Review: Geoffrey O’Brien on Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers

from Geoffrey O’Brien

To come for the first time upon the writer Raymond Queneau in his original French can feel like encountering a supreme instance of the untranslatable. I say his French advisedly. From the beginning of his writing career Queneau (1903–1976) expressed a discomfort with French as it was written, finding it a forcibly preserved remnant of a language formerly but no longer spoken, a skeletal constraint that locked out vast areas of what was actually expressed—and felt—by French speakers of his own time. It wasn’t the vernacular he was missing. He was interested not just in transcribing how people talked but in freely inventing and mixing up the components of language. Thus on any page of Queneau’s unclassifiable writings one may find archaisms, neologisms, distorted quotations and concocted proverbs, slang modern and ancient, bawdy and scatological interjections found or invented, all sorts of scientific and technical vocabulary, cartoonish parodies of political and commercial discourse, the dreadful puns to which he was particularly attached, and familiar words made strange through the use of his own phonetic spellings. Like a bored schoolchild with a racing mind, his language never sits still.

This constant playful stirring up of sounds and associations is frequently hilarious and always mysteriously engaging even when there is no clear sense of where any of this is heading. As a storyteller, he has such command of tone, cadence, surprise, and variation that he sustains an absorbing and even suspenseful narrative while laying out the most fantastic and implausible transformations. More than one reader has compared him to Lewis Carroll, if one imagines a Lewis Carroll significantly liberated from some of the constraints of his era: a Lewis Carroll steeped in Surrealism, Pataphysics, psychoanalysis, and the writings of James Joyce, but also sharing Carroll’s enthusiasm for mathematics and logical games. His texts obey precise but hidden laws of his own devising. As he once said to Marguerite Duras, “I believe in things being highly constructed… I like my characters’ entrances and exits to be very precise. If there are repetitions, they are intentional. That’s how I work. I hope it isn’t obvious. It would be terrible if it were obvious. Though I all but count the lines that separate the entrances of each character. Certain words, certain phrases, must be repeated during the course of the book—for my personal pleasure.”

But can such a text, so intricately bound up in the sonic accidents and local history of the French language and French cultural history, ever be translated, not just adequately but in a way that conveys its full richness and pleasure? It was Queneau’s good fortune to find in Barbara Wright an English translator who savored the difficulties of his writing and took them as an occasion for comparable feats of invention. It was likewise my own good fortune to meet up with Wright’s version of Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947, translated 1958) at an age when my response was unclouded by the slightest knowledge of who Queneau was or what he might represent in the world of contemporary French writing, of which I also knew nothing. If there was ever a book that benefits from one’s being dropped into it without a map, it is Exercises in Style. It presents itself without explanation, as a series of 99 retellings of the same inane anecdotal fragment involving an odd-looking fellow who gets into a minor argument on a bus and then is spotted several hours later talking to a friend. Queneau, it appears, was inspired by Bach’s Art of the Fugue to try out the literary equivalent of a systematic set of variations on a rudimentary theme, but his little book lent itself to multiple interpretations, as a study in the relation of form to content, as a parodic send-up of high literary seriousness, as an unfettered exercise in invention. When I first read it, it seemed perhaps the funniest book I had ever read; it still does. As for Wright, she would go on to translate a series of Queneau’s books: Zazie in the Metro, Witch Grass, Pierrot Mon Ami, The Flight of Icarus, The Blue Flowers. (Her extraordinary work as a translator also encompassed, among many others, works by such very distinct writers as Alfred Jarry, Nathalie Sarraute, Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras, and Michel Tournier.)

The humor so intrinsic to Queneau’s work is the humor of a profoundly erudite and apparently profoundly melancholic man. The erudition began early—at fifteen he was reading mathematical treatises, the works of Apollinaire and Rimbaud, and (from cover to cover) the first volume of the Dictionnaire Larousse—establishing a habit of mastering large tracts of the esoteric knowledge that crops up frequently in his fiction and poetry. It was perfectly natural that he should become a major and lifelong editorial presence at France’s leading publishing house Gallimard, eventually overseeing a series of ambitious encyclopedic works.

But his work for Gallimard was only one strand of a life that encompassed his early involvement with the Surrealists (he married André Breton’s sister-in-law and formed friendships with Michel Leiris and Jacques Prévert); his work as a translator (of books ranging from Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here to Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard); his close ties to Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Jean Dubuffet, and his own work as a visual artist. His first novel, the radically experimental Le Chiendent (Witch Grass, 1933) was intended as a fictional “translation” of Descartes’ Discourse on Method. He was a movie-lover from an early age and would end up collaborating with Luis Buñuel, René Clément, and Alain Resnais. He was an enthusiast of jazz and science fiction; a friend of Boris Vian, Iris Murdoch, Henry Miller, Orson Welles; a campaigner against all forms of censorship; the lyricist of a hit record by Juliette Gréco, and, with Zazie in the Metro in 1959, belatedly a bestselling author. He was, finally, the founding figure of Oulipo, the “Laboratory of Potential Literature,” a loose gathering of like-minded souls whose experiments were prefigured by Queneau’s earlier writing. It looks like a life under the sign of abundance, yet at the same time this was someone described in his youth as acutely timid, and in later life as increasingly depressive. Neither his life nor his work lends itself to easy generalizations.

At the heart of his exuberant linguistic hyperactivity is a meditative silence, so it is fitting that The Blue Flowers (1965)—recently issued by New Directions in Barbara Wright’s translation and sometimes considered his masterpiece—is, as Queneau observed in the original flap copy, a reiteration of a Taoist parable: the sage Chuang Tzu dreams he is a butterfly but cannot know if he is perhaps a butterfly dreaming he is Chuang Tzu. In The Blue Flowers the dreamers are two men separated by the chasm of time: the Duke of Auge, who, when we encounter him in the first paragraph—“on the twenty-fifth of September, twelve hundred and sixty-four, at break of day”—is taking stock from the battlements of his castle of “the historical situation,” and Cidrolin, who, on a barge moored on the banks of Seine, lives a life of apparent total indolence, drinking endless quantities of “essence of fennel” and surveying as much of the world of the 1960s as he can see without stirring from his perch.

All those glasses of fennel send him into frequent dozes, at which point the Duke takes over; when the Duke nods off, it’s Cidrolin’s turn. Each is aware of the other and his world as figments of partially remembered dreams, by means of which anachronistic elements seep from past to present and back again. When the Duke mentions “cars” to an uncomprehending medieval ecclesiastic, he describes them as “living, squealing beasties that run about in every direction on their round paws. They don’t eat anything solid and they only drink petroleum. Their eyes light up at nightfall.” Cidrolin muses on his alternate life—“My dreams are uncommonly interesting … If I were to write them down, they’d make a real novel”—only to be told: “And don’t you think there’re enough novels as it is?”

The interconnections don’t stop there. Parallel patterns and repeated figures abound. (“Repetition,” the Duke insists, “is one of the most odoriferous flowers of rhetoric.”) The Duke and Cidrolin are both widowers with three daughters. They share seven identical surnames: Joachim Olinde Anastase Crépinien Honorat Irénée Médéric, whose first letters form the acronym Joachim. The Duke has two horses, one who talks and who doesn’t (or at least not as much). While the Duke observes the construction of Notre Dame, Cidrolin takes note of the construction of a high rise near his barge. A woodcutter’s daughter materializes in both worlds. Cidrolin says the same thing every time someone boards his barge, but with the wording slightly altered. The numerological games (if indeed they are games) underlying Queneau’s structure may not be grasped but they are felt: there is the continual feeling of events being moved forward by inexorable forces, no matter how fanciful the results.

The Duke marches through history, incidentally massacring a good many bystanders who get in his way, advancing 175 years with each episode, encountering crusaders and alchemists, field-testing the newly invented cannon, energetically defending his good friends Gilles de Rais and the Marquis de Sade, brushing up against the French Revolution, and secretly creating the cave paintings of Périgord which will be taken centuries later for the work of prehistoric artists. Cidrolin, in the meantime, does next to nothing, drinking, napping, engaging in random discussions with strangers, and periodically repainting the fence where his barge is moored, to obliterate the insulting inscriptions with which some unknown person keeps defacing it. (A friend advises him: “You’re just making a fuss about nothing. Graffiti, what are graffiti? Simply literature.”) As his female housekeeper notes: “He always finds something not to do … He’s very good at keeping himself unoccupied.”

The Duke never stops moving and Cidrolin never starts. Ultimately, inevitably, the Duke will catch up with the other dreamer, emerging, complete with the talking horses, into the world of 1965 where the movie theaters are showing “Spartacus and Frankenstein versus Hercules and Dracula.” It’s as if time had finally dissolved, and when heavy rains start falling we recall that Cidrolin’s barge is named the Ark. What are we to make of this apocalyptic turn of events? The French critic Claude Simonnet has observed that a Queneau novel has no meaning but proliferates with meanings. That’s as good a way as any of conveying how The Blue Flowers expresses at the same time deep coherence and utter absurdity. Queneau once defined history as “the science of human unhappiness,” but here it’s more like a sequence of vaudeville skits in the manner of George Burns and Gracie Allen.

A partial summary of The Blue Flowers likewise cannot do justice to the palpable affection of Queneau for his characters, even though it is a stretch even to think of them as characters. They are figures in a metaphysical Punch and Judy show—speakers of lines, executers of movements and gestures, casting no shadow—yet his genius was to make them and their world as real as anything as long as the dream lasts. In that sense The Blue Flowers truly is a work to set alongside the Alice books. In place of the Caterpillar or the Queen of Hearts, Queneau gives us the discursive and sinister Monsieur La Balance, night watchman of the camping grounds across from Cidrolin’s barge, who continually complains of the unusual malady from which he suffers: thinking. “Well yes! I do think. When I get up, I think. When I go to bed, I think. In between the two, I never stop. So just think how… you see, I even attribute my little mania to other people… just think how I need to rest after a whole day devoted to the malaxation of the grey matter of my brain.” This relentlessly rational personage, sprung from some demented detective novel, forces his way into the novel like an ominous intruder.

As for Barbara Wright, she accomplished a miracle with her rendering of what may be Queneau’s most complex linguistic tapestry. With its mingling and mangling of centuries of idiom and argot, the book is like an inventory of Queneau’s notions of language and history, with high speculation and low humor kicking about at every turn. Wright’s own sensitivity to the parallel histories of French and English and the myriad ways in which their roots are intertwined make her translation a notable literary work in itself.


Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th CenturyStolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film, 2002–2012, and, most recently, the poetry collection The Blue Hill.

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