Shelves: favorites , queneau , infinite-books Only one book has ever changed my life god, if only things were so simple that a book could change your life! It certainly didnt unearth profound aspects of my personality that until that point were latent, it didnt give me any guiding path in life to tread, it didnt suddenly instill value into things that I before considered to be without value. That Joyce was kind enough, generous enough, to create a work so complex, that resonates on so many levels and in so many poetic and humorous and satiric and intellectual and dramatic tones; and most of all, best of all, that he demands that his reader work a fraction as hard as he did. Because he knew that what he possessed inside himself, if expressed correctly, was capable of bringing a shimmer of aesthetic recognition across the imagination unlike anything that had come before or after. There really is only literature before- and after-Joyce, no matter your opinions on Ulysses itself. It is the Theory of Relativity for the arts.
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As writing teachers and crime scene investigators know, a hundred different people could witness the same incident and describe it differently. But only Raymond Queneau, a French author with ties to the Surrealist movement, has put all one hundred accounts into a book. Okay, not quite one hundred.
Queneau stopped after ninety-nine retellings of his story at least in the first edition of his work. Who would imagine that the repetition of the same sequence of events, presented 99 times in a row, would result in a classic? After a testy exchange, the young man moves to a vacant seat. Later that same day, he is seen standing in front of a train station, where a friend is advising him to adjust one of the buttons on his overcoat.
Oh, Queneau throws in a few more details. We are told that the young man has a long neck, and wears a plaited string on his hat instead of a ribbon, but not much more. The key milestones in the narrative arc— if I can apply such noble phrase on so meager a tale— remain stepped-on toes and a poorly-placed button.
As the title of the book states clearly, only the style of the narrations draws the reader into this oft-told tale.
We read the story in the form of an astrological forecast: "When midday strikes you will be on the rear of a bus…. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus….. The bus was being got into by passengers….
Nor will a reader looking for a gripping page-turner find much reason to turn these pages. Anyone teaching a class on fiction techniques should consider this for the syllabus—and a perfect class assignment would be to invite students to come up with their own version of the bus-and-button story.
That said, I have my gripes with Queneau. This led Queneau to include a dozen or so almost unreadable chapters in Exercises in Style, based on anagrams, pig Latin, spoonerisms or other mind-numbing methods of rearranging letters on a page.
I am hardly opposed to word games, and have a lamentable habit of indulging in alliterations, puns and other ignoble techniques in my own writing. But Queneau goes several steps too far in his mania, and soon forgets that there is difference between an exercise in style and a puzzle.
A cryptogram is not prose, no matter how cleverly constructed. On the other hand, how unfortunate that Queneau did not look around at his own intellectual circles in postwar France, and build some chapters on the reigning dogmas and ideologies of his day.
I would have happily read a Marxist account of the bus story, as well Freudian, Fascist, Existentialist, Jungian and Behaviorist, to cite a few promising perspectives on the inhumanity of bus passenger to bus passenger.
I am still unsure about whether such ideologies grasp the essence of our quotidian lives, but they definitely impact how true believers write stories, and any inquiry into style that ignores the sway of ideology is inevitably incomplete. Nor will this change for the foreseeable future…and for a very good reason: no one else has done a better job at exploring the range of narrative styles in one compact work.
But someone else should write another book of this sort, updating and expanding the concept, with less wordplay and more satirical insight. Indeed, Lethem contributes his homage to Queneau in the new English translation of Exercises in Style.
Given the ascendancy of fragmented and recursive narrative techniques in current-day literary fiction, the experimental approach that Queneau unleashed on an unsuspecting public back in the s might just find an even more receptive audience in the present moment.
Exercises in Style
[PDF] Exercises in Style Book by Raymond Queneau Free Download (204 pages)