This semester, I taught the 300-level French composition course at my university. It’s one of the classes I like best, because the students make so much forward progress in their writing — they go from stilted, unvarying sentences to being able to write in several different genres and with a wider variety of structures and vocabulary. Their discovery that writing in French can be entertaining and fluid is as rewarding for me as it is for them. (It then remains for them to find out that they have a lot of reading and writing left in front of them before they get really good at it, if ever, but that’s another story.)
It was, therefore, with a shock of grinning delight that I discovered Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style this semester. (No, I don’t know why I hadn’t read it before. Glaring omission. Humiliation. Oh, dear.) This short book is exactly what it says: ninety-nine exercises, in which Queneau describes the same short incident (he witnesses a man arguing on a bus; later, he sees the same man getting sartorial advice in front of the Gare St-Lazare) in wildly divergent ways. Tactilely. Gastronomically. Metaphorically. By using litotes. Philosophically. In the form of an official letter of complaint. In urban slang; in peasant argot. In free verse; in a tanka; in a sonnet. In anglicisms, italianicisms, latinicisms (is that a word?), homophones, exclamations.
I find myself beggared for words to describe how happy this book made me. I kept thinking, “This is the one I’ll quote for the review. No, this. No, this one will be perfect!” before realizing that I would have to quote the entire book in order to show you the kaleidoscopic, shifting, jewellike, precise nature of what Queneau is doing. This is play, but it is work: he wants to see what language is, and what it can do. Apparently there is nothing it can’t do; we can extract meaning from every possible juxtaposition of letters and syllables, and make a story. My students have no idea what they’re in for, in the best possible sense: this kind of juggling of fire-torches and disco-balls is still in their future.
It seems that this book has been translated into several languages, including English, and has also been made into a play. While my imagination boggles at this (so much of the work Queneau is doing here seems essentially related to the language itself that a translator would have to rewrite the book from scratch), I absolutely recommend that you find and read it. It is a total joy.