Exercises In Style

By Raymond Queneau (1958).


Ladies and Gentlemen: (Based on a talk given in the Gaberbocchus Common Room on April ist 1958.)

From time to time people politely ask me what I am translating now.

So I say: a book by Raymond Queneau.

They usually react to that in one of 3 different ways.

Either they say: that must be difficult.

Or they say: Who's he?

Or they say: Ah.

Of those three reactions, let's take the third--as the fortune-tellers say.

People say: Ah.

By: Ah--they don't mean quite the same as the people who say: Who's he? They mean that they don't know who Queneau is, but that don't much care whether they know or not. However, since, as I said, this sort of conversation is usually polite, they often go on to enquire: What book of his are you translating?

So I say: Exercices de Style,

And then, all over again, they say: Ah.

At this point I usually feel it would be a good idea to say something about this book, Exercices de Style but as it's rather difficult to know where to begin if I'm not careful I find that my would-be explanation goes rather like this:

"Oh yes, you know, it's the story of a chap who gets into a bus and starts a row with another chap who he thinks keeps treading on his toes on purpose and Queneau repeats the same story 99 times in a different ways--it's terribly good ..."..

So I've come to the conclusion that it is thus my own fault when these people I have been talking about finally stop saying "Ah" and tell me that it's a pity I always do such odd things. It's not that my wooffly description is inaccurate--there are in fact 99 exercises, they all do tell the same story about a minor brawl in a bus, and they are all written in a different style. But to say that much doesn't explain anything, and the Exercices and the idea behind them probably do need some explanation.

In essaying an explanation, or rather, perhaps, a proper description, I have an ally in this gramophone record, which has recently been made in France of 22 of the 99 exercices. It is declaimed and sung by les Freres Jacques--who have been likened to the English Goons. You will hear that the record is very funny. I said it was an ally, yet on the other hand it may be an enemy, because it may lead you to think that the exercices are just funny and nothing else. I should like to return to this point later, but first I want to say something about the author of the Exercices.

Raymond Queneau has written all the books you see here on the table--and others which I haven't been able to get hold of. He is a poet--not just a writer of poetry, but a poet in the wider sense. He is also a scholar and mathematician. He is a member of the Academic Goncourt (and they have only 10 members, in comparison with the 40 of the Academic Francaise), and he is one of the top boys of the publishing house of Gallimard. But he is a kind of writer who tends to puzzle people in this country because of his breadth and range--you can't classify him. He is one of the most influential and esteemed people in French literature--but he can write a poem like this:

Ce soir si j'ecrivais un poeme pour la posterite?

fichtre la belle idee

je me sens sur de moi j'y vas et

a la posterite j'y dis merde et remerde et reremerde

drolement feintee la posterite qui attendait son poeme

ah mais

Queneau, you see, is not limited, and he doesn't take himself over-seriously. He's too wise. He doesn't limit himself to being either serious or frivolous--or even, I might say, to being either a scientist or an artist. He's both. He uses everything that he finds in life for his poetry--and even things that he doesn't find in life, such as a mathematically disappearing dog, or a proud trojan horse who sits in a French bar and drinks gin fizzes with silly humans (The Trojan Horse and At the End of the Forest). And all this is, I think, the reason why you find people in England who don't know who Queneau is. Two of his novels were published here, by John Lehmann, in English translations, about 10 years ago. They were, I think, not very successful here. Even though the critics thought they were writing favourably about them. I was looking through the reviews of one of them--Pierrot--the other day, and this brings me back to what I was saying about Queneau's wit and lightness of touch being possibly misleading--the book's very brilliance seemed to blind the critics to the fact that it was about anything. The New Statesman wrote: "Pierrot is simply a lighthearted little fantasy . . .", and Time & Tide came down to Parish Magazine style: "This novel is of the kind called 'so very french'. It is all very unassuming and amusing, and most of us enjoy this kind of fun." According to the current way of thinking (or not-thinking), it seems that if we are to enjoy anything then we must not have to think about it, and, conversely, if we are to think about anything, then we mustn't enjoy it. This is a calamitous and idiotic division of functions.

And this, I think, brings me to the Exercices de Style. Queneau is a linguist, and he also has a passionate interest in the French language. He has given a lot of thought to one aspect of it--the French language as actually spoken. In Batons, Chiffres et Lettres, he writes: "I consider spoken French to be a different language, a very different language, from written French." And in the same book, he says: "I came to realise that modern written French must free itselt from the conventions which still hem it in (conventions of style, spelling and vocabulary) and then it will soar like a butterfly away from the silk cocoon spun by the grammarians of the 16th century and the poets of the 17th century. It also seemed to me that the first statement of this new language should be made not by describing some popular event in a novel (because people could mistake one's intentions), but, in the same way as the men of the 16th century used the modern languages instead of latin for writing their theological or philosophical treatises, to put some philosophical dissertation into spoken French."

Queneau did in fact "put some philosophical dissertation into spoken French'-- Descartes' Discours de la Methode. At least, he says that it was with this idea in mind that he started to write "something which I later became a novel called le Chiendent. I won't say anything about the correspondence between it and le Chiendent now, but this novel, le Chiendent is one of the easiest to read of all Queneau's novels and also one of the most touching and thought-provoking. It is also almost farcically funny in parts.

This research into language is, of course, carried on in the Exercices. You get plenty of variations of the way different people actually speak--casual, noble slang, feminine, etc. But you may have noticed that the exercise on p. 129 starts like this.


in French, by the way. The English translation naturally looks quite different:


Now please don't think that I'm going to try to persuade you that this is Queneau's idea of how anyone speaks French. You can't really discover 99 different ways of speaking one language. Well, perhaps you can, but you don't find them in the Exercices. I have analysed the 99 variations into roughly 7 different groups. The first--different types of speech. Next, different types of written prose. These include the style of a publisher's blurb, of an official letter, the "philosophic" style, and so on. Then there are 5 different poetry styles, and 8 exercises which are character sketches through language--reactionary, biased, abusive, etc. Fifthly there is a large group which experiments with different grammatical and rhetorical forms; sixthly, those which come more or less under the heading of jargon, and lastly, all sorts of odds and ends whose classification I'm still arguing about. This group includes the one quoted above, which is called: permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters. Under jargon you get, for instance, one variation which tells the story in mathematical terms, one using as many botanical terms as possible, one using greek roots to make new words, and one in dog latin.

All this could be so clever that it could be quite ghastly and perfectly unreadable. But in fact I saw somewhere that Exercices de Style is Queneau's best seller among the French public. I have already intimated that however serious his purpose, Queneau is much more likely to write a farce than a pedantic treatise. His purpose here, in the Exercices, is, I think, a profound exploration into the possibilities of language. It is an experiment in the philosophy of language. He pushes language around in a multiplicity of directions to see what will happen. As he is a virtuoso of language and likes to amuse himself and his readers, he pushes it a bit further than might appear necessary--he exaggerates the various styles into a reductio ad absurdum--ad lib., ad inf., and sometimes the final joke--ad nauseam.

I am saying a lot about what I think, but Queneau himself has had something to say about it. In a published conversation with Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes he says: "In les Exercices de Style, I started from a real incident, and in the first place I told it 12 times in different ways. Then a year later I did another 12, and finally there were 99. People have tried to see it as an attempt to demolish literature--that was not at all my intention. In any case my intention was merely to produce some exercises; the finished product may possibly act as a kind of rust-remover to literature to help to rid it of some of its scabs. If I have been able to contribute a little to this, then I am very proud, especially if I have done it without boring the reader too much."

That Queneau has done this without boring the reader at all. is perhaps the most amazing thing about his book. Imagine how boring it might have been--99 times the same story, and a story which has no point, anyway! I have spent more than a year, off and on, on the English version of the Exercices, but I haven't yet found any boredom attached to it. The more I go into each variation, the more I see in it. And the point about the original story having no point, is one of the points of the book. So much knowledge and comment on life is put into this pointless story. It's also important that it should be the same story all the time. Anybody can--and automatically does--describe different things in different ways. You dont speak poetically to the man in the ticket office at Victoria when you want to ask him for "two third returns, Brighton." Nor, as Jesperson points out, do you say to him: "Would you please sell me two third-class tickets from London to Brighton and back again, and I will pay you the usual fare for such tickets." Queneau's tour-de-force lies in the fact that the simplicity and banality of the material he starts from gives birth to so much. This brings me to the last thing I want to say, which is about the English version. Queneau told me that the Exercices was one of his books which he would like to be translated--(he didn't suggest by whom). At the time I thought he was crazy. I thought that the book was an experiment with the French language as such, and therefore as untranslatable as the smell of garlic in the Paris metro. But I was wrong, in the same way as the story as such doesn't matter, the particular language it is written in doesn't matter as such. Perhaps the book is an exercise in communication patterns, whatever their linguistic sounds. And it seems to me that Queneau's attitude of enquiry and examination can, and perhaps should be applied to every language, and that is what I have tried to achieve with the English version.

B. W


In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug-of-war with it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself on to it. Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He's with a friend who's saying: "You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat." He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

Double Entry

Towards the middle of the day and at midday I happened to be on and got on to the platform and the balcony at the back of an S-line and of a Contrescarpe-Champerret bus and passenger transport vehicle which was packed and to all intents and purposes full. I saw and noticed a young man and an old adolescent who was rather ridiculous and pretty grotesque; thin neck and skinny windpipe, string and cord round his hat and tile. After a scrimmage and scuffle he says and states in a lachrymose and snivelling voice and tone that his neighbour and fellow-traveller is deliberately trying and doing his utmost to push him and obtrude himself on him every time anyone gets off and makes an exit. This having been declared and having spoken he rushes headlong and wends his way towards a vacant and a free place and seat. Two hours after and a hundred-and-twenty minutes later, I meet him and see him again in the Cour de Rome and in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He is with and in the company of a friend and pal who is advising and urging him to have a button and vegetable and ivory disc added and sewn on to his overcoat and mantle.


Some of us were travelling together. A young man, who didn't look very intelligent, spoke to the man next to him for a few moments, then he went and sat down. Two hours later I met him again; he was with a friend and was talking about clothes.


In the centre of the day, tossed among the shoal of travelling sardines in a coleopter with a big white carapace, a chicken with a long, featherless neck suddenly harangued one, a peace-abiding one, of their number, and its parlance, moist with protest, was unfolded upon the airs. Then, attracted by a void, the fledgling precipitated itself thereunto. In a bleak, urban desert, I saw it again that selfsame day, drinking the cup of humiliation offered by a lowly button.


You ought to put another button on your overcoat, his friend told him. I met him in the middle of the Cour de Rome, after having left him rushing avidly towards a seat. He had just protested against being pushed by another passenger who, he said, was jostling him every time anyone got off. This scraggy young man was the wearer of a ridiculous hat. This took place on the platform of an S bus which was full that particular midday.


How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked! And what was he doing? Well, if he wasn't actually trying to pick a quarrel with a chap who--so he claimed! the young fop! kept on pushing him! And then he didn't find anything better to do than to rush off and grab a seat which had become free! Instead of leaving it for a lady! Two hours after, guess whom I met in front of the gare Saint-Lazare! The same fancypants! Being given some sartorial advice! By a friend! You'd never believe it!


I had the impression that everything was misty and nacreous around me, with multifarious and indistinct apparitions, amongst whom however was one figure that stood out fairly clearly which was that of a young man whose too-long neck in itself seemed to proclaim the character at once cowardly and quarrelsome of the individual. The ribbon of his hat had been replaced by a piece of plaited string. Later he was having an argument with a person whom I couldn't see and then, as if suddenly afraid, he threw himself into the shadow of a corridor. Another part of the dream showed him walking in bright sunshine in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He was with a companion who was saying: "You ought to have another button put on your overcoat." Whereupon I woke up.


When midday strikes you will be on the rear platform of a bus which will be crammed full of passengers among whom you will notice a ridiculous juvenile; skeleton-like neck and no ribbon on his felt hat. He don't be feeling at his ease, poor little chap. He will think that a gentleman is pushing him on purpose every time that people getting on or off pass by. He will tell him so but the gentleman won't deign to answer. And the ridiculous juvenile will be panic-stricken and run away from him in the direction of a vacant seat. You will see him a little later, in the Cour de Rome in front of the gate Saint-Lazare. A friend will be with him and you will hear these words: "Your overcoat doesn't do up properly; you must have another button put on it."


Ridiculous young man, as I was on an S bus one day chock-full by traction perhaps whose neck was elongated, round his hat and who had a cord, I noticed a. Arrogant and snivelling in a tone, who happened to be next to him, with the man to remonstrate he started. Because that he pushed him he claimed, time every that got off anyone. Vacant he sat down and made a dash towards a seat, having said this. Rome (Cour de) in the I met him later two hours to his overcoat a button to add a friend was advising him.

The Rainbow

One day I happened to be on the platform of a violet bus. There was a rather ridiculous young man on it--indigo neck, cord round his hat. All of a sudden he started to remonstrate with a blue man. He charged him in particular, in a green voice, with jostling him every time anybody got off. Having said this, he rushed headlong towards a yellow seat and sat down on it. Two hours later I saw him in front of an orange-colored station. He was with a friend who was advising him to have another button put on his red overcoat.