The story itself is ordinary, even banal: one man jostles another on a bus. But then Raymond Queneau tells it again. And again. And again. And then he tells it 95 times more.
A writer's investigation, an etymologist's game and a mathematician's rigorous inquiry, Exercices de style was first published by Gallimard in France in 1947 (Barbara Wright's English translation, Exercises in Style, in 1958). Imaginative and arithmetic, mischievous and meticulous, the slim volume is a literary riff on Bach's The Art of the Fugue: 99 iterations of the same story, from Anagrams to Spoonerisms to Zoological, from Blurb to Ode to West Indian. It's as playful a meditation on story and how we make meaning as it is profound. I challenge you to read it without laughing aloud in sheer delight.
A contemporary of Camus and Sartre, Queneau was a man who couldn't be easily categorized. He was an eclectic thinker who sought unity among disciplines. Mathematician, poet, novelist, philosopher, playwright, screenwriter: Queneau was a polymath, a member of both the Académie Goncourt and the Société Mathématique de France and a man who critics say influenced the work of Jacques Lacan, among others. With François Le Lionnais, he founded Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle /Workshop for Potential Literature), whose members included Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. He was also, in the words of his translator, Barbara Wright, a man who "doesn't take himself over-seriously. He's too wise."
But to get to the heart of the man, you'd need to understand how deeply held were his convictions that math and literature were hand in glove. Having run into difficulty with another experimental work, Cent mille milliards de poèmes ( A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), he consulted a mathematician, his friend Le Lionnais. The resulting work was a flipbook of 10 sonnets in which each line of each sonnet could be interchanged with any other 13 lines from the other sonnets in the book. (The published book had one poem per page and the pages were cut so that each line occupied a separate strip, but it has found several homes on the Internet, where you can click through its variations.)
Along the way, Oulipo was born. Having parted ways with the Surrealists, with whom he kept company in his early career but whose automatic-writing practices he couldn't abide, Queneau encouraged Oulipo writers to "escape that which is called inspiration." Structures, he felt, particularly mathematical ones, yielded a greater supply of ideas.
To make sense of the 99 variations he settled on (he wrote at least 124), you could sort the variations of Exercises in Style into categories, such as literary style, senses, speech mannerisms and voice. But to do so would be to miss the cumulative power of the iterations; this is a book that works best if read in one or two sittings. There is much play here - Official Letter, Alexandrine, Opera English and Cross-Examination are particularly delightful - but the work as a whole burrows deep into language itself. Cockney and Hellenisms give way to Paragogue, Apocope, Apheresis and Epenthesis (each of which describes morphological development, i.e., the structure and content of word forms).
Then there are the variations titled Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 & 5 letters, in which the story is told in non-words that fit the constraint. This version is followed by another using groups of 5, 6, 7 and 8 letters, and then the same thing is repeated with groups of words. And here we reach the deconstructed heart of the book, the part that could only have been written by someone who trades in numbers as well as words: While these versions might have lost their ability to communicate the story, the book continues to probe the meaning of language even as Queneau unravels it. So a language is built; so it can be dismantled.
The first to insist that his intention was not destruction but agitation in the interest of renewal, Queneau was hopeful that the product of his experiment "may possibly act as a kind of rust-remover to literature, help to rid it of some of its scabs." While there is plenty of gleeful parody of literary style in these pages, it's clear that idle malice was not his intention. Parts of Speech, for instance, sorts the story into its constituent parts. Seeing it laid bare as groups of nouns, verbs, articles and so on demands that we question the concept of story itself, and Exercises in Style does challenge first precepts: What is story? What is language? How do we make meaning from the black marks on a page?
Of all of his books, this volume is the one Queneau most wished to see translated, though Wright says that at first she thought him crazy to propose the idea, as the book was an experiment in French language. But she came around to the idea as she realized that "Queneau's attitude of enquiry and examination can, and perhaps should? - be applied to every language." Substantial credit for achieving an English version, needless to say, rests with her considerable and faithful labour.
Don't read Exercises in Style for its philosophic value alone. Read it also for the undiluted pleasure of language and story this experiment delivers and for its many literary surprises (the final iteration, fittingly, is Unexpected). Queneau would have urged as much.
Christine Fischer Guy is a Toronto writer whose most recent short story appeared in Descant 145 (Summer 2009).