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.

We know, from the bits of his journals that were finally published six years ago, that, in the first half of his life at least, Queneau (b. 1903) was a true enfant du siècle, who wasted no time in developing a robust sense of alienation. Home, it quickly turned out, didn’t suit him, or if not home, his father, who kept a hatter’s in Le Havre: something of what life was like in that port of entry during the First World War, for a boy keen on identifying the nationalities and even the regiments of foreign soldiers disembarking in it, is to be gathered from the sixth of the novels included here, Un rude hiver. The boy Queneau came, for reasons that I don’t know he ever spelled out, deeply to resent his father and, just like another resentful provincial schoolboy, Henri Beyle, the future Stendhal, took shelter in mathematics, an escape-route into abstraction, where the appeal was always to reason, never to mere domestic precedence. His hostility towards his father supplies the propellant for his curious second novel, Gueule de pierre, which stands out among his fiction for the wrong reasons, as appearing to have engaged him emotionally to the point where it loses its balance. It has excellent moments, notably at the start, with its hero’s anxious reflections in an aquarium on the watery state of being, spelled as aiguesistence, or what it might be like to be a fish. Answer, not at all nice: who would want to be one herring in a shoal of millions? But the novel as a whole fails to hold together because its allegorical underpinnings are too portentous to sit other than awkwardly with the descents into comedy. In it, an authoritarian father is eventually disposed of by his sons, in what amounts to a replay, couched over the final pages in heightened blank verse, of Freud’s myth of the patricidal primal horde. As if embarrassed, however, that he might be edging too far out into the open in elaborating this act of familial revenge, Queneau turns the thermostat down by giving us a slapstick version of another of his anthropological borrowings: the potlatch, a Native American ceremony of conspicuous depredation which much appealed to youthful hammers of the bourgeois ethos like Georges Bataille and Queneau when they first read about it in the work of Marcel Mauss, for seeming to collide head on with the practices of an acquisitive society. In the potlatch, Kwakiutl notables in the American North-West competed in the public destruction of their most valuable possessions. In Gueule de pierre, the obstructive father-figure, who is also the local mayor, wins a small-town equivalent hands down by taking a submachine-gun to the mountain of crockery he has accumulated for the occasion. This enterprising move has more of the farceur than the monstrous parent about it, so that his ultimate reintegration with his mythical role jars, as indeed do the pages spent on the town’s lesser inhabitants, whose entertainment value as a lowlife supporting cast makes the bad father’s fate seem to belong in another fictional scheme altogether.

By his own account, Queneau went on through life failing to fit in, in circles where it shouldn’t have been beyond him to do so. He became in time a wage-earner in the Paris literary world, working as an adviser and editor for the supreme publishing house of Gallimard, where he took against the socialising that went with the job – even the outdoor drinks parties (les coquetèles no less) that were thought by those who got an invitation to be the last word in socioliterary chic. He didn’t find it hard to reach dark conclusions as to why the easy conviviality required for negotiating these events proved out of reach, but so delicately and engagingly (for us) did his mind work that dark conclusions could always be neutralised by black humour: as in the proto-deconstructionist observation that misanthropy carries its own contradiction within it insofar as the misanthropist is flattering the humanity he has no love for by wasting his feelings on them. Queneau’s misanthropy was short-range: he didn’t extrapolate it beyond the circles he moved in to cover those in which he didn’t. On the contrary: in his books, his sympathy is evident for the characters lower down the social scale who may be louche at best and criminal at worst but who inhabit a world where, in the words of Hegel – of all people – that Queneau once borrowed for an epigraph, ‘men endowed with so good a humour cannot be either bad or base.’ The indefeasible good humour of his characters is Queneau’s gift to the deserving.

High self-esteem was for Queneau the most blameable of vices; its absence a sufficient virtue. So it is with the Chaplinesque Pierrot, who has few if any talents and little luck, but whose final response to losing various jobs and the girl he is keen on is to burst out laughing. Modesty, indeed, was a quality that Queneau idealised to the point where he extended it skywards to the deity, speculating that if God is hidden, it can only be because so perfect a being is necessarily too modest to put himself on show. In the two splendid novels with which he followed Pierrot mon ami, Loin de Rueil and Le Dimanche de la vie, he allows the main characters – both of them the bearers of a circumflex for some deep reason, Jacques l’Aumône in the first case, Valentin Brû in the other – to develop the ambition of becoming saints, though without bringing God or even religion into it. Rather, sainthood à la Queneau is a state characterised by a total absence of vanity, and L’Aumône and Brû, neither of whom can be numbered at this stage of their careers among society’s high achievers, see a promising if hard road leading out of nullity and into sanctity. This being Queneau, however, it’s not lost on them, or at any rate on us, that the aspiration to sainthood could just be the last word in human vanity.

But if modesty is a virtue whose cultivation merely reveals how immodest one is, how can we hope to be modest and still be virtuous? If there’s a way out from this ethical aporia, it can only lie in being modest in moderation, within limits, modestly modest. And that is the position Queneau took up as if to the manner born in his writing. Repelled he may have been by the varying styles and degrees of vanity and pretension which were freely paraded in the literary ecosystem of which he formed part, but if they caused him to brood during the working day, they confirmed to him once he sat down to write that since publishing what you write is an inherently immodest act, you can by writing modestly pass an implied judgment on those around you who wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. Queneau may have drawn as a novelist (and as a poet) on the predominantly unhappy aspects of his own life, but he refused to be the sort of writer who forces his unease on others as though they, too, were required to take it seriously. Instead, he played it artfully down, in a saving awareness that, abnormally intelligent and learned man though he was, he wasn’t thereby fitted to be something grander than an entertainer.

The novels included in this first of what will be two Pléiade volumes of his fiction were first published between 1933 (Le Chiendent: Barbara Wright’s clever and faithful out-of-print translation has now happily reappeared under an American title,[*] witch-grass being what we call couch-grass, the insidious intruder on lawns) and 1942 (Pierrot, whose hero’s mute acquiescence in the downturns in his life may have served as a lesson in endurance for the book’s first readers at that lowest moment of the German Occupation). These were ten years during which Queneau discovered that he’d been wrong to keep telling himself he would never be able to write, that all the reading – he averaged a book a day, and on an impossibly wide spread of subjects – and thinking he had done would never in the end lead anywhere.

His emergence into the literary life is a story to be read more or less openly in Odile, a novel that he published in 1937 and the only one he wrote all the way through in the first person. It starts with its narrator doing his military service in North Africa, where Queneau had done his in the mid-1920s, and then, out of the Army and back, jobless and directionless, in Paris, falling in with a posturing coterie centred on the snobbish Anglarès, who is both a salon Freudian and a salon Marxist. Or, more to the point, who is a caricature of André Breton, the Surrealist capo, with whom Queneau – Breton’s brother-in-law, it so happens – had consorted in the days when he was still testing out the aesthetic (and political) ground. Anglarès and his followers have managed to merge their Freudianism smoothly if a mite defensively with their revolutionary politics by arguing that if you once set the unconscious mind free, the liberation of the proletariat will inevitably follow, because the proletariat is that class in society which suffers from re- rather than oppression: it has been cast as the Id in the high dialectical drama, at war with the bourgeoisie’s Ego. The Queneau-ish narrator is a young man ‘convinced of my own degradation and nullity’, but he is also a mathematician, and mathematics it is, in its wholesome objectivity, that ensures he won’t finally become one of Anglarès’s witless disciples. His mathematical realism, or belief that numbers and their relations are inherent in nature, not a human construct, immunises him against the ideological opportunism of the group; he is ‘closer to Plato than to Marx’, as he puts it. Nor does he share their credulity when it comes to getting in touch with the dead: there’s a jolly scene in which a medium is booked to try and speak with the lost leader, Lenin, in his mausoleum, and where, once she’s been put through, she passes on to her awed clients his posthumous and most unfriendly verdict on Trotsky.

The thrust of Odile is more than just satirical, however, because this is Queneau saying goodbye and good riddance to the years of intellectual uncertainty during which he’d known episodes of dependency, on Surrealism and on Far Left politics, without being able to commit himself unquestioningly to either. (Another dependency, on psychoanalysis, was to prove harder to leave behind.) The novelist finally declares independence, as his narrator abandons the Anglarès crew, Paris and even France, going off on his own to Greece, which is where Queneau went in 1932 and where he wrote most of Le Chiendent. Odile ends with the narrator about to commit himself to the girl of that name, who has earlier grown disillusioned with Paris and gone back to live in a provincial village with her parents. The dénouement makes its point by its triteness: previously, he had told himself he wasn’t going to sink so low as to act the male lead in any such commonplace love-story. To be made at the last to do so is Queneau’s punishment on him(self) for supposing that he deserved a more exclusive outcome.

Not that Queneau ever had plans to settle for triteness, or life in the provinces. He’d seen enough of that as a boy in Le Havre, and if the provinces meant the countryside, that was even less his thing: the countryside was too full of nature for his liking, and the human wildlife of the capital better worth his attention than the native fauna. The provinces could remain as an idea only, as a place where unexceptional people led unexceptional lives. The people and the lives which Queneau liked to spin from his idiosyncratic brain tended, however, in the opposite direction: towards the exceptional. If his novels weren’t going to be set in the parts of Paris where his own life was lived, then a compromise was in order; they must be moved out from the centre of town into the still urban but more ordinary banlieue.

But the where invariably counts for less than the what and the who in a novel by Queneau. Le Chiendent, a suburban novel in principle alone, wastes little time on description as it scampers from one unsuburban event to another by way of pages of irresistibly coarse dialogue. Etienne Marcel, the character who lends the plot a degree of continuity, is in fact a commuter, first encountered as he dives down into the Métro to begin his evening journey back to his outlying home. ‘Encountered’ is perhaps too strong a word: Marcel is introduced first of all as no more than a ‘silhouette’, one of thousands of silhouettes, nameless and without features, visible against ‘the wall of an enormous unbearable building, an edifice which looked as if it were designed for a suffocation’ – un étouffement – ‘and which was a bank’. (There’s more significance in these few words than one might think: Queneau had once worked for four months without any pleasure at all in a Paris bank, and also suffered badly from asthma – hence the étouffement, the word normally used to describe an asthmatic attack.) The silhouette is awaiting the sustained attentions of an observer, or we might as well say a novelist, to plump him out into a third dimension, by giving him a wife, a child and a number of very characterful acquaintances. There are metafictional games afoot already, that’s to say, in the first paragraph of the first novel of a writer then under the influence – too much so, he later admitted – of the André Gide of the Faux-Monnayeurs. Marcel may not quite be a member of the repressed proletariat, but he’s about to be liberated into a dream-world at least partly configured by the promptings of its creator’s unconscious, and a lot more eventful for good or ill than the inside of a bank. The fraught dream-world of Le Chiendent isn’t on the face of it a happy one, visited as it is by suicide, sudden death and widespread moral and material abjection, but so fast and wayward is the (summary-proof) plot that the effect is comic. The dwarfish Bébé Toutout, the novel’s resident bogey, goes around seeking to frighten people, and lives, he boasts, ‘off the cowardice of others’: but he’s too mild and fond of a chat to be much good at frightening and his vocational failure may be taken as proof that Queneau by now knew exactly how he was going to profit from sublimating the devilish urges within himself.

Asked by an interviewer after Le Chiendent had appeared what he had expected to get from Greece, he answered: ‘I didn’t expect anything; I came back other.’ The othering related to two discoveries that he made while he was there. The first concerned language. He was greatly struck by the fact that in Greece there were in effect two languages, both of them Greek but by no means the same in their vocabulary and with some grammatical differences: katharevousa, the literary or official form of the language, recognisably close to classical Greek; and demotike, or the Greek to be heard in the streets, further from the classical language and open to change and to influences from outside for being a spoken form. The contrast, if not the polarity between the two was an unforeseen encouragement for a writer who was then looking to subvert his own association with the high culture in which he had been schooled. The French laid down by the Académie Française and the French to be heard in the bar on the corner were every bit as far apart in vocabulary and syntax as the katharevousa and demotike, so here was an inviting space in which Queneau could set out his common-man stall, and play the language of impropriety off against the language of propriety, the proletarian against the professorial. In his novels, starting in Le Chiendent and for ever afterwards, the fractured syntax, warped phonetics and bas quartier cant of spoken French – ‘Oui, je m’pigique le chousterne avec tous ces queftiaux,’ one character complains to another in Le Chiendent: any offers? – come gorgeously into their own, made the more attractive for being mixed in with archaisms, high cultural allusions and rare items of vocabulary drawn from his out-of-the-way knowledge.

The second discovery that Queneau made in Greece was tied in with his metaphysical concerns. Sitting in the ruined Temple of Dionysus in Athens, he suddenly appreciated that a human artefact subject to the destructive processes of time but based, as the form of the temple had been, on certain fixed numerical ratios, represented a point of intersection between the transient and the immutable; and whatever had the power to mitigate transience was for this mortality-haunted man a good. ‘Time is my problem,’ is one entry in Queneau’s journals, where he notes some of the human activities in which repetition serves to counteract the dynamic and ominous forward movement of time: in prayer or religious ritual, in traditions, in our pleasures and vices, not least in our neuroses. And a novelist, too, is free to use repetition as it were to anchor a narrative that would otherwise be pure transience. Hence there are patterns of repetition in a Queneau novel, seldom apparent to a reader but crucial to its structure, their places fixed mathematically and working under cover, rather as a rhyme scheme does in formal verse. As a novelist, one might say, Queneau is more Plato than Dostoevsky.

Only up to a point, however; he is not a control freak, demanding that everything proceed according to plan. Having assumed the role of a god for the space of a fiction, he has simply reserved the right to be less than fully hidden, so that we know that these are his figments whose ups and downs we are witnessing, not supposedly unauthored representatives of the haphazard world beyond. There is a nice circularity to his work in this respect. In the novel he began with, Le Chiendent, his stand-in, introduced watching Etienne Marcel being swallowed up by the Métro, recurs intermittently as a presence in the text, not manipulating the characters but standing vigilantly to one side of them. In the entertaining novel that he ended with, Le Vol d’Icare (published in 1968, eight years before he died), a novelist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris has to set off through the streets in furious pursuit of the hero of the book he is writing, an Icarus who may have taken flight or alternatively been stolen – there’s no telling since vol in French can mean either ‘a flight’ or ‘a theft’. In the end, the fugitive falls back to earth as airborne Icaruses must, and is recaptured by the manuscript from which he had flown. ‘Everything took place as foreseen; my novel is finished,’ the novelist declares, smugly. What neater way could there be to remind us of the trick that narrative pulls of imposing a post hoc determinism on a sequence of events whose unpredictability was its prime attraction when we set out? Calvino alone might be compared with Raymond Queneau for the lightness of touch with which he dealt in these metafictional conceits.

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