A long-necked man in a felt hat gets onto a crowded bus. Time passes. He starts an argument with the adjacent passenger over being stepped on each time the bus makes a stop. Finally, a seat opens up, and he dives into it. A couple of hours later, he’s in a busy plaza with a friend, who says his coat needs a new button.
That short — some would say “pointless” — story is the heart of one of the signal accomplishments in 20th-century avant-garde literature. In “Exercises in Style,” first published in Paris in 1947, Raymond Queneau repeats it 99 times, each time transforming it in some way. The first variation, called “Double Entry,” states everything twice: “Towards the middle of the day and at midday I happened to be on and got on to. . . .” Later variations include “Parechesis,” where the sound made by “bu” is repeated as often as possible (“But busseqently I buheld him with a buckish buddy who was busuading him to budge a button on his bum-freezer;” “Syncope,” where sounds are subtracted from the words (“I gt io bs full opssgers”); “Official letter” (“In view of these circumstances . . . ); and “Opera English,” which translator Barbara Wright invented whole-cloth to replace Queneau’s “Italianisms.”
“Exercises in Style” was a revolution, a book that proclaimed its powerful ideas simply by pursuing their iron logic. An inveterate experimenter who was particularly attracted to rendering spoken French on the page, Queneau shows here how the act of writing draws our thoughts into prescribed channels, conditioning how we construct narratives for ourselves and, ultimately, what we think about the world around us. In “Free verse,” for instance, poetry’s preference for concision and suggestion makes the story into an elusive, melancholy ode. It begins, “the bus / full / the heart / empty / the neck / long,” before concluding “of that heart, of that neck, of that ribbon, of those feet, / of that vacant place, / and of that button.” By contrast, “Cross-examination” sticks to observable facts and openly retreats from any statements about intangibles such as feelings or aspirations.
“Exercises” has remained a challenge to writers to interact with words more fully. Queneau intended his little book to be “a kind of rust-remover to language.” In the six decades since its original publication, it has been translated into more than 30 languages (including Esperanto), inspiring stylists on the level of Umberto Eco, Danilo Kis and Patrik Ourednik to find solutions to Queneau’s prompts in their own mother tongues. It has also been translated into other literary forms, including a comic book and a stage play. This is certainly in keeping with Queneau’s vision: As co-founder of the literary group the OuLiPo — an abbreviation of Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature — he helped initiate a kind of open-source school dedicated to discovering forms and exercises that writers might use to uncover the latent possibilities in their work.
It is good to see that New Directions has now republished “Exercises in Style” in that spirit. This new edition expands on Wright’s masterful translation of the original 99 exercises with 28 that Queneau subsequently wrote (not previously translated) and new exercises written by Jonathan Lethem , Lynne Tillman and Enrique Vila-Matas . These latter are interesting for how they expand the scope of the project . Ben Marcus, for instance, gives us a nihilistic version called “Nothing” that begins, “Into nowhere came nothing, least of all a bus.” One wishes New Directions had conscripted 99 writers to rewrite “Exercises” in total.
The only disappointment about this edition is that it continues to leave us American readers marooned with Wright’s British translation. Considering how concerned Queneau was with idiom, it is no small thing to want to see how segments such as “Cockney” (which replaces Queneau’s “Vulgaire”) might have been re-created in, say, “Brooklyn” or “New Orleans.” That omission remains standing as an open challenge for a consummate American Francophile. Lydia Davis, Harry Mathews, John Ashbery — are you there?
Esposito is the author of “The End of Oulipo?,” published by Zero.
EXERCISES IN STYLE
By Raymond Queneau
Translated from the French by Barbara Wright and Chris Clarke
New Directions. 262 pp. Paperback, $15.95