Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style
By Samra Taban

Raymond Queneau is a French poet, novelist and critic. He did not make it to the news like other famous French novelists like the way Marcel Proust or Albert Camus did. However, his works have been exemplary and are considered truly one of a kind. He was known fondly for his cynical humour and wittiness that he integrated into his writing He was widely known for his humour and wit in the form of writing he used to take up.  Besides contributing to the world of fiction, along with François Le Lionnais, he co-founded a movement called Oulipo, short for ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, which translates to ‘Workshop of Potential Literature’. It was a group of writers and mathematicians that got together to discuss and create masterpieces using only constrained writing techniques. It was his specialty. Later, Queneau became the president of this movement.

The beauty of Oulipo lies in the patterns that the writers box themselves in. It challenges their intellect and skills as a writer triggering concepts and ideas very different from conventional writing. Georges Perec, another impeccable writer, was a part of Oulipo. He later went on to write a brilliant novel called ‘La disparition’, which was a 300-page novel without the use of the letter ‘E’. Queneau himself had popular masterpieces to his name. He created ‘Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes’, similar to children’s picture books, wherein each page is divided into horizontal strips that make sense independently. These strips can be placed in any order to weave a story. Similarly, he also applied this concept to poetry. He created 10 sonnets. Each page contained one of them and it was cut in 14 strips. The reader was then free to make a desired combination. The best part of this poetry book? It would take about 200 million years to read all combinations possible in the 10-page book. Enchanting, we say!

Yet, ‘Exercises in Style’, published in 1947, still remains the most-talked about piece of his excellence in constrained writing. Till date, it has been translated in more than 30 languages. The idea behind the literary piece is simple. Queneau put together a collection of 99 different ways of writing the same plot. The same episode is retold adopting a new style of writing every single time.

The Plot:

The narrator speaks about a man of about 26 years, who boarded the S bus at peak hour. He describes the appearance of the man, who wore a funny hat and had his hair tied by a ribbon. He comments on his neck being a bit too long and speaks of his annoyed comportment. Later, the man gets into an argument with a fellow passenger who was standing beside him. The man apparently accused the passenger of jostling him too much whenever someone passed by. And, when he did find a vacant seat, he grabs the opportunity and takes it without apprehension. The narrator sees him, two hours ago, in front of Saint Lazare, in the Cour de Rome. This time, he is with a friend who is giving him advice about adding another button to his overcoat.

The Styles:

There are 99 styles that Queneau attempts at explaining the same plot. He uses different words, tones and innumerable rules of grammar to achieve this incredible feat. One can only imagine being so remarkably patient and smart enough to pull this off. He expressed in surprise, hesitation, precision, abuse, exclamation, ignorance, narration, present tense, past tense, comedy, haiku, ode, tactile, visual, sonnet, homeoptotes, vulgarity, casual, biased and the list goes on! Translation was a huge challenge as the French language has specific manners of expression that cannot always be accurately translated to a native language, but Barbara Wright managed to do so in English in the year 1958. She captured the essence of Queneau’s style and expression to utmost perfection. Raymond Queneau set a trademark with this impeccably grammatical masterpiece that brought together his passion for Oulipo, French grammar and creativity with a touch of science. Anyone who has a knack for grammar should give this collection of compelling styles a shot in whatever language they are most comfortable in for the sole purpose of widening their perspective of writing with grammar as a central point.

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