Raymond Queneau  

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"The body continued its rhythmic movement for a few more seconds … the kind of disembrained mannikin still surmounting her finally lost its momentum, stopped jerking, and collapsed. Great spurts of blood came gushing out of it. Whereupon Gertie, screaming, wrenched herself free, and what remained of Caffrey fell inelegantly on to the floor … she retreated to the window, her thoughts in some disarray, trembling, covered all over with blood, and moist with a posthumous tribute." --We Always Treat Women Too Well (1947) by Raymond Queneau

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Raymond Queneau (February 21, 1903October 25, 1976) was a French poet and novelist and the co-founder of Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo), best-known for his novel Exercises in Style.



Born in Le Havre, Normandy, Queneau was the only child of Auguste Queneau and Joséphine Mignot. He received his first baccalauréat in 1919 for Latin and Greek, and a second in 1920 for philosophy, then studied at the Sorbonne (19211923) where he was a fair student of both letters and mathematics, graduating with certificates in philosophy and psychology.

Queneau performed military service as a zouave in Algeria and Morocco during the years 19251926. He married Janine Kahn in 1928, with whom he had a son, Jean-Marie, in 1934. They remained married until Janine's death in 1972. Queneau was drafted in 1939 but demobilized in 1940, and through the remainder of World War II, he and his family lived with the painter Élie Lascaux in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat.

Queneau spent much of his life working for the Gallimard publishing house, where he began as a reader in 1938. He later rose to be general secretary, and eventually became director of l’Encyclopédie de la Pléiade in 1956. During some of this time, he also taught at l’École Nouvelle de Neuilly. He entered the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in 1950, where he became Satrap, and was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1951, l’Académie de l’Humour in 1952, and the jury of the Cannes Film Festival 19551957.

During this time, Queneau also acted as a translator, notably for Amos Tutuola's Palm Wine Drinkard (L'Ivrogne dans la brousse) in 1953. Additionally, he edited and published Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Queneau had been a student of Kojève's during the 1930s and was, during this period, also close to writer Georges Bataille.

As an author, Queneau came to general attention in France with the publication in 1959 of his novel Zazie dans le métro, and again in 1960 with the film adaptation by Louis Malle at the height of the Nouvelle Vague movement. Zazie explores colloquial language as opposed to 'standard' written French; a distinction which is perhaps more marked in French than in some other languages. The first word of the book, the alarmingly long "Doukipudonktan" is a phonetic transcription of "D'où qu'ils puent donc tant?" "Why do they stink so much?".

Juliette Greco made popular his song 'Si tu t'imagines.'

Even before the founding of the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo) in 1960, Queneau was attracted to mathematics as a source of inspiration. He became a member of la Société Mathématique de France in 1948. In Queneau's mind, elements of a text, including seemingly trivial details such as the number of chapters, were things that had to be predetermined, perhaps even calculated. A later work, Les fondements de la littérature d’après David Hilbert (1976), alludes to the mathematician David Hilbert, and attempts to explore the foundations of literature by quasi-mathematical derivations from textual axioms.

One of Queneau's most influential works is Exercises in Style, which tells the simple story of a man seeing the same stranger twice in one day. It tells that very short story in 99 different ways, demonstrating the tremendous variety of styles in which storytelling can take place. A graphical story adaptation of the book's concept, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, was published by Matt Madden in 2005.

Queneau is buried with his parents in the old cemetery of Juvisy-sur-Orge, in Essonne outside Paris.

Queneau and Surrealists

In 1924 Queneau met and briefly joined the Surrealists, but never fully shared in the methods of automatic writing or Surrealist ultra-left politics. Like many surrealists, he entered psychoanalysis--however, not in order to stimulate his creative abilities, but for personal reasons, like Leiris, Bataille, Crevel.

Michel Leiris describes, in Brisees, how he first met Queneau in 1924, while vacationing in Nemours with Andre Masson, Armand Salacrou and Juan Gris. A common friend, Roland Tual, met Queneau on a train from Le Havre and brought him over. Queneau was just a couple years younger and felt less accomplished. He did not make a big impression on the young bohemians. After Queneau came back from the army, around 1926-7, he and Leiris met at the Café Certa, near L’Opera, a Surrealist hang-out. On this occasion, when conversation delved into Eastern philosophy, Queneau's comments showed a quiet superiority and erudite thoughtfulness. Leiris and Queneau became friends later while writing for Bataille’s Documents.

Queneau questioned the Surrealist support to the USSR in 1926. He remained on cordial terms with Breton, although he continued associating with Simone Kahn, after Breton split up with her. Breton usually demanded that his followers ostracize his former girlfriends. It would have been difficult for Queneau to avoid Simone, however, since he married her sister, Janine, in 1928. The year that Breton left Simone, she sometimes traveled around France with Queneau and his wife.

By 1929, Queneau had separated himself significantly from Breton and the Surrealists. In 1930, the year Crevel, Eluard, Aragon and Breton joined the French Communist party, Queneau participated in Un cadavre (A Corpse, 1930), a vehemently anti-Breton pamphlet co-written by Bataille, Leiris, Prévert, Alejo Carpentier, Jacques Baron, J.-A. Boiffard, Robert Desnos, Georges Limbour, Max Morise, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Roger Vitrac.

For Boris Souvarine’s La Critique sociale (1930-34) Queneau mostly wrote brief reviews. One characterized Raymond Roussel as one whose ‘imagination combines passion of mathematician with rationality of the poet’. He wrote more scientific than literary reviews – on Pavlov, on Vernadsky (from whom he got a circular theory of sciences), and a review of a book on the history of equestrian caparisons by an artillery officer. He also helped with the passages on Engels and mathematical dialectic for Bataille’s article "A critique of the foundations of Hegelian dialectic."




Essays and articles


In other art

Pierre Bastien has made a CD with the bilingual pun title Eggs Air Sister Steel, based on Exercices de Style (which "Eggs Air Sister Steel" sounds like when spoken).

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