Friday, August 17, 2012

A VERSatile Mind

A VERSatile Mind

Queneau was a polymath who chose a career in writing. He was a knight-errant who found adventure, and founded ventures, in literature, philosophy, science. Devoted to the life of the mind, Queneau brokered fertile deals between improbable disciplines. Queneau made poetry from number theory, channeled cosmogony into verse, and launched a campaign against written French, assaulting the language with a battery of puns, slang, and street talk. Too authoritative to be a rebel, Queneau established and conducted fringe ventures in inquiry while serving the establishment as editor of the prestigious Pléiade Encyclopedia. The compendium of his mind bristled with lists, data, and permutations, but knowledge – and understanding – impeded neither the quicksilver of his wit, nor the untenable lightness of his inventive being. Forever famous as the author of the anarchist farce Zazie dans le Métro (Zazie in the Metro) Raymond Queneau left behind him a complex legacy that far exceeded his popular acclaim.

Cerebral to his core, Queneau nevertheless integrates emotion, empathy, and ethics into his artistic vision.  A former Marxist, he focuses his stories on the common man. Barbara Wright, translator of Zazie, reflects: “I think Queneau chooses humble people [as the center of his stories] because he feels that the unpretentious man (and woman) in the street is potentially much more in touch with the realities of the world around him, and around us, than are the “experts,” and that when the common man makes discoveries about life and human nature, he does so in an honest, straightforward way…” (Wright, Barbara, “Reading Raymond Queneau,” Context, Issue 9, Dalkey Archive Press) Queneau’s valuing of the common man is unsentimental, however: what interests him is the moment when the man on the street begins to think for himself, opening the door to a rich inner life (Wright, Barbara, “Reading Raymond Queneau”).

Head and heart, Queneau was ahead of his time. He anticipated the French New Novel of the 1950s in his early novels and in his writing experiments. Queneau’s 1933 novel, Le Chiendent (The Bark Tree), has a numerical scaffolding; (it consists in 91 chapters, since 91 is the sum of the first 13 numbers), and features a concierge who meditates on Being and Non-Being – more than seventy years before literature brought forth the philosopher-concierge of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In his 1947 handbook Exercises de Style (Exercises in Style), Queneau renders 99 versions of the same fragmentary incident. This experiment in generating multiple variations from a single template forces creativity through the imposition of a formula. Subject to his own rules, Queneau tells the same story in 99 different voices, including those of a Geometrician, a Hellenist, and a paratactic speaker (“Then”). The recombinant DNA of literature and arithmetic iteration turns a “slice of life” into something almost metaphysical. Two incongruous modes of thought, combined, have transmuted reality. As Braulio Tavares puts it, “Conceiving abstract structures and patterns is something essential to mathematical thinking, but most writers would find it not suitable to literature. It is curious to realize that one of Queneau’s most popular books arose from such an idea.” (Tavares, Braulio, “Raymond Queneau,” The Scriptorium, 1999):   

Queneau ushered in the Sixties with the publication of Zazie dans le Métro (1959) followed by Cent mille milliards de poèmes (One Million Million Poems).

One Million Million Poems consists of ten sonnets, for which any of the fourteen lines can be substituted for any line of the nine other sonnets. Thus there are 10 to the 14th power, or 100,000,000,000,000 possible combinations of lines. Queneau’s million million poems anticipate literary experiments like Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel Hopscotch, in which Cortázar designates 99 out of 155 chapters as expendable, and the 1979 Science Fiction trilogy Schrödinger’s Cat, in which the novels have interlooping plots involving a large cast of characters. Hopscotch can be experienced in at least two different ways, by reading the core narrative from chapters one through 56, or by "hopscotching" through all 155 chapters. The numerical complexity of the Schrödinger’s Cat books is physics-based: in Volume II, the characters “are unknowingly connected through non-locality, i.e. having once crossed paths they are joined in a quantum entanglement.” (“Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy,” Wikipedia)ödinger’s­­­_Cat_Trilogy  Queneau’s book of verse is as literary a work as Hopscotch, but makes greater use of algorithm; it is more literary than Schrödinger’s Cat, and further ahead of the ideas of the time.

Queneau was ahead of the curve – and still is – in combining literary creativity with scientific inquiry, serious philosophy with humor. The author of eighteen published novels, ten poetry collections, and numerous articles and essays, Queneau still found time to joke around, becoming a member of Alfred Jarry’s parodic Pataphysics group. In 1960, Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais co-founded Oulipo: an organization devoted to the literary application of existing and invented structures. As Marjorie Welish describes it, Oulipo was “premised on experimentation through indifferent methods in the belief that such instrumentalities of permutation and combination will generate literature readily open to worlds beyond the author’s immediate experience.” (Welish, Marjorie, “Science into Poetry: on Raymond Queneau,” Boston Review)

Born in Le Harvre in 1903, Queneau was said as a juvenile to have read the entire first volume of the Larousse Dictionary for pleasure. Be that as it may, his voracious reading habits prepared him well for higher learning. He came as a sixteen year-old to Paris, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. More a pioneer and a founder than a follower or a joiner, as a young man he forged the briefest of associations with the Marxists and Surrealists whose movements initially attracted him.

Despite the scale of his innovation, today Queneau’s legacy is diffuse. He was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre as one of the great novelists of the second half of the 20th century: “The whole postwar art of the novel owes its language, its structure, to Queneau.” (Gerassi, John, Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates, Yale, 2009, p. 128) And he crafted numerous works of innovative fiction. Yet Queneau is widely remembered as the author of just one novel: Zazie dans le Métro. Published to great acclaim in 1959, Zazie made Queneau famous overnight. When Louis Malle made the film Zazie dans le Métro in 1960, Queneau’s fate was sealed. The wildly popular film turned the polymath into a French celebrity. Queneau’s name was forever linked to that of his twelve year-old heroine. If it wasn’t a case of: ‘loaded with honors, he sank without a trace,’ it remains true that Queneau’s celebrity widened the gap between his profile as a one-book author, and the vast erudition and dramatic innovation that underlay the body of his work.

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