Exercises in Style

Queneau, Raymond. Exercises in Style (1947). Translated by Barbara Wright (1958). New Directions, 1981. (A French version is available at ubu.com.)

In one of her two introductions (1958 and 1981) to this book Barbara Wright notes that Exercises in Style (EiS) is one of Raymond Queneau’s best-selling volumes in France. This comes as a bit of a surprise because it is certainly one of his less traditional books. Neither a novel nor a collection of short stories nor a volume of non-fiction, the book consists of ninety-nine variations of the same banal story:

On a crowded bus a narrator observes a young man with a long neck in a strange hat (it has a cord instead of a ribbon) yell at another man whom he claims is purposefully jostling him whenever anyone gets on or off the bus. The young man then sits down in a vacated seat. Two hours later the same narrator sees that same young man with another friend who is suggesting that the young man have another button put on his overcoat.

It doesn’t sound like it would be a pleasurable time rereading this story ninety-nine times, yet with all his trademark humor, imagination, and ingenuity, Queneau makes it not only bearable but damn funny and a joy to experience. EiS is the kind of book you can read straight through or randomly from chapters. How does he do it?

Queneau has created a textbook of literary variation, not through essay and explication but with examples. Barbara Wright mentions her attempts at classifying and grouping the variations and rightfully notes that it is mostly impossible, but there are some easily grouped ones. A number of variations are created through shifting the narrator’s voice both in attitude (“Speaking Personally”, “Reactionary”, “Abusive”) and diction (“Cockney”, “Noble”). There are various literary and non-literary forms used (“Haiku”, “Official Letter”, “Sonnet”, “Free Verse”) and different kinds of discourse (“Philosophic”, “Mathematical”). He uses Oulipian constraints (“Anagrams”, “Word Games”) and rhetorical figures (“Litotes”, “Antiphrasis”, “Synchysis”), as well as numerous variations harder to classify (“Rainbow”, “Consequences”, “Dream”, “Ignorance”, “Olfactory”). The lists goes on and on, always with surprises for the reader.

Queneau exposes the ways language can go beyond the “normal” “plain” style that we habitually use in our speech and writing, but also shows us the imagination and inventiveness that goes into that everyday language. If you are interested in language and writing, this book will find a home on your shelves.