As writing teachers and crime scene investigators know,
a hundred different people could witness the same
incident and describe it differently.  But only Raymond
Queneau, a French author with ties to the Surrealist
movement, has put all one hundred accounts into a book.

Okay, not quite one hundred. Queneau
stopped after ninety-nine retellings of
his story (at least in the first edition
of his work).  The resulting book,
Exercises in Style (1947), may have
started as a lark, but is now Queneau's
most beloved work, translated into
more than 30 languages, from Pashto
to Esperanto—not an easy feat, given
the author’s frequent wordplay and
untranslatable effects in the original
French.  

Who would imagine that the repetition
of the same sequence of events, presented 99 times in
a row, would result in a classic?   And Queneau adds to
the challenge by choosing a banal incident as the recurring
'plot' of
Exercises in Style, a humdrum encounter without
even enough drama or inherent interest to justify a short
story, let alone a whole book of them.

Here is the incident:  a young man on a crowded bus
gets upset at a fellow passenger, whom he accuses of
stepping on his toes whenever people get on or off the
vehicle.  After a testy exchange, the young man moves
to a vacant seat.  Later that same day, he is seen standing
in front of a train station, where a friend is advising him
to adjust one of the buttons on his overcoat.

That’s all?  

Yes, that's all.  Oh, Queneau throws in a few more details.
We are told that the young man has a long neck, and
wears a plaited string on his hat instead of a ribbon, but
not much more.  The key milestones in the narrative arc—
if I can apply such noble phrase on so meager a tale—
remain stepped-on toes and a poorly-placed button.  
Your Uncle Willie’s 16 millimeter vacation films are a
paragon of excitement by comparison.

But the very banality of the raw material makes
Queneau's achievement all the more impressive.   As
the title of the book states clearly, only the
style of the
narrations draws the reader into this oft-told tale. We
read the story in the form of an astrological forecast:
"When midday strikes you will be on the rear of a bus…."
Or in the style of an official letter: "I beg to advise you
of the following facts….Today, at roughly twelve noon,
I was present on the platform of a bus….."  Or delivered
with scientific precision: "In a bus of the S-line, 10 meters
long, 3 wide, 6 high, at 3 km. 600 m. from its starting
point…." We get it in the passive voice: "It was midday.  
The bus was being got into by passengers…."  We
read the story as conveyed by a telegram: "BUS
CROWDED STOP…."

No Hollywood studio will ever make a movie out
of
Exercises in Style (although some very fine movies,
from
Rashomon to Vantage Point have drawn on the
same concept of multiple narratives of a single incident).  
Nor will a reader looking for a gripping page-turner find
much reason to turn these pages.  But writers, and
especially aspiring writers, can benefit from Queneau's
quirky volume.  Anyone teaching a class on fiction
techniques should consider this for the syllabus—and
a perfect class assignment would be to invite students
to come up with their own version of the bus-and-button
story.  

That said, I have my gripes with Queneau.  Like many
of his colleagues in the Oulipo movement—a loose
gathering of experimental authors that also included
François Le Lionnais,
Georges Perec and Italo Calvino
—he is almost obsessively interested in wordplay and
numeric patterns.  This led Queneau to include a dozen
or so almost unreadable chapters in
Exercises in Style,
based on anagrams, pig Latin, spoonerisms or other
mind-numbing methods of rearranging letters on a page.  I
am hardly opposed to word games, and have a lamentable
habit of indulging in alliterations, puns and other ignoble
techniques in my own writing.  But Queneau goes several
steps too far in his mania, and soon forgets that there is
difference between an exercise in style and a puzzle.  
A cryptogram is not prose, no matter how cleverly
constructed.

On the other hand, how unfortunate that Queneau did not
look around at his own intellectual circles in postwar
France, and build some chapters on the reigning dogmas
and ideologies of his day.  I would have happily read a
Marxist account of the bus story, as well Freudian, Fascist,
Existentialist, Jungian and Behaviorist, to cite a few
promising perspectives on the inhumanity of bus passenger
to bus passenger.  I am still unsure about whether such
ideologies grasp the essence of our quotidian lives, but
they definitely impact how true believers write stories, and
any inquiry into style that ignores the sway of ideology is
inevitably incomplete.

Yet Queneau, for all my fault-finding, still retains his place
in the syllabus, and demands inclusion on any serious
writer's bookshelf.  Nor will this change for the foreseeable
future…and for a very good reason: no one else has done
a better job at exploring the range of narrative styles in
one compact work. But someone else should write
another book of this sort, updating and expanding the
concept, with less wordplay and more satirical insight.
I could only imagine what a Zadie Smith or a Jonathan
Lethem, a David Mitchell or Jennifer Egan would do with
a similar project. (Indeed, Lethem contributes his homage
to Queneau in the
new English translation of Exercises in
Style
.)  Given the ascendancy of fragmented and recursive
narrative techniques in current-day literary fiction, the
experimental approach that Queneau unleashed on
an unsuspecting public back in the 1940s might just
find an even more receptive audience in the present
moment.   



Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent
book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.


Published May 16, 2013
Exercises in Style

by Raymond Queneau

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
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