the novel and extended it into new territory. In ‘Exercises in Style‘, Raymond Queneau tells a story in the first page in two short paragraphs. Then, in the rest of the book, he tells this same story in 98 different ways. So there are 99 different versions of the same story here. While retelling these stories in those infinite different ways, Queneau plays with perspective, with prose, with language, with grammar, with literary form. In some versions of the story, the differences between the new version and the original version are so stark, that it is fascinating. There are, of course, some versions that I liked more than the others. You can read some of my favourites in the pictures below.

Matt Madden took inspiration from Queneau’s original idea, and created a one-page comic, and then retold the same story in 98 different ways and compiled them into a book called ‘99 Ways to Tell a Story : Exercises in Style‘. In principle, it is a book which is similar to Queneau’s, but because Madden adopts the comic form, it is also very different and fascinating in its own way. I have shared some of the stories in the pictures below so that you can experience them for yourself.

The third thing I wanted to write about was that Margaret Atwood did something similar many years back. She wrote a story in one paragraph. Then she wrote different versions of it and each version was very different and very fascinating. The whole thing was called ‘Happy Endings‘. I am sharing that too in the pictures.

Raymond Queneau’s book was pathbreaking because he was probably the first to do something like this. It is so hard to believe that it came out in 1947, because it feels so modern, and it is still quite fascinating to read. Matt Madden’s book will appeal to modern audiences because it employs the comic form. Margaret Atwood’s version is an education in the art of storytelling. I loved all three.

Have you read any of these books / stories? What do you think about them?

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