The Skin of Dreams 
by Raymond Queneau, translated by Chris Clarke.
NYRB, 203 pp., $16.95, January, 978 1 68137 770 4
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‘Si tu t’imagines,’ Juliette Gréco sang. ‘If you imagine.’ It was her first time singing in public, on 22 June 1949, at the Boeuf sur le Toit cabaret, the beginning of her seven-decade reign as the first lady of French chanson. Both the venue and the song were selected by Gréco’s unlikely svengali, Jean-Paul Sartre. François Mauriac, three years away from his Nobel Prize, was in the audience. So was Marlon Brando. After the concert he gave Gréco a ride home on his motorbike. ‘Si tu t’imagines,’ indeed.

But the song isn’t a wish-upon-a-star fantasy. ‘Imagine’, here, is used in its finger-wagging, admonitory sense: you’ve got another think coming if you imagine that … That what? The next line is the song’s best, a sound poetry joke. Over the music-box twinkle, Gréco suddenly glitches, ‘xa va xa va xa’, clicking plosives like the needle skipping on a record, until the line resolves: ‘va durer toujours’. If you want to be boring about it, ‘xa va’ = ‘que ça va’: ‘If you imagine/That this will, that this will, that this/Will last for ever …’ But the poem that Sartre chose, and had set to music, was by Raymond Queneau. And Queneau spells it ‘xa’.

Ten years later, in the summer of 1959, the French edition of Elle magazine reported on a new and virulent linguistic disease sweeping the country. ‘The Zazie phenomenon is ravaging France like an epidemic. In the streets and on the métro, from the mountains to the beaches, we are all “speaking Zazie”.’ That summer, simply everyone was imitating the insouciant, potty-mouthed heroine of Queneau’s latest novel, Zazie dans le métro. ‘Unbearable’, Elle’s columnist mock-harrumphed.

But Zazie is hardly the only character in the book whose speech seems designed to get up the noses of a certain class of reader. Set over the course of a weekend in Paris, the novel breezes through strikes and riots and abductions as a thwarted but persistent paedophile hounds Zazie and attempts to assault her aunt. Giving languid pursuit, Zazie’s uncle Gabriel tries to mollify everyone by inviting them to his drag show. Throughout, everyone speaks some variety or other of slang. The book opens with Gabriel’s one-word assessment of the crowds at the Gare d’Austerlitz and their personal hygiene: ‘Doukipudonktan’. As with ‘xa va’, to make sense of it one needs to sound it out: ‘D’où qu’ils puent donc tant?’ ‘Holifartwatastink’, as the novel’s first translators had it. Later, Zazie will reveal her obsession with ‘blouddjinnzes’, a fashionable variety of American legwear, and once again readers are forced to mutter the word aloud.

To be fair to Queneau, the reason everyone was ‘speaking Zazie’ in 1959 was because that’s how they spoke anyway. It was just that Queneau had the temerity to transcribe the laconic patterns of everyday speech – its elisions and inversions, its slang and its borrowings – and put them into literary fiction. And besides, he had been doing it in his novels for a quarter of a century.

The idea had come to Queneau on a visit to Greece in the early 1930s. There he learned about the dispute between adherents of the two rival forms of the Greek language: the archaic, revivalist Katharevousa, harking back to classical Greek, and the modern, vernacular Demotic. Queneau recognised a similar gulf between literary French and the contemporary spoken language: ‘I came to realise that modern, written French must free itself from the conventions that still hem it in.’ What was needed was an overhaul, an attentiveness to everyday speech, which would bring about a new written language, a ‘néo-français’, corresponding to the language as it was actually spoken.

Such a shift would have to encompass not just spelling and vocabulary, but syntax too. Another novel, Le Dimanche de la vie (1951), opens with the sentence: ‘He didn’t suspect that each time he passed her shop she watched him, the shopkeeper, the soldier Brû.’ It’s not that hard to parse: the pronouns (she, he) have their referents at the end of the sentence (the shopkeeper, the soldier). It’s the kind of thing we might say without batting an eyelid: ‘What’s he like, this friend of yours?’ But in a novel at mid-century it sounds like someone with a point to prove.

Still, there is something else going on in that opening sentence. It describes the moment, fifty years earlier, when Queneau’s parents met. His father, Auguste, was a soldier, back from campaigns in Tonkin and Senegal and recently installed in Le Havre. Queneau’s mother, Josephine, ran a haberdashery in the town and noticed the new arrival as he passed her window. They were married in 1901, with Auguste moving in to help run the shop. Eighteen months later their only child was born.

At school Raymond was something of a prodigy. He began writing poetry aged ten; at twelve he wrote his first novel. Most of the juvenilia – some 3804 pages, or four kilos of paper (right from the start Queneau was an assiduous recorder of details) – was thrown on a bonfire when he was fifteen. But his personal bibliography listed the titles of everything he wrote, and suggests that the early stories were in the Jules Verne mode: ‘Les Aventures d’Anderson’, ‘La Révolte noire’. Another lost tale, ‘Roman fou’ (‘Crazy Novel’), written around Queneau’s fourteenth birthday, stands out for its hint of preoccupations to come. Its subtitle is ‘Kakotrinomaneimatétribégorgodiégésimuthiquie’. What are we seeing here? Precociousness, certainly, and a knack for languages. But also a Carrollian silliness, the kind of playfulness that wants to take erudition and shake the heaviness out it.

At seventeen, Queneau left for Paris to study philosophy. His journal from these years is pretty bleak: lots of angst, lots of billiards. In the winter of 1924, however, he fell in with the Surrealists. For a time, he double-dated with André Breton. Breton had married Simone Kahn, a Surrealist salonnière, and Queneau followed him by marrying her sister Janine. In the Bretonian world, however, once André was done with someone he expected his circle to shun them too. So when Breton left Simone and Queneau refused to ostracise his sister-in-law, he found himself excluded from the Surrealist movement and harbouring a ‘passionate hatred’ for it.

The genesis of the animosity was personal, but it quickly acquired a theoretical flavour when Queneau denounced Surrealism as intellectually facile. Automatic writing, he argued, was mere gormless passivity, with the poet waiting ‘open-mouthed for inspiration like an entomologist hoping to catch an insect’. The Surrealist revolution would not liberate the writer, since ‘inspiration which consists in blindly obeying every impulse is in reality a slavery.’ Ever the classicist, Queneau looked back to earlier models: the dramatist ‘who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of rules that he is familiar with is freer than the poet who writes whatever comes into his head’. In setting himself against Surrealism, Queneau was working out a personal manifesto that he would uphold for the next forty years, the idea that real writing requires effort, planning, revision, technique. For the kind of technique he had in mind, however, he would have to look beyond French models.

We can tell that Ulysses represented more of a project for Queneau than most of the books he ploughed through in his prodigious everyday reading. He bought a notebook, gave it a title page in English (‘The Little Cyclopaedia’), and jotted down all the difficult or unusual words he encountered, along with their French translations. ‘Snotgreen’ = ‘vert-pituite’. He also copied out the so-called Gilbert schema, which lists a governing Homeric parallel, art or science, colour, symbol, bodily organ and rhetorical technique for each of Ulysses’s eighteen episodes, predetermining the way Joyce would approach the narrative. You can sense Queneau’s excitement at seeing this type of organisation. Just as he mocked the Surrealists as clueless butterfly-catchers, so he despaired of the free-form novel: ‘Anyone can drive an indeterminate number of seemingly lifelike characters along before him, like a flock of geese, across an empty plain measuring some indeterminate number of pages or chapters. No matter what, the result will always be a novel.’ As for himself, ‘I cannot countenance such laxity.’

Under the surface, then, Queneau’s novels follow their own schema, a roster of rules governing, among other things, the number of chapters, the narrative voice to be used in each and the roles and distribution of the characters. His first three novels all contain buried hints at cyclicality by, for example, having the same first and last sentence, or repeating a term or motif in their opening and closing passages. Writing a novel, for Queneau, should be no different from writing a poem: it requires obedience to formal strictures that have been determined in advance. Towards the end of his life, in a broadcast for Belgian radio, he would describe himself and his colleagues in the Oulipo – the literary collective founded around him in 1960 – as ‘rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape’. Better a rat than an entomologist.

With their hidden structures and their specific concern with the French language, it would be fair to imagine that translating Queneau’s books is a beastly task. Nevertheless, thanks in large part to the great Barbara Wright, he has been fairly well served in this respect. (Wright’s wry, no-nonsense prefaces to her translations are little masterpieces in themselves, full of brisk practicality: ‘All translation, without exception, is difficult, and I am never quite sure why people imagine that Queneau is more difficult to translate than anyone else. Is it because of his puns?’)

The bigger problem for Queneau in the anglosphere has been that his work has tended to be received differently outside France. Take Pierrot mon ami, which tells the story of a guileless fairground worker who finds himself on the fringes of a conspiracy involving arson, property development, fakirs and Eastern princes. Since the novel follows the sweet, incurious Pierrot, we only catch glimpses of the bigger plot happening around him: it’s not just a whodunnit but also a whattheydone. When Pierrot came out in 1942, Albert Camus reviewed it as ‘an ambiguous fairy tale blending the spectacles of everyday life with a timeless melancholy’; the philosopher Alexandre Kojève saw the novel’s passive, likeable hero as an avatar of the Hegelian sage. Compare and contrast with the New Statesman, whose reviewer concluded that ‘Pierrot is simply a light-hearted fantasy’, or Time and Tide: ‘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.’ Talk about faint praise. At least Iris Murdoch could see what the fuss was about. For her, the novel was an early touchstone. She wrote to Queneau: ‘Translating this little piece of Pierrot I felt such a feeling of joy and triumph – it is a clue, I can see the road more clearly, I can feel more clearly what I want and I am able to.’

Queneau’s next novel continued the theme of the outsider separated from the main action by placing its frustrated hero in the gap between suburban reality and the fantasies of the silver screen. Loin de Rueil was serialised between September and December 1944 in Les Lettres françaises, a clandestine Resistance journal suddenly adapting to life above board after the liberation of Paris. Three years later Loin de Rueil was the first of Queneau’s novels to appear in English, in a translation by the American diplomat H.J. Kaplan. Kaplan wrestles valiantly with the punning and slang, the jump cuts from one register to another, but the overall result is messy and bewildering, like someone repeating a joke they didn’t quite understand. It is satisfying, then, to see that New York Review Books – which has previously reissued existing translations of Queneau (by Wright) – has this time commissioned a new one. Chris Clarke, a member of the Outranspo, a collective of Oulipo-inspired translators, is assured with the novel’s delicate balance of reality and fantasy, while having the confidence to be inventive with the jokes.

In one important detail, however, Clarke follows Kaplan. While ‘La Peau des rêves’ (‘The Skin of Dreams’) was the working title that appeared on Queneau’s typescript, it was abandoned before the novel was published. For an English readership its replacement, Loin de Rueil (‘Far from Rueil’), is off-puttingly obscure – not to mention virtually unpronounceable. Rueil is the small town on the outskirts of Paris in which the novel begins and ends. Queneau had sketched out his plot to be symmetrical. Its principal locations (barring one chapter added late the manuscript) are Rueil, then Paris, then a small, unnamed town in the provinces, then back through Paris to Rueil again. It starts and finishes – more symmetry – not with its main character, but with the louche, neurotic poet des Cigales, for whom the limited horizons of the suburbs are a blessing: ‘All of Rueil admires me and Nanterre as well and Suresnes and Courbevoie.’ Across the Seine in Paris, the situation is rather different: ‘they snicker when they hear my name mentioned, which actually never happens, so they’re not even snickering.’ The comforts and pains of provincialism. ‘I know all sorts of people in Rueil who have never even seen Notre-Dame,’ des Cigales’s flatmate announces. Fair enough: Rueil has dancing, moules-frites and a cinema – what more could you want? But for Jacques L’Aumône, our central character, it is the cinema – the source of his fantasies and the motor of his ambition – that makes staying in Rueil impossible.

Queneau’s life, he once observed, began at the same time as the cinema era. He watched the earliest classics – Fantômas, Les Vampires, Le Voyage dans la Lune – when they were fresh, catching them with his father in the movie theatres of Le Havre: the Pathé, the Kursaal. Looking back, he recalled the raucous disruptiveness of the audience, the groaning mass of sailors and harbour prowlers, and The Skin of Dreams captures the idea of the cinema as both an attentive and a distracted experience. Queneau notes the erotics of sitting in the dark among strangers, of speculatively resting your leg against your neighbour’s, of silent territorial disputes over the armrest, and the ludicrousness of the pianist – this is the silent era – hammering clumsily while the audience fight or grope or grumble through the documentary reel at the start of the programme. But when the main feature starts a transformation occurs, from inattention to pure, immersive identification. When Jacques gazes up at the cowboy hero on screen, he ‘isn’t the least bit surprised to recognise him as Jacques L’Aumône’.

Jacques, then, is a Mittyish protagonist, a daydreamer inserting himself triumphantly into the narratives he encounters. Queneau makes it hard to track the point at which his imagination takes over. As an adult, Jacques boxes: it matters to the plot that he can handle himself. But when he thinks of himself as ‘a (light heavyweight) boxing (amateur) champion (of France)’, we have to assume that the parenthetical additions are marks of his impulse to private self-aggrandisement. One long paragraph unspools his imaginary employments: ‘captain in the Royal Netherlands Army, plant manager, attaché to the embassy in Peking, banker, clown (famous), painter (famous), archivist-palaeographer, midshipman (aboard the last tall ship), racing cyclist (winner of the Tour d’Europe), world chess champion (inventor of the L’Aumône Gambit and the f2-f3, h7-h5 opening) …’ Twenty lines later, the list has slipped beyond fantasies of wealth or success into absurdity: ‘triumvir, uhlan, plumber, tetrarch, retiarius, shah, salt smuggler, white elephant (by magical transformation), adulterous grasshopper, Chinese tunic, lump of sugar, melting nub of soap’.

And yet, when Jacques leaves Rueil, performance – acting out fantasies in front of an audience – becomes his reality. He founds a ludicrous, derided theatre troupe in the provinces, then begins to take understudy roles on the Parisian stage; he is given parts as a movie extra, then a few lines in an early talkie. Finally, after a spell as a documentary maker, we see him as a languid Hollywood star, operating under an anglicised version of his name: James Charity. In the novel’s last act, he returns to France to make a film of his life, a mise-en-abyme in which the action of the story we have just read is replayed at high speed, beginning with the young actor climbing through the cinema screen to play the part of the cowboy. The film, naturally, is called The Skin of Dreams, and its producer is one ‘Ramon Curnough’. Simply sound it out – like ‘blouddjinnzes’ or ‘xa va’ – for confirmation that the novel has taken a metatextual turn.

At a screening in Rueil, Jacques’s family enjoy the film, but none of them recognises Charity as the boy who left them behind. Des Cigales comes closest to making the connection. He experiences an odd sense of having seen the characters somewhere before. Undressing for bed that night, he tries to explain it to his lover. She brushes the thought away: ‘Sometimes we imagine things.’ ‘We most certainly do,’ he replies. In a nicely cinematic touch Clarke has him doing his best Laurel and Hardy impression: ‘We certainly do.’

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