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!)