Exercises in Style: A story retold in 99 ways

Raymond Queneau's unclassifiable work is quite probably the silliest highbrow book ever written

Raymond Queneau (1903-76) was a French novelist and poet. His output was not inconsiderable—18 novels, more than a dozen books of poems and many collections of essays and journals. But he is most remembered for Exercises in Style, an utterly unclassifiable piece of work. It is surely one of the weirdest and funniest books ever written. It is also both one of the most pointless books ever written, and one of the most intellectually stimulating.

At the core of Exercises in Style is this incident, if at all what happens can be glorified as an “incident":

“On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

“Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: ‘You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.’ He shows him where (at the lapels) and why."

To call this mundane is to insult the word “mundane".

But then, Queneau goes on to write this incident in 99 different styles to create an amazing, ridiculous and hilarious piece of work. The styles range from Synchysis to Polyptotes, from Aphaeresis to Epenthesis, from Paragoge to Antiphrasis.

Synchysis = A rhetorical technique wherein words are intentionally scattered to create bewilderment, or for some other purpose.

Polyptotes = A stylistic scheme in which words derived from the same root are repeated.

Aphaeresis = The loss of one or more sounds from the beginning of a word, especially the loss of an unstressed vowel, thus producing a new form called an aphetism.

Epenthesis = The addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word.

Paragoge = The addition of a sound to the end of a word.

Antiphrasis = A figurative speech in which a phrase or word is employed in a way that is opposite to its literal meaning in order to create an ironic or comic effect.

Thank the Lord for Wikipedia!

To get a full feel of the level of absurdity to which Queneau rises, one must read the full book with its 99 entries. I can here only give a sense of it. (One must also applaud Barbara Wright, the translator, who has done a terrific job, for one can only imagine what a difficult task she faced!)

***

Double entry

Towards the middle of the day and at midday I happened to be on and got onto the platform and the balcony at the back of an S-line and of a Contrescarpe-Champerret bus and passenger-transport vehicle which was packed and to all intents and purposes full. I saw and noticed a young man and an old adolescent who was rather ridiculous and pretty grotesque: thin neck and skinny windpipe, string and cord round his hat and headgear. After a scrimmage and scuffle he says and states in a lachrymose and snivelling voice and tone that his neighbour and fellow traveller is deliberately trying and doing his utmost to push him and inconvenience him every time anyone gets off and makes an exit. This having been declared and having spoken he rushes and goes towards a vacant and a free place and seat.

After two hours, and a hundred and twenty minutes later, I see him and come across him again in the Cour de Rome and in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He is with and in the company of a friend and pal who is advising and urging him to have a button and corozo disc added and sewn onto his overcoat and mantle.

Metaphorically

At the very heart of the day, tossed among the shoal of travelling sardines in a white-bellied beetle, a chicken with a long, featherless neck suddenly harangued one of their number, a peace-abiding one, and its parlance, moist with protest, was unleashed into the air. Then, attracted by an empty space, the fledgling made a dash towards it.

In a bleak, urban desert, I saw it again that self-same day, drinking the cup of humiliation over a mere button.

Haikai

Summer S

long neck trod on toes

cries and retreat

station button

meeting

Surprises

How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked! And what was he doing? Well, if he wasn’t actually trying to pick a quarrel with a chap who—so he claimed, the young fop!—kept on pushing him! And then he didn’t find anything better to do than to rush off and grab a seat which had become free! Instead of leaving it for a lady!

Two hours later, guess whom I came across in front of the Saint-Lazare! The same fancy-pants! Being given some sartorial advice! By a friend!

You’d never believe it!

Dream

I had the impression that everything was misty and pearly around me, with multiple and indistinct apparitions, amongst whom however was one figure that stood out fairly clearly, which was that of a young man whose overly long neck in itself seemed to proclaim the character at once cowardly and quarrelsome of the individual. The ribbon of his hat had been replaced by a piece of plaited string. Later he was having an argument with a person whom I couldn’t see, and then, as if suddenly afraid, he threw himself into the shadow of a corridor.

Another part of the dream showed him walking in bright sunshine in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He was with a companion who was saying: “You ought to have another button put on your overcoat."

Whereupon I woke up.

Telegraphic

BUS CROWDED STOP YNG MAN LONG NECK PLAIT ENCIRCLED HAT REPROACHES UNKNOWN PASSENGER NO APPARENT REASON STOP QUERY FINGERS FEET HURT CONTACT HEEL ALLEGED PURPOSELY STOP YNG MAN ABANDONS DISCUSSION FOR VACANT SEAT STOP 1400 HOURS PLACE ROME YNG MAN LISTENS SARTORIAL ADVICE FRIEND STOP MOVE BUTTON STOP SIGNED ARCTURUS

Free verse

the bus

full

the heart

empty

the neck

long

the ribbon

plaited

the feet

flat

flat and flattened

the place

vacant

and the unexpected meeting near

the station with its thousand

extinguished lights

of that heart, of that neck, of that

ribbon, of those feet,

of that vacant place,

and of that button.

Spoonerisms

One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus, I maw a san with a nery vong leck and whose cat was enhircled py a biece of striated pling. Chuddenly this sap rarted a stow with a tan who was meading on his troes. Hen he thurried off to fret a geat which was see.

Two hours hater I haw gim asain in lont of the Frare Gaint-Sazare, advistening to the lice of a lart asmec.

***

Whew!

And Queneau just goes on and on in this vein, to end up with 99 different styles of depicting the same incident (if at all what happens can be glorified as an “incident").

What does one make of this exercise, or rather Exercises? There is immense playfulness at work here, yet there is absolute rigour. A linguist with zero sense of humour can study the whole book as a perfectly serious text and prescribe it as required reading for his PhD students. A layperson of some intelligence will possibly laugh himself silly reading some of the entries. And both would be valid responses.

(Though I would go with the lay reader. I presume Queneau did not write this for academicians. The foreword to the edition currently in print, written by semioticist and scholar Umberto Eco—a man with a great sense of humour—however, is a crushing bore, sprinkled liberally with words like “metaplastic" and “intercontextuality".)

So, what does one make of this exercise, or rather Exercises? All one say safely is that it is quite probably the silliest highbrow book ever written.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable.

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