Here, in its entirety, is the “plot” of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style: On a crowded Paris bus at around midday, the unnamed narrator observes a young man taking an older gentleman to task for deliberately pushing him and stepping on his feet. Then a vacant seat appears, and the young man rushes to occupy it, thus bringing the confrontation to an abrupt end. About an hour later, the narrator happens to pass the same young man as he is standing in front of the Gare St-Lazare, being informed by a friend that he ought to have another button sewn onto his coat.
That’s it. Literally nothing else happens in the book. And it’s not as though Queneau spins this dull succession of non-events into some kind of mock epic, or crams his narrative so full of detail and description that it metastasizes into the sort of exploded view of the insignificant that Nicholson Baker trafficked in with his early fiction. By the end of the first page, you have learned everything you are ever going to know about the events on which the book focuses. What Queneau does do, however, is re-narrate this same scenario a further 98 times, in a series of distinct styles. The book is like a sequence of false starts, as though its author were attempting to begin a novel with no sense of the tone or attitude he wants to strike, and so becomes trapped in a comic holding pattern of writing and rewriting. Each of the 99 sections is given a simple and utilitarian title — “Notation,” “Hesitation,” “Precision,” “Official Letter,” “Insistence,” “Comedy,” “Philosophic,” and so on. From this at once laughably and ingeniously simple premise results one of the great high-concept show-off acts of twentieth century fiction.
It’s laughable because this is, obviously, no sensible way to go about writing a book. It’s an amusing idea that you would imagine might be best left as merely that, as the kind of droll “how-about-this” notion that might be floated to other writers well into the home stretch of a night’s drinking. It’s good for a chuckle, certainly, but not something you would really want to sit down and actually knock out a book on. What’s ingenious, though, is how Queneau actually manages to transcend his own absurd restrictions by remaining punctiliously within them at all times. By being so staunchly committed to its shallowness, in other words, the book somehow contrives to seem kind of profound. (It’s very much one of those books, by the way, that steers you away from words like “novel” and “fiction” toward more generically non-committal terms like “composition” and “work” and — may God forgive me — “text”).
The only way to read Exercises in Style is to just gird your loins and do it in one sitting; otherwise, its pleasures and frustrations are in danger of getting spread too thin. It should be experienced, I think, as the overwhelming imposition on the reader’s good will and patience it was surely intended to be. It also has a powerfully cumulative effect that requires compression in time in order to be fully felt, and it benefits from a mounting sense of absurdity that would be lost if you were to just pick it up intermittently. (I’ve read it both ways, I should say, and I’m convinced the single-sitter is the only way to go. Its neatly partitioned structure and its utter lack of plot or character might suggest otherwise, but don’t be fooled. It can also comfortably be read in a couple of hours.) Much of the joy of reading it, which is also a kind of exasperation, is in wondering what he’s going to do next and whether he’s going to be able to pull it off.
To give a sense of what Queneau is up to here, it’s worth providing a few examples of the way he goes about it. This is how the section headed “Surprises” begins: “How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked!” And this is from “Homeoteleuton”: “On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: ‘Oi, mate!’” The “Official Letter” section relates the entire incident as though it were the subject of a formal complaint to an office of some or other bureaucratic body: “I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus…” One of my favorite exercises is entitled “Blurb.” It’s not just that it’s funny; it’s also one of the purest examples of metafictional effrontery I’ve ever come across. It’s good enough and brief enough to warrant quoting in full:
In this new novel, executed with his accustomed brio, the famous novelist X, to whom we are already indebted for so many masterpieces, has decided to confine himself to very clear-cut characters who act in an atmosphere which everybody, both adults and children, can understand. The plot revolves, then, round the meeting on a bus of the hero of this story and of a rather enigmatic character who picks a quarrel with the first person he meets. In the final episode we see this mysterious individual listening with the greatest attention to the advice of a friend, a past master of sartorial art. The whole makes a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare felicity.
Queneau’s stochastic method might put you in mind of one of those invariably lame improvisational comedy setups whereby a performer has to switch registers according to an audience’s shouted commands — delivering, say, a funeral eulogy first as infomercial sales patter, then as rap-battle braggadocio, then as bawdy Elizabethan comedy. And the book is, in an obvious sense, pure play, sheer diversion. Its effect is subtly paradoxical, like a less harrowing version of Chatroulette: you can be pretty sure what you’re going to get when you turn the page, but you have no idea in what form to expect it. A maximal level of monotony integrated, in other words, with a maximal level of variety. By turns frustrated and delighted with Queneau’s exploration of the limitless possibilities of limitation, I was reminded of a particularly memorable passage about the mathematics of tennis in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Schtitt, the quasi-mystic coach at Enfield Tennis Academy, is said to understand the sport as not a matter of reduction to pattern and order, but as one of “expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth,” as a “diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent.” Like tennis in Schtitt’s (and Wallace’s) understanding of it, Queneau’s literary game is all about the way in which an infinity of things can happen inside a finite and tightly delineated space.
The book feels as though it could have been published last year, despite the occasional archaisms of Barbara Wright’s 1958 English translation (which, given the presumably immense difficulties of translating such a self-conscious piece of writing, is itself a work of playfully restricted art). The barefaced cheek of its linguistic divertissements seems to anticipate the simultaneously nifty and irritating textual gimmickry of some of Jonathan Safran Foer’s work. There’s “Pig Latin” (“Unway ayday aboutyay iddaymay anyay essyay usbay Iyay oticednay ayay oungyay anmay…”), there’s “Spoonerisms” (“One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus…”), and there’s a whole sequence of “Permutations” by groups of words and letters of increasing numbers (don’t even ask). Exercises in Style was first published in French in 1947, and so it slightly predates the Nouveau Roman. It also precedes the formation of the Oulipo group — of which Queneau was a co-founder and which numbered Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among its members — even though, with its linguistic games and its creative restrictions, it is often seen as one of the movement’s exemplary works. The closest thing I can think of to an immediate predecessor is Chapter 14 of Ulysses, the “Oxen of the Sun Episode” set in the National Maternity Hospital, which is narrated in a progression of historically advancing styles, from the birth of language, through Old and Middle English, the language of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, right through to early 20th Century Dublin slang. The effect is quite different, however, because Joyce’s stylistic ventriloquisms are in the service of the substantial theme of gestation and birth. Queneau’s substantial theme, on the other hand, is style itself.
Though it seems the slightest kind of literature imaginable, Exercises in Style in fact places a very heavy weight of significance on its seemingly inconsequential diversions. “On the surface,” as John Banville puts it in The Book of Evidence, “that is where there is depth.” Queneau’s book seems all surface; it appears, as it were, to be all stylistic mouth and no narrative trousers. But it makes, or implies, some radical claims about the relationship between form and content, not least that the former isn’t simply a vehicle for the latter, but rather the way in which it is constituted. It is not so much an exercise in the privileging of style over substance, in other words, as an argument for the consubstantiality of the two. Just as in Kantian epistemology there is no separating the act of perception from the thing perceived, what we see through Queneau’s linguistic kaleidoscope is that there is no isolating the thing expressed from the mode of expression. Or, to put it another way — which the book exhaustively establishes as something one can always do — the ediummay is the essagemay (if you’ll orgivefay the iticralcray ichéclay).