Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70

Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70

by Raymond Queneau

The first English translation of essays from one of the twentieth century's most intriguing avant-garde writers

Compiled from two volumes of Raymond Queneau's essays (Bâtons, chiffres et lettres and Le Voyage en Grèce), these selections find Queneau at his most playful and at his most serious, eloquently pleading for a certain

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The first English translation of essays from one of the twentieth century's most intriguing avant-garde writers

Compiled from two volumes of Raymond Queneau's essays (Bâtons, chiffres et lettres and Le Voyage en Grèce), these selections find Queneau at his most playful and at his most serious, eloquently pleading for a certain classicism even as he reveals the roots of his own wildly original oeuvre. Ranging from the funny to the furious, they follow Queneau from modernism to postmodernism by way of countless fascinating detours, including his thoughts on language, literary fashions, myth, politics, poetry, and other writers (Faulkner, Flaubert, Hugo, and Proust). Translator Jordan Stump provides an introduction as well as explanatory notes about key figures and Queneau himself.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[A] groundbreaking portrait of one of the twentieth century's most influential French writers."—H-France

"Jordan Stump has done anglophone readers a great service in providing this well-chosen, thoughtfully translated collection."Times Literary Supplement

"A deeply compelling narrative of an encyclopedic, infinitely inquisitive, rigorous mind at work, right in the thick of things, over a period of four decades. . . . The translations are luminous ones, rigorously faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the original. . . . This is an important book, one that is long overdue, a book that will be welcomed by serious readers of any stripe, whether amateur or professional."—Review of Contemporary Fiction

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University of Illinois Press
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Letters, Numbers, Forms

ESSAYS, 1928-70
By Raymond Queneau

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 1973 Editions Gallimard, Paris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03187-8



"Stupidity consists in wanting to conclude," said Gustave Flaubert, a dictum wholeheartedly subscribed to by Raymond Queneau and neatly proven by his remarkable oeuvre-among the smartest and most restless in all of recent literature. The distance between the wild humor of his first major work, The Bark Tree, and the contemplative calm of his last, Morale élémentaire, is in itself vast enough to suggest his refusal to stick to one well-worn furrow. But between those two we find only more twists and turns: a story of student life that is also a reflection on historical, social, and personal cycles and all that disrupts them (The Last Days), a sort of autobiography in verse that abruptly swerves away from its own subject at its climax (Chêne et chien), a slender volume of one hundred trillion sonnets (One Hundred Million Million Poems), a love story involving a tortured, bitter reactionary and a sweetly ordinary young girl (A Hard Winter), a novel inspired by Freud, Joyce, and the Bible (Saint Glinglin), ninety-nine accounts of the same, almost-interesting story (Exercises in Style), three collections of verse inspired by city streets, countryside, and water (Courir les rues, Battre la campagne, Fendre les flots), the story of an escape from intellectual fashion (Odile), the semipornographic complete works of a semibilingual Irishwoman (Les Oeuvres complètes de Sally Mara).... Little can be said of Queneau that isn't at least in part contradicted by his own work, but of this one thing we can be sure: however distinctive his style, however coherent his way of seeing or thinking, he steadfastly refused to let himself be defined by one single persona.

Or, as he puts it in a journal entry from 1939, "I don't like things that box me in" (Journaux, 367). There's nothing terribly remarkable in that thought, of course (who does?); still, Queneau seems to have lived out this resistance with unusual hardheadedness. He didn't allow himself to be bound by questions of genre: he was equally prolific and brilliant as a poet and as a novelist, and indeed he rejects the idea of any fundamental difference between novels and poems. He didn't allow himself to be bound by subject: he's equally at home recounting the adventures of an obstreperous little girl in Paris and discussing mathematical theory, or history, or philosophy (and there too, he shows time and again that high abstraction can well be expressed by low farce). He didn't allow himself to be bound by questions of tone or style: in his poetry as in his novels, he continually veers from irony to whimsy to perfect sincerity (which, once again, can well exist together), and his language is an inextricable tangle of the erudite and the colorfully uncouth. He wasn't particularly bound by "literature," for that matter: he was also a painter, a serious amateur mathematician, the editor of an encyclopedia, and, for two years, the author of a regular newspaper trivia quiz on the curiosities and history of Paris (which, in 1940, he called the only work that ever brought him real pleasure [Journaux, 440]). He wasn't bound by any particular set of beliefs: at various points in his life, he espoused Marxism, Catholicism, atheism, and Taoism, along with an intense admiration for René Guénon's idea of a universal, cross-cultural "Tradition" as the fullest expression of the human soul. He wasn't bound by a singular conception of his own nature: as he tells us in Chêne et chien, his emblem is as much the noble, lofty oak as the cynical, shameless dog. I'm not even sure he was bound by the limitations of the category we call "the uncategorizable": he did after all begin and end his literary career as an enthusiastic member of a more or less definable literary association, the Surrealists from 1925 to 1929, the Oulipo from its founding in 1960 until the end of his life.

This last point is worth thinking about, it seems to me, although of course I don't mean to suggest that the Surrealists and the Oulipo are in any substantive way comparable. The former privilege a mode of creation free of all rules and constraints; the latter set out precisely to devise new rules and constraints. The Surrealists quite explicitly saw themselves as a radical artistico-socio-political "movement"; no less explicitly, Queneau (like every Oulipian) refuses to define the Oulipo in that way. Still, they have this one thing in common: to both groups, one either does or does not belong. To move from the Surrealists to the Oulipo is thus to move from one classifiable group to another. Given the resistance to categorization alluded to above, how are we to see this move? To my mind, it has a great deal to tell us, both about Queneau and about his place in the intellectual history of his time. As Queneau repeatedly argues in the essays collected here, the freedom promised by the Surrealists is in fact only a slavery; those who seek to do away with established rules only bind themselves to other rules, unspoken, unconscious, unseen. By contrast, the Oulipo's self-imposed constraints represent a sort of liberation, not only because they jolt the writer out of his or her acquired habits but also because they allow a kind of creation that would likely be impossible otherwise. We might thus, to begin with, see the move from the Surrealists to the Oulipo as a flight from freedom into constraint that is also a flight from constraint into freedom, and this seems entirely in keeping with a worldview that believes strongly in antithesis, duality, and the equivalence of opposites as well as in the ultimate, necessary triumph of lucidity, volition, and form. But I believe that move might be read in a broader sense as well, for I think I can glimpse in it a reflection of a particularly significant shift in twentieth-century thought: the passage from modernism to postmodernism.

The Surrealists are of course a textbook example of modernist thinking: the outright rejection of (most of) the past, the urge to start over, the conviction that by starting over one will change everything. The Oulipo's allegiance to postmodernism is perhaps less absolute, but the Oulipian and the postmodernist share at least one notion: although rules and conventions may be arbitrary, it's more productive to play with them than to reject them. Queneau's trajectory from the Surrealists to the Oulipo thus aligns him with a certain shift in twentieth-century literary thought, but what I find most striking is that this wasn't really a "trajectory" at all, in the sense of a gradual approach toward an endpoint; rather, on leaving the Surrealists, he abruptly set out in an entirely different direction, a direction that is in fact "postmodern" from the very start. Take for example his first novel, The Bark Tree, published four years after his break with the Surrealists, in which all the hallmarks of what would later be called postmodernism are plain to see: the semiserious quotation of literary conventions, the dizzying self-referentiality, the blithe mingling of high and low culture, the central place given to unknowability, the refusal to conclude, the playful use of knowingly artificial productive techniques. Decades after The Bark Tree, this would come to be a recognizable literary mode; but, beginning in 1933, this was Queneau's mode (not only his, of course, but mostly). And, throughout his career as a writer, this is how it would be: always rigorously independent, he nevertheless worked in a manner that we might today recognize not as eccentric but as central to his times.

None of this quite dispels the impression that most of the major movements of twentieth-century French literature took place without his participation: Existentialism, Absurdism, the New Novel, the New New Novel ... "Fashion being what it is, by the time you reach seventy, you've seen a lot of isms go by," he writes in his preface to Le Voyage en Grèce (12). These isms do indeed seem, on the surface, to have come and gone without Queneau, but even this isn't exactly true. The questions that Sartre poses in Nausea aren't so very different from those Queneau earlier posed in The Bark Tree; the unknowable world of Beckett's Molloy might not be entirely unrecognizable to Queneau's Pierrot (though I suspect Pierrot wouldn't pay it too much mind); the agreeable readerly confusion engendered by a Robbe-Grillet novel can already be felt in The Skin of Dreams; the Oulipo's study of the potentialities of writing are not without parallel in the work of Gérard Genette; the questioning of the relationship between author and text in The Flight of Icarus has a distinctly poststructuralist tone. Camus considered the eponymous hero of Pierrot mon ami an intuitive existentialist; Robbe-Grillet called The Bark Tree the first real New Novel; Barthes discusses the linguistic and narratorial mystifications and demystifications of Zazie with evident delight. Ionesco acknowledges his debt to Queneau; so do Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Jacques Jouet, and a great many more poets and novelists fostered by the Oulipo from the 1960s to the present day. In short, Queneau's thinking did not always follow the ways of his century, but his writing unmistakably belongs to that century, and indeed often seems to anticipate it.

And even to go beyond it. Few if any twentieth-century writers are as present in the twenty-first-century French novel as Queneau. Read the works of writers like Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Iegor Gran, or Lydie Salvayre (and I could name a great many others): you will hear the echo of Queneau's voice. His affectionately wry, sometimes blisteringly ironic narrative tone, his love of mixing linguistic registers, his privileging of structure, his seamless blend of the comic and the serious, his detached-but-not-exactly-alienated characters are still with us today. Not that these contemporary writers are in any way "imitating" Queneau, and not that they necessarily claim him as a precursor (although Jean Echenoz, at least, explicitly does); rather, there is simply something particularly durable in Queneau's voice and outlook, something remarkably potent, something that discreetly but insistently expresses a very contemporary approach to the world: interested, playful, sometimes appalled, always independent, not always convinced.

Everything I've said so far could be gleaned by any attentive American reader by way of Queneau's novels, nearly all of which exist in fine English translations. Nevertheless, this remains a partial understanding of his work; the French reader also enjoys access to his poetry (largely untranslated), an essay on the philosophy of history, a book of interviews, a book on mathematical theory, a fascinating diary running from the 1910s to the mid-1960s, and much more. We can of course arrive at an excellent understanding of Queneau from his novels alone. As he himself writes, we might take great pleasure in reading Homer's diary, but we must remember "that only the Iliad and the Odyssey matter." Still, the "and more" I alluded to just now includes some truly fascinating work, and some intriguing insights for those drawn to Queneau's novels. This is particularly true of his wonderful essays: hence the present collection.

I don't believe any reader will be forced to rethink his or her view of Queneau by these essays; nevertheless, they serve to complicate our understanding of his mind, and in his case more complicated always means closer to the truth. Even within this collection, we don't always find the same Queneau. One Queneau that comes through (particularly in the pieces from the late thirties) is a fervent idealist, and something of a contrarian: an entirely new writer defending time-honored esthetic virtues against the onslaughts of his contemporaries, a onetime Surrealist fulminating against every aspect of the Surrealist esthetic, an author of jauntily unpredictable novels explaining the lucid and orderly structure that underlies them. Other pieces, such as "Readings for a Front" or his prefaces to novels by Faulkner or Hugo, show us a voracious and curious reader, continually on the lookout for new ideas from an astonishingly broad range of domains. Others-"Pictograms," "Written in 1937," "Miró, or The Prehistoric Poet"-reveal his fascination with alternative modes for the visual conveyance of meaning. Still others express, in many different forms, his chafing impatience with the straitjacket that is conventional French grammar and spelling (and two final essays admit a kind of defeat in that battle, once again reflecting that unwillingness to conclude).

But one thing above all comes through: while Queneau was always fascinated by the thinking going on around him, he was sometimes-or perhaps often-repelled by that thinking. Readers of Queneau will remember a scene from Odile in which Roland Travy informs one of his avant-garde friends, "I'm closer to Plato than to Marx." Now, Travy is not Queneau, of course, and yet there we have a fundamental element of Queneau's thought: although his mind is omnivorously engaged with the present (and the future), he seeks his truths further back than most. Queneau will make few references to Plato in these essays, but if we think of the names he shows himself to be "close to"-Homer, Rabelais, Hugo, Flaubert-they are authors largely ignored (and even scorned) by the fashionable intellectual world of his formative years. And indeed, as these essays will repeatedly show us, Queneau's allegiance lies less with the contemporary than with the classical. Needless to say, his notion of classicism does not involve aping the masters of the distant past. Rather, it implies an attention to form, to writing as work rather than unbridled spontaneity, and, above all, to the kind of luminous harmony that results when a story and the rules that govern its telling coincide in a meaningful way. This kind of classicism is in no way stuck in the past: it fits into all manner of molds, transforming and making real what might be empty without it. Those who spurn the classic must seek their justification solely in the present, in what is considered true now; and since these things change, those anti-classics inevitably either stagnate, endlessly rehearsing ways of thinking popular in their youth, or they become creatures of fashion, forever remaking themselves as new truths come along. Queneau avoids-and despises-both of these sterilities; drawing on an ancient ideal, lucidly transforming it, he offers us a body of work that was and is as new as it is possible to be.

The writings collected here, particularly those from the mid- to late thirties, insistently return to this classical ideal, which might surprise those who know Queneau through his seemingly chaotic novels-might surprise, but need not. There's no real contradiction there, no paradox, no disparity: simply a complicated unity, like the oneness of Apollo and Dionysus. That said, there's still a good deal here to surprise us: the tone of the early essays, for one thing, stern and even angry in their denunciation of what Queneau saw as the trivialities of his time. Beyond that, we may be somewhat taken aback to find a riotously comic writer like Queneau expressing his scorn for "humor," or Queneau the erudite (and the encyclopedist) condemning erudition and the very possibility of an encyclopedia. Queneau addresses these two specific points in his introduction to Le Voyage en Grèce. In the first case, he advises his bewildered reader to "think about it a bit"; in the second, his response is the French equivalent of "where there's a will, there's a way." Slightly glib answers, it might seem, but true ones, which do not so much contradict as complicate our sense of Queneau's thinking. And the fact is that all of Queneau's essays, overtly or discreetly, display this same complication; that's why I find myself continually returning to them, and why I wanted to translate them, and why I believe they belong on the bookshelf of Queneau's English-speaking reader.


Excerpted from Letters, Numbers, Forms by Raymond Queneau Copyright © 1973 by Editions Gallimard, Paris . Excerpted by permission.
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