Straight answers are hard to come by in Normandy, a hoary French legend assures us. Ask a simple question, and your only reward will be a shrugging "maybe yes, maybe no." To be sure, this allegation is worth what every stereotype is worth, which is to say, nothing, and to be sure, Raymond Queneau was Norman only by birth (he left his native Le Havre for Paris at age eighteen and scarcely looked back), but the fact remains that his life might best be defined as the story of a man who refused to make up his mind. An assiduous Surrealist in his twenties, he violently renounced the Surrealist creed in his thirties; a brilliantly untraditional traditionalist, he made an insistent and eloquent case for the value of rules and constraint in writing even as he was composing novels and poetry that read at first like unbridled and uncontrolled flights of fancy. He deftly interweaves a lighthearted sort of play with acute and often anguished meditations on being, knowledge, and writing; the author of some of the most hilarious novels of the twentieth century, he also penned a remarkably vitriolic denunciation of the humor of his day. Once, as a young man, he called himself a Muslim; later he would plunge headlong into Catholicism, then Taoism, all of this punctuated by periods of apparently blithe disregard for such matters, notwithstanding his lifelong interest in the semimystical esotericism of RenÚ GuÚnonˇnone of which shows up explicitly in his published writing, all of which shows up implicitly with dazzling clarity. "As soon as I put forward an assertion," he once said in a radio interview with Georges Charbonnier, "I realize that the opposite assertion is more or less as interesting"ˇeven the opposite of that very assertion, clearly, for passionate belief seems to have come as naturally to him as quizzical doubt.

Queneau's work reveals a restless, encyclopedic mind, impatient with limits and definitions. Consider only this small sampling: He is the author of a book˝length verse history of the cosmos; of another book˝length verse narrative of his childhood, psychoanalysis, and cure; of sharp and moving essays on Matisse and Vlaminck; of an edition of Alexandre KojŔve's lectures on Hegel; of magnificent volumes of poetry on death, cityscapes, countryside, and water; of prose poems inspired by the combinational properties of the I Ching; of melancholic, hilarious novels that celebrate disengagement without alienation but which might also, on closer inspection, prove to be reveries on the nature of history or mythology or aesthetics or even, gloriously, the redeeming power of love; of a slender tome containing one hundred trillion sonnets; of a (for me impenetrable) overview of the frontiers of mathematical theory. And this is only a beginning of a beginning; it's difficult to think of an aspect of twentieth˝century intellectual life that did not find its way into Queneau's inkwell at one time or another.

After his split from the Surrealists, Queneau kept his distance from anything that might be called a literary movement, but a close look at any broad tendency of the last century's literature, from Surrealism to postmodernism, will reveal his unmistakable shadow. Robbe˝Grillet called him a forerunner of the New Novel; Camus and Ionesco considered him a kindred spirit. Sartre was a friend, as were Georges Bataille, Iris Murdoch, and Georges Perec; Lacan was a fan, and so was Barthes, and so is Updike. Twenty˝seven years after his death, his voice can still be heard and his imagination still glimpsed in the works of young or youngish writers like Jean Echenoz, Lydie Salvayre, and Marie NDiaye. More concretely, OULIPOˇa loose confederation of authors with an interest in the productive possibilities of literary formalism, founded by Queneau and mathematician Franšois Le Lionnais in the early '60s and still guided by his tutelary spiritˇcontinues to engender some of France's most engaging, moving, and brilliant writing, by longtime members like Marcel BÚnabou and Jacques Roubaud, for instance, as well as by relative newcomers such as Jacques Jouet and Michelle Grangaud. In short, I can't think of another onetime Surrealist writer who has informed the French literary scene, past and present, in quite the way Queneau has.

How to explain, then, his relative anonymity on this side of the Atlantic? How can such a joyously protean writer have so long intoxicated only adventurous readers and literature professors? Louis Malle turned Queneau's best˝known novel, Zazie in the MÚtro, into a film (off˝puttingly cute but perennially popular); this and his other novels, along with many of his essays and poems, have appeared in fine English translations, most notably by Barbara Wright and more recently by Madeleine Velguth. Here he is, then, here he has long been, ready to be embraced by the American public as he has been by the French, and yet on our shores his readers remain a very happy few. There is thus good reason to rejoice that New York Review Books has chosen to mark the centennial of Queneau's birth with reissues of two of his most gut˝bustingly funny and erudite novels: Witch Grass and We Always Treat Women Too Well.

Witch Grass was Queneau's first novel, published in 1933. The four years since his split with the Surrealists had been an unhappy time of drift and failure. In the summer of 1932 he embarked on a long trip to Greece, where a visit to the Acropolis brought him a startling revelation. Overlooking the Theater of Dionysus, gazing at the harmonious proscenium and the horizon beyond, he realized that human endeavors need not necessarily be base, transitory, and trivial; if undertaken with lucidity, man's creations can participate in the transcendent truths of the eternal. With this epiphany, beautifully, if indirectly, recounted in his later novel Odile, came Queneau's birth as a writer and the inspiration for his first novelˇthough one would almost certainly never know it from Witch Grass's weirdly aimless story. An anonymous bank clerk (so stripped of mental life by his numbing work that he has long existed only as a "silhouette") sees a mildly odd sight one day, which spurs him to thought and thus to fully three˝dimensional being, a transformation noted by a solitary, more worldly observer idling in a nearby cafŔ. Fascinated by each other's foreignness, these two become inseparable companions. Through a series of what Queneau's narrator calls "carefully prepared chances," they begin to frequent a workers' eatery in a grim industrial suburb of Paris, where they become embroiled in a collective obsession with the vast treasure that may or may not lie concealed in the hovel of a nearby junk dealer. At this point the novel eludes my meager skills at summary; various schemes are hatched, various obstacles encountered, and eventually a war breaks out, and that's more or less that. Well, not quite: There's also an egg slicer, which inexplicably fascinates the narrator, a failed hanging and a successful one, a mysterious gypsy, an evil dwarf, the end of civilization, the end of time, the end of the novel, and then its beginning. And I still can't help but feel I've left something out.

Certainly the wild imagination at work in Witch Grass recalls the Surrealists' obsession with the irrational, but the intellectual framework of this novel could scarcely be more distant from their ethos of unconscious and unregulated creation. Appearances to the contrary, this is a densely structured bookˇstructured in Queneau's inimitable style, that is, by a system at once subjective and mathematical, meaningfully motivated and not far from frivolous. Thus, the text is divided into seven chapters because there are seven letters in each of Raymond Auguste Queneau's names; each chapter comprises thirteen sections because at the time Queneau saw thirteen as a beneficent number (since its dire associations deny the possibility of hope, and hope, of course, is the source of all pain). Seven times thirteen equals ninety˝one, which as it happens is the sum of all numbers from one to thirteen; furthermore, the numbers nine and one, when added according to numerological procedure, reduce to oneˇthe number of eternal unhappiness, in Queneau's thinking, the symbol of death and the infernal return to life (which is indeed one aspect of the story that Witch Grass tells). Each of the ninety˝one sections obeys the unities of time, place, and action, as well as a fourth unity of narrative mode; the thirteenth section of each chapter is placed outside the current of those that precede it, and the novel's final section lies outside the novel itselfˇeven as it leads straight back into itˇby a process at once simple, mysterious, gratuitous, and necessary. There's more, but that will do for a start: To cut this list short, let's say simply that Queneau dreamed of a novel as thoroughly and harmoniously motivated as a well˝wrought sonnet (or a Greek theater), and in Witch Grass he realizes this ambition in stunningly virtuosic fashion.

But behind this formal, quantifiable structure lies another, one that is vaguer, more haunting, the effect of what Queneau called rhyming situations: a plethora of half˝hidden echoes, far too ghostly to be called leitmotivs, imposing on even an inattentive reader a troubling and uncertain sensation of dÚjÓ vu and suggesting to an attentive reader an almost hallucinatory system of codes with no clear meaning. Why, for instance, the novel's curious preoccupation with shoes and feet, and particularly worn˝down shoes and painful feet? Or the equally curious preoccupation with hats and heads, and particularly damaged hats, heads, and necks? To create an ambient hum of pain and suffering, no doubt, just as the repeated allusions to fish and water might be explained by the fact that the astronomically minded Queneau was a Pisces, and the novel's many canines by the fact that Queneau saw the base, lowly dog as one˝half of his personal totem, the other being the noble, soaring oak. But why the birds? Why the recurrent scratching or grating sound imagery? In the end, the significance of all these echoes might be simply that they exist, invisible to those who do not note them but nonetheless there; for those who do note them, on the other hand, they are perfectly visible but remain vaguely and uncannily inexplicable, insistently crying out for interpretation but never allowing themselves to be interpreted in any coherent and definitive way.

In other words, these little echoes sketch out a rather dark theory of knowledge and knowability. Truth exists, but we may well not see it; should we happen to see it, we will almost certainly fail to understand it. This is the moment to reveal a second inspiration behind the writing of Witch Grass, one very different from the epiphany in the Theater of Dionysus, for this novel began, Queneau has said (and later denied), as a translation of RenÚ Descartes's Discourse on Method into modern spoken French. A translation perhaps, but more important, I think, an overturning; it is true that in the first moments the central character neatly and literally incarnates the principle of Descartes's Cogito, ergo sum, but from there on it all goes downhill at a frightening clip. Descartes shows us the human mind leaping surely and smoothly from one truth to the next; in Witch Grass, the exercise of reason leads only into uncertainty, incomprehension, and error. Behind the gleaming lucidity of the novel's structure, in other words, lies a world of such diabolical unknowability that "I don't know" is the only sensible philosophical statement and disorientation the only plausible stance. This disorientation is only exacerbated by Queneau's breathtakingly troublesome wordplay (the uncomfortable coexistence of the spoken and the written, the joyous dissonance of the transcription of the former by the latter, as in "Hetried, hetried, hetriedakillme!"), with the conventions of literary representation (offering us, for example, a narrator so unreliable that he assures us "it's not true" in the middle of an unlikely descriptive passageˇor does that make him an exceptionally reliable narrator?), with our naive faith in the ontological solidity of the textual world (showing us, for instance, in the figure of Pierre Le Grand, a character who is so flagrantly not what he is that we really do have to wonder what the meaning of "is" might be).

Witch Grass, then, is a novel that defies definition. Open the book at one point and you will find a wonderfully desolate, high˝realist description of the Parisian suburbs; at another, you will find a travesty of provincial journalism that is Surrealist loopiness at its finest; at another, you might recognize a fleeting allusion to Plato, or Gnosticism, or the cult of Isis. Open it at any point at all and you will laugh; but at the same time you will be astounded at the remarkable intelligence at work there and perhaps frightened at the vertiginous questions before you and the profoundly comic and profoundly serious manner in which those questions are distorted, played with, and never answered. If it seems that all this somehow clashes with the rigorously ordered nature of the novel's construction, then you have stumbled onto the essential nature of Queneau's writing and thinking: a simultaneous and uncontradictory attraction to order and chaos, harmony and discord, Apollo and Dionysus, the oak and the dog.

Now, it would be egregiously wrong to suggest that Queneau's richly varied writing could be reduced to this one dual principle, but in fact it recurs in a particularly striking way in We Always Treat Women Too Well, which is nevertheless a very different sort of book. Published in 1947, it appeared in the wake of the great success of Boris Vian's I Spit on Your Graves, a novel of which Vian claimed to be only the translator, crediting its authorship to a fictive American by the name of Vernon Sullivan. Vian's story concerns a light˝skinned African American able to pass as white in the racist American South; his powers of seduction allow him to take spectacular revenge when he finally reveals his race. In We Always Treat Women Too Well Queneau explicitly sets out to imitate his friend Vian's duplicitous exploit, butˇtrue to formˇhe adds a sumptuous layer of irony.

Queneau's novel claims to have been written in Gaelic by a young Irishwoman, Sally Mara, and translated into French by one Michel Presle, her former French tutor (Queneau's name appears nowhere on the novel's first edition). It offers us a not entirely veridical retelling of an episode from the Irish uprising of 1916: A band of Sinn FÚin insurgents invade a Dublin post office, executing two employees andˇgentlemen that they are, deep downˇdriving out the rest. All but one, that is, for they have failed to check the bathroom, where they would have found a certain Gertie Girdle doing her business, lost in an interior monologue ("These modern lavatories are still not perfect, this flushing system makes such a noise, goodness gracious! a noise like a riot, not that I've ever heard a riot but I've sometimes heard a rabble, a rabble brawling and babbling, this flushing system makes a noise like that, it bawls"). Soon Gertie's presence is revealed, much to the dismay of the insurgents, who clearly do not trust themselves around women; they have sworn an oath to behave "correctly" at all times. But the presence of this nubile young postal worker is a distressingly powerful temptation. One of them seduces the virginal Gertie, who, discovering the pleasures of sex, sets about seducing the remaining insurgents one by one, obliterating their prized sexual correctness and eventually their uprising itself. Before the next day is done, Gertie will deliver the survivors (and herself) into the hands of her fiancÚ, Commodore Sidney Cartwright of the Royal Navy.

It's difficult not to admire the shamelessly gratuitous choice of the Easter uprising as a pretext for a hackneyed pornographic mise˝en˝scŔne, but we should also note the pleasingly perverse symmetry at work here: Just as Gertie destroys the invaders' orderly ways, the ham˝fisted pornographic atmosphere undoes the gravity of the historical moment (already undermined by the fact that the insurgents all bear the names of minor characters from Ulysses and use as their password and battle cry a hearty "Finnegans wake!"), while the pornography and violence are themselves undercut by the narrator's relentless ironic detachment. Here, for instance, is Queneau's depiction of the moments following an insurgent's beheading by a missile shell in midclimax: "Gertie, screaming, wrenched herself free, and what remained of Caffrey fell inelegantly to the floor, like a sawdust doll mutilated by the tyranny of a child. . . . Fairly impressed . . . by the dead, shell˝devastated Caffrey, she retreated to the window, her thoughts in some disarray, trembling, covered all over with blood, and moist with a posthumous tribute."

Queneau's perversely and relentlessly playful language renders his novel useless as pornography, as history, or as gorefest. Just what are we meant to be taking seriously here? Nothing, we might answer, and yet there is in fact a serious point behind it all. In part at least, Queneau wrote We Always Treat Women Too Well as a parodic broadside against novels like James Hadley Chase's 1942 best˝selling thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish, in whose prurient blend of sex and violence he saw a repellent crypto˝fascist spirit. At the same time, the novel does not exactly read like a sincere condemnation of such writing either. In Queneau's usual slippery manner, the book simply refuses to be any one thing: It is a historical novel with a flippantly skewed vision of its own history, a pornographic novel that can't manage to take sex seriously, a condemnation of pornography that betrays a certain fond relish for its target, a novel of sex and violence with a distracting and unlikely Joyce fixation. Like Witch Grass, We Always Treat Women Too Well forms a perfectly undefinable whole, serious and comical, or comical because serious, wise and deliberately foolish. Indeed, it would not be too much to say that the novel undoes itself in much the same way that Gertie undoes the insurgent's plan: The moment it sets out to be orderly, to be one specific thing, it cannot resist an imperious urge to defy its own order and to become something else.

There is a double edge to all this blissful liberation. The insurgents' uprising leads them only to an early grave or a prison cell, and Gertie's explosive discovery of free love will not save her from what will surely be the stifling tedium of her upcoming marriage to the bovine Cartwright. What seems an escape from constraint is thus nothing other than a return to constraint, much as, in Witch Grass, the anarchic openness and unlimited possibilities afforded by an intellectual awakening lead straight back into the fetal ignorance that preceded it. In other words, we have in these two books a highly ambiguous meditation on freedom and constraint. Witch Grass celebrates constraint in writing in order to speak of freedom, but of a freedom whose end point is only another constraint, this one not productive but stifling; Gertie's awakening affords her no real liberation and furthermore servesˇwhether she intends it or not, it remains highly unclearˇto put a violent end to the insurgents' drive for independence.

The two novels thus seem to argue simultaneously for and against the virtues of constraint, for and against the possibility of freedom, reflecting in two very different manners Queneau's fundamental refusal to accept any single answer, any single truth, any absolute. This might seem a strange refusal for one whose origins as a writer lie in a revelation of transcendent harmonies and eternal verities, but in fact the contradiction is purely cosmetic. Perhaps one has to believe in Truth to find delight in playing with its terrifying slipperiness; perhaps one has to believe in the possibility of a perfectly lucid writing to take such productive pleasure in writing's distortions, disguises, and puzzles; perhaps it takes a real faith in the absolute to understand how desperately funny and laughably tragic its inaccessibility can be.

Happily, Barbara Wright's grand translations offer pleasures in all ways congruent and equal to those of the original. Her English language Queneau writes with the same dry abandon as the French one, with the same erudite and disruptive affection for the odd things language can do. To be sure, there is much in Queneau that defies translation: The title Witch Grass, for instance, is a necessarily partial rendering of Queneau's Le chiendent (which does indeed refer to the name of a particularly tenacious sort of weed but also to a slang term for an obstacle, a hitch, a stumbling block). Still, this is a small thing indeed compared with what can be translated of Queneau, which Wright approaches with an elegant surefootedness and imagination.

Once you've read Queneau, they say, you may well find it difficult to read any other twentieth˝century author; next to him, so many of his contemporaries seem plodding and pallid, too sure of themselves, not as devastatingly sure of the uncertainties of language and knowledge and literature. So is it worth it? Is it a good thing to have your appreciation for other writers spoiled in this way? Maybe yes, maybe no. No, wait. On second thought, yes.

Jordan Stump is the author of Naming and Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau (University of Nebraska Press, 1998).




Related Links

Queneau Bibliography and Research Aid

Queneau's BibliothŔque IdÚale


CollŔge de Pataphysique

Books on Raymond Queneau

Queneau by Jacques Bens. Paris: Gallimard, 1962.

Raymond Queneau by Jacques Joue. Paris: La Manufacture, 1989.

On Naming and Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau by Jordan Stump. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.