Review: Geoffrey O’Brien on Raymond Queneau’…

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.

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