One Herring in a Shoal

John Sturrock

  • Oeuvres complètes: Tome II: Romans I by Raymond Queneau, edited by Henri Godard
    Gallimard, 1760 pp, €68.00, April 2002, ISBN 2 07 011439 2

In Pierrot mon ami, the last of the eight novels laid end to end in this life-enhancing volume, the footling but resilient Pierrot works on and off at a fairground, where his job description includes steering teenage girls by hand past a jet of air that wraps their skirts around their thighs. Low-tech as sideshows go no doubt, but it helps to sustain the morale of the laddish tendency at the Palace de la Rigolade, or Palace of Fun, on a fairground modelled by Queneau on the celebrated Luna-Park in Neuilly, to which it’s good to imagine him, that living A-Z to the city of Paris and its public transport, bussing out, with a view to researching the site rather than wreaking a pile-up on the dodgems.

As the setting for a Queneau novel, a funfair couldn’t be improved on, scaled-up version that it is of two other vernacular sites for which he felt unqualified affection, the neighbourhood fleapit and the café: places where people whose working lives do little to make them happy can go on the cheap and be restored, by the celluloid effluent from the Californian Dream Factory or the contents of the p’tits verres Queneau’s characters tend to down at all hours (or, as in his own truant case when he was a philosophy student in Paris, by the pinball machines and bar billiards). And if it seems off-key for an amiable loser like Pierrot having actually to work at a funfair, I read that to be the novelist saying, with the indirection of which he was the master, that what you now have in your hands is also a palace of fun, but you might remember the hours of work it has taken to erect.

Something soon brought out by the lengthy but valuable annotation to this volume is that Queneau, who was a part-time but real mathematician, relied on numerology to decide beforehand the order in which things were to go in his novels. Certain binding co-ordinates once plotted, he could let a maverick fancy off the leash and play the word-games which make reading him both a pleasure and an education in the further reaches of the French language – and on occasion a challenge, as when he grants the dreaded Franglais a half-title to citizenship by respelling English words as unlikely-looking French ones: ouiski or coquetèle may not stop anyone in their tracks, but the same doesn’t go for le kékouok (which was danced in the 1920s) or le queneau-coutte (the blow that horizontalises heavyweights). Add to these his other lexical and phonetic deformations, his upmarket puns and the rollicking argot and you can see why the young Iris Murdoch, who was Queneau’s admirer, friend but not, for once, we gather from her recent biographer, lover, made a poor fist of translating Pierrot mon ami.

Some will object that bunched pages of endnotes don’t belong with novels like these, whose mood tends so agreeably to the carnivalesque, and seekers after the comic have been enjoying Queneau for decades past without academic editors being sent for to put a straighter face on him. Yet the much that the present editors have to tell about their author’s less than overt philosophical agendas, his religious interests, both straight and esoteric, the sly topical allusions and the literary and other in-jokes makes him at once a more substantial writer and a yet more likeable one. Read this compendium all the way through and you appreciate as never before how versatile Queneau could be when making fiction out of the things that weren’t right in his own life; and not only versatile but highly diverting, too, as he worked to take the sting out of the metaphysical and psychosexual anxieties that had troubled him in his twenties and went on doing so even as he was introducing them in increasingly burlesque disguises into his novels.

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[*] Witch Grass (NYRB, 313 pp., $14, February, 1 59017 031 8).