Authors: Raymond Queneau
EXERCISES IN STYLE
by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright
with new exercises translated by Chris Clarke
and exercises in homage to Queneau
by Jesse Ball, Blake Butler,
Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus,
Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten,
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
see: permutations, pages 113–117
EXERCISES IN STYLE (1958 edition)
MORE EXERCISES IN STYLE BY RAYMOND QUENEAU
QUENEAU'S 1973 SUBSTITUTIONS
EXERCISES PUBLISHED OUTSIDE OF
EXERCISES IN HOMAGE TO RAYMOND
Ladies and Gentlemen:
From time to time people politely ask me what I am translating now.
So I say: a book by Raymond Queneau.
They usually react to that in one of 3 different ways.
Either they say: that must be difficult.
Or they say: Who’s he?
Or they say: Ah.
Of those three reactions, let’s take the third—as the
People say: Ah.
By: Ah—they don’t mean quite the same as the people who say:
Who’s he? They mean that they don’t know who Queneau is, but that
don’t much care whether they know or not. However, since, as I said, this sort of
conversation is usually polite, they often go on to enquire: What book of his are you
So I say:
Exercices de Style,
And then, all over again, they say: Ah.
At this point I usually feel it would be a good idea
to say something about this book,
Exercices de Style,
but as it’s
rather difficult to know where to begin, if I’m not careful I find that my
would-be explanation goes rather like this:
know, it’s the story of a chap who gets
into a bus and starts a row with another chap who he thinks keeps treading on his toes
on purpose, and Queneau repeats the same story 99 times in a different
ways—it’s terribly good . . .”
So I’ve come to the conclusion that it is thus my own fault when
these people I have been talking about finally stop saying “Ah” and tell me
that it’s a pity I always do such odd things. It’s not that my wooffly
description is inaccurate—there are in fact 99 exercises, they all do tell the
same story about a minor brawl in a bus, and they are all written in a different style.
But to say that much doesn’t explain anything, and the
idea behind them probably do need some explanation.
In essaying an explanation, or rather, perhaps, a proper description, I
have an ally in this gramophone record, which has recently been made in France, of 22 of
It is declaimed and sung by
—who have been likened to the English Goons. You will hear that the
record is very funny. I said it was an ally, yet on the other hand it may be an enemy,
because it may lead you to think that the
are just funny and nothing
else. I should like to return to this point later, but first I want to say something
about the author of the
Raymond Queneau has written all the books you see here on the
table—and others which I haven’t been able to get hold of. He is a
poet—not just a writer of poetry, but a poet in the wider sense. He is also a
scholar and mathematician. He is a member of the
Goncourt (and they have only 10 members, in comparison with the 40 of the Académie
Française), and he is one of the top boys of the publishing house of Gallimard. But
he is a kind of writer who tends to puzzle people in this country because of his breadth
and range—you can’t classify him. He is one of the most influential and
esteemed people in French literature—but he can write a poem like this:
si j’écrivais un poème
pour la postérité?
la belle idée
je me sens sûr de moi
j’y dis merde et remerde
qui attendait son poème
Queneau, you see, is not limited, and he doesn’t take himself
over-seriously. He’s too wise. He doesn’t limit himself to being either
serious or frivolous—or
even, I might say, to being either a
scientist or an artist. He’s both. He uses everything that he finds in life for
his poetry—and even things that he doesn’t find in life, such as a
mathematically disappearing dog, or a proud trojan horse who sits in a French bar and
drinks gin fizzes with silly humans
And all this is, I think, the reason
why you find people in England who don’t know who Queneau is. Two of his novels
were published here, by John Lehmann, in English translations, about 10 years ago. They
were, I think, not very successful here. Even though the critics thought they were
writing favourably about them. I was looking through the reviews of one of
—the other day, and this brings me back to what I
was saying about Queneau’s wit and lightness of touch being possibly
misleading—the book’s very brilliance seemed to blind the critics to the
fact that it was
a light-hearted little fantasy . .
Time & Tide
came down to Parish Magazine style: “This
novel is of the kind called ‘so very french’. It is all very unassuming and
amusing, and most of us enjoy this kind of fun.” According to the current way of
thinking (or not-thinking), it seems that if we are to enjoy anything then we must not
have to think about it, and, conversely, if we are to think about anything, then we
mustn’t enjoy it. This is a calamitous and idiotic division of functions.
And this, I think, brings me to the
Exercices de Style.
is a linguist, and he also has a passionate interest in the French language. He has
given a lot of thought to one aspect of it—the French language as
spoken. In Batons, Chiffres et Lettres,
consider spoken French to be a different language, a very different language, from
written French.” And in the same book, he says: “I came to realise that
modern written French must free itself from the conventions which still hem it in,
(conventions of style, spelling and vocabulary) and then it will soar like a butterfly
away from the silk cocoon spun by the grammarians of the 16th century and the poets of
the 17th century. It also seemed to me that the first statement of this new language
should be made not by describing some popular event in a novel (because people could
mistake one’s intentions), but, in the same way as the men of the 16th century
used the modern languages instead of latin for writing their theological or
philosophical treatises, to put some philosophical dissertation into spoken