Exercises in Style

Exercises in Style



The Pequod Review:

Raymond Queneau’s seminal book Exercises in Style begins with a very short and very simple story:

In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug-of-war with 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 on to it. Two hours later, I meet 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.

And then Queneau proceeds to retell this same story in 99 different ways. His story variations are alternately brilliant and strained, as he comes up with a number of inventive ways to reconfigure this basic scene. Here for example is “Logical Analysis”:

Bus platform. That's the place.
About midday. That's the time.
A passengers' quarrel. That's the action.
Young man.
Hat. Long thin neck.
A young man with a hat and a plaited cord round it. That's the chief character.
A person.
A person. That's the second character.
Me. That's the third character, narrator.
Words. That's what was said.
Seat vacant.
Seat taken.
A seat that was vacant and then taken. That's the result.
The gare Saint-Lazare.
An hour later.
A friend.
A button.
Another phrase heard. That's the conclusion.
Logical conclusion.

Here is “Blurb,” a short story told in the form of a publishing blurb:

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 in 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 the mysterious individual listening with the greatest attention to the advice of a friend, a past master of Sartorial Act. The whole makes a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare fidelity.

And so on. This is rich and high quality work of experimental fiction.