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Sassy, foul-mouthed and very entertaining!

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Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright

When I read Raymond Queneau’s “The Sunday of Life” for the 1951 Club, I had several commenters tell me how good his book “Zazie in the Metro” was; and as I already had a copy on my shelves, I determined that I should read it soon – and look! I have! 🙂

Published in 1959, “Zazie” is the book Queneau is best known for; this may be because it was made into a very successful film, or perhaps it was just published at the right time to hit the zeitgeist. Whatever it was, it’s certainly an entertaining and enjoyable read and definitely deserves its status.

The titular Zazie is a young girl who’s farmed out to her uncle Gabriel in Paris for a couple of days while her mother goes off in pursuit of a lover. Zazie’s age is never specified and we never really get a full description; however, as she’s constantly perceived as a potential target for sex maniacs, I did wonder if perhaps she was meant to be slightly older than the actress who portrayed her in the film, Catherine Demongeot.

Zazie has one great desire in Paris, which is to ride on the Metro. Alas, this is closed as the staff are on strike, so instead Zazie takes off on a series of madcap chases round the city, hotly pursued by her rather odd uncle (who has a job as a cross-dressing performer in a gay nightclub), a series of women who seem to be interested in her uncle, a tour guide, a parrot with a fairly limited range of words and a ‘chap’ who may be a policeman, pervert, a detective or something more sinister indeed…

The ending is riotously surreal with mayhem and murder breaking out all over the place, but things return to a status quo of sorts, and the slightly dream-like feeling that comes over at the end did make me wonder if everything which took place was not meant to be as real as it first appeared.

The whole manic story is told in a wonderful kind of vernacular, with phonetics and puns abounding. It’s wildly funny, kind of like an old-style screwball comedy but set in a more modern Paris and with plenty of bad language and innuendo. Zazie is a lovable, if foul-mouthed youngster, and we learn more about her from her reactions and interactions with other characters than we do from any kind of character building by the author. In fact, looking back on the book, that’s one of the cleverest things about it. Queneau doesn’t go in for big descriptions of the various protagonists; instead, he builds them up from their actions and what the other characters say about them. Simple things, like the fact that Zazie’s enigmatic aunt Marceline always says things ‘gently’, tell you all you need to know about them.

As with “Sunday” however I think there’s definitely more to the book than meets the eye. Gabriel is prone to deeper thought, and at one point muses (with a no doubt deliberate little nod to Sartre):

Being or nothingness, that is the question. Ascending, descending, coming, going, a man does so much that in the end he disappears. A taxi bears him off, a metro carries him away, the Tower doesn’t care, nor the Pantheon. Paris is but a dream, Gabriel is but a reverie (a charming one), Zazie the dream of a reverie (or of a nightmare) and all this story the dream of a dream, the reverie of a reverie, scarcely more than the typewritten delirium of an idiotic novelist (oh! sorry).

I suspect there are many, many linguistic tricks and in-jokes that I’m missing, and I ended the book thinking that I really want to read it again but with a mindset of appreciating the language more instead of relishing the fantastic and entertaining action. Regardless of that, Zazie is a wonderful romp, a joy to read and a certain indication that I should definitely read more of Raymond Queneau’s work!

(Kudos have to go to translator Barbara Wright again for rendering such sparkling and clever wordplay – what a wonderfully talented woman!)

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A late OuLiPan entrant…. #1951club

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The Sunday of Life by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright

However much I plan my reading for one of our club weeks, it never quite turns out how I expected it… After wallowing in some wonderful crime books, I didn’t really fancy picking up another one, nor getting into something as long as “Forbidden Colours” or “Log from the Sea of Cortez”. So I started digging around in the stacks to see if I could find anything else from 1951 and I stumbled across this title. Some online sources state the publication date as 1952, but the book itself clearly says 1951 – so that’s good enough for me!

Queneau is a writer I’ve covered before, reviewing his “Exercises in Style” here. That was a rather clever collection of pieces (as you might expect from the OuLiPo literary group) but not really a novel as such. However, “The Sunday of Life” takes a more traditional structure, telling the unusual tale of Valentin Bru and his wife Julie/Julia. The book is set in the 1930s, and Bru is a soldier coming to the end of his term in the army. A young man in his twenties, he attracts the attention of Julie Segovia, owner of a haberdashery shop he walks past regularly. Although considerably older than him, Julia has set her sights on the young soldier and sends her sister Chantal off to find out more about him (which she does, by sleeping with a superior officer!) Bru seems a vague young man, with no real aim in life, and finds himself persuaded to marry an older lady with a decent income, and this he does in due course. However, Julia’s brother-in-law Paul, Chantal’s husband, is not happy as they had lined up their teenage daughter Marinette (who never actually appears in the book, but is constantly referred to in unflattering terms!) to inherit from Julie in due course. There is plenty of family discord going on, although the two sisters do seem attached, and the wedding proceeds with Bru taking a rather ramshackle honeymoon on his own, getting lost in Paris on the way.

Things get stranger, however, as the story progresses. Bru converts the shop and becomes a purveyor of photo frames; he makes friends with all the locals and becomes someone they come to confide their secrets in; Julia seems to develop a kind of clairvoyance just around the same time that a local medium sets up shop; and meanwhile war seems to be brewing in Europe. Paul changes his job and Valentin is re-enlisted in the army, which doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Julie has a health malfunction, and Valentin is sent off to a posting where he tries to become a saint! Let’s face it, their lives really aren’t dull!

“The Sunday of Life” was a real lift in many ways after some of the darker elements of books I’ve read this week; it’s full of wonderful sparkling wordplay and larger than life characters. Puns abound (as well as plenty of very bad language!); and the names of characters are constantly changing, particularly that of Julia and the surname of Paul and Chantal, which often vary from paragraph to paragraph! I could try to quote you some choice parts but I doubt they would work out of context and there are so many it would be hard to choose. I have to say, though, that the translator comes in for some high praise for me, because it must have been very hard to take the work in French and convey the wordplay in a different language!

Underneath all this, of course, are some more serious matters. The war continues to loom larger as the book progresses, and ironically Paul does very well out of it, taking up a business making firearms. Valentin, who is something of an innocent, narrowly avoids many scrapes and seems to live a charmed life. The whole fortune-telling plot seems to be making a point about people’s willingness to be deceived, particularly about the forthcoming conflict – the discussion of, and questioning about, whether there will be a war is a constant thread through the story. There’s also much consideration of the passing of time, with one section particularly focusing on Bru’s relationship with the clock over the road and attempting to capture each minute as it passes. And perhaps that’s the point of the book, to show how people pass their time in life!

The days that pass, which turn into the time that passes, are neither lovely nor hideous, but always the same. Perhaps it rains for a few seconds sometimes, or the four-o’clock sun holds time back for a few minutes like rearing horses. Perhaps the past doesn’t always preserve the beautiful order that clocks give to the present, and perhaps the future is rushing up in disorder, each moment tripping over itself, to be the first to slice itself up. And perhaps there is a charm or horror, grace or abjection, in the convulsive movements of what is going to be and of what has been. But Valentin has never take any pleasure in these suppositions. He still didn’t know enough about the subject. He wanted to be content with an identity nicely chipped into pieces of varying lengths, but whose character was always similar, without dyeing it in autumnal colours, drenching it in April showers or mottling it with the instability of clouds.

I imagine that there are many clever subtexts going on in the book (I’ve read that it’s very Hegelian, but since I’ve never read Hegel I couldn’t comment). Whether or not that’s the case, “The Sunday of Life” is a witty, often slapstick read with a wonderful array of entertaining characters and funny situations, which nevertheless leaves you thinking about what it was trying to say for quite a while after. I’m rather glad I stumbled upon this one as a late entrant for the #1951club as it turned out to be a real joy and another brilliant read for the week!

(Have to add kudos to this old Alma Classic for crediting the translator Barbara Wright on the cover!)

#1947 Club – Some of my previous reviews

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As we draw closer to the end of our week of reading books from 1947, I thought I would share some older reviews of books I’ve read from that year. It certainly was a bumper year for publishing and there are some great titles – so here are a few I’ve read in the past!

One Fine Day by  Mollie Panter-Downes

One fine day

Oddly enough, I picked up my copy of this wonderful novel in the Bloomsbury Oxfam shop during a LibraryThing Virago group get-together – and it was Simon who pointed it out! It’s a wonderfully written book that captures post-War England quite brilliantly and I absolutely loved it, coming to the conclusion that I couldn’t praise it enough. You can read my full review here.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

706_largeThis rather clever and interesting book was written by a master of word games and member of the OuLiPo group. Basically it tells the same story in a huge number of styles and it’s very entertaining. Read what I thought about it here!

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

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A lovely Persephone and a fabulous thriller which I read in a borrowed copy from the library. Set in America in the middle of the war, it tells of an ordinary housewife who falls into the grip of blackmailers and thugs and it’s a fabulous, unputdownable read – highly recommend, and read my review here!

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

of-love-and-hunger

A great read, this, looking at life on the eve of WW2 from the point of view of a man trying to make a living by selling vacuum cleaners. Shades, perhaps, of Orwell, and a vivid picture of a seedy seaside setting. JMR was a wonderful writer, and this is an essential read from 1947 – my review here!

So there are a few of the books I’ve read in the past from this bumper year in publishing. Don’t forget to leave links to your posts so I can add them to the 1947 Club page, and let’s see how many more books we can get in before the end of the week! 🙂

Word Games from a Master of the Genre

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Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

I’ve been circling Raymond Queneau’s books for a while – in fact, I own several, and given my love of Calvino and Perec and literary wordplay it’s not surprising I should want to read him. And at last I have, though not any of the volumes I already had… In my defence, I was placing a Christmas order somewhere unmentionable which I had to get over £10 – so it figures I should treat myself to something and it turned out to be “Exercises in Style”.

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Apart from “Zazie in the Metro”, this is probably the book that Queneau is best known for. Born in 1903, he’s possibly something of a missing link between the Surrealists and OuLiPo, as he briefly flirted with the former organisation before going his own way – never really agreeing with their politics or their views on art. In simple terms, they favoured an *anything goes* approach, whereas Queneau believed that structure and restrictions brought liberation as you were free to create within that structure.

“Exercises in Style” is quite fascinating. It takes a simple premise – a short paragraph relating a man on a packed bus accusing another passenger of jostling him, throwing himself down in an empty seat and then later on having a conversation with a friend about moving a button on his coat. Queneau then proceeds to retell the story in 98 different styles – the same actions, but each story is completely different because of the stylistic devices, ranging from Retrograde (understandable) through Reported Speech (very clever!) to Aphaeresis (unintelligible!).

As the exercises continue, there are subtle developments; the jostling becomes stepping on toes; extra characters(like a Dr. Queuneau  in Reported Speech) and an unnamed observer, put in appearances. This is storytelling as an organic form and each different retelling makes you look at the incident in a different light.

Raymond_Queneau

If you described this book to someone, it might well sound dull, but it certainly isn’t. It’s a revelation as a reader to see how much we’re manipulated by the style and the word games adopted by an author. A simple incident has a totally different complexion depending on the way the author writes it. The book is a game, playing with words, but with a serious intent: telling us not to trust words, to be aware of this and look behind the words in each case to try to find the truth.

The book is issued by one of my favourite publishes, Alma, and so of course there is plenty of extra material. The foreword is by Umberto Eco, and there is an excellent little essay by another OuLiPo member, Italo Calvino, which throws light on Queneau’s career and work. Special praise needs to be given to translator Barbara Wright, too. When translating a book like this, so dependent on wordplay, the work becomes very much case of interpretation as well as translation. In some cases Wright created an English language version of the particular exercise, which was approved by Queneau – a wonderful case of writer and translator working together, and she deserves kudos for what she did with this!

“Exercises in Style” made me smile, laugh and think, which is a pretty good result really! And I shall definitely be exploring more of Queneau’s work. 🙂

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