March 19, 2013

Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau [France]

The only son of Auguste Queneau and Joséphine Mignot, Raymond Queneau was born in Le Havre on February 21, 1903. He received his B.A. in 1919 for Latin and Greek, and a second B.A. degree in philosophy before studying at the Sorbonne, as a student of philosophy and psychology from 1921-1923.
     During the years 1925-1925, Queneau served as a zouave in Algeria and Morocco, and was later drafted into the French Army after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. The following hear he was demobilized and remained with his family living with the painter Élie Lascaux in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat throughout the rest of the War.
      In 1928 Queneau had married Janine Kahn, with whom he had a son, Jean-Marie, in 1934. He remained married to Kahn until her death in 1972.
     For much of his life Queneau worked as a reader and, later, director of l’Encyclopédie de la Pléiade for the noted Gallimard publishing house. He also taught at l’École Nouvelle de Neuilly, and became involved with the Collège de Pataphysique in 1950.
     In his early years Queneau became connected with the French Surrealist, but did not share their methods of automatic writing nor let far-left politics. After his African experience, however, he again me Michel Leiris, becoming close friends. Although he remained on cordial terms with Surrealist-head André Breton, he strongly questioned their support of the USSR in the mid-1920s, while remaining also good friends with his wife’s sister, Simone, who had previously been a companion to Breton. In the early 1930s, however, Queneau significantly separated from the Surrealists, since Eluard, Aragon, and Breton had  by then joined the Communist party. By that time Queneau had become involved with Un Cadavre (A Corpse), a vehemently anti-Breton pamphlet written by Bataille, Leiris, Prévert, Alejo Carpentier, Jacques Baron, J.-A. Boiffand, Robert Desnos, Georges Limbour, Max Morise, Georges Ribemon-Dessaignes, and Roger Vitac. Queneau also wrote some book reviews for La Critique sociale in the early 1930s.
     In that same period, the author began writing fiction, his work being Le Chiendent (The Bark Tree) of 1933, which would begin a long career of fiction writing, including some 18 volumes, including Les Enfants due Limon (Children of Clay, published in English by Sun and Moon Press), Pierrot mon ami, Loin de Rueil, Saint-Glinglin, and, perhaps his most famous work, Zazie dans le metro, which was made as a movie. One of his most famous works is Exercises in Style, which tells the same story in 99 different ways.
     Although best known as a fiction writer, Queneau also wrote several volumes of poetry, beginning in 1937 with Chêne et chien and continuting in 1943 with Les Ziaux (Eyewaters). Among his many other books of poetry were Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes ( One Hundred Million Million Poems), Le chien à mandolin, and Courir les rues (Pounding the Pavements)
He also wrote essays, articles, and journals.
     Always attracted to mathematics as a source of inspiration, Queneau joined the Société Mathématique de France in 1948, which further led him to works that embedded structural issues into stories. In 1960 he helped to found the Ouvrior de literature potentielle (Oulipo), a group which included writers, mathematicians, and musicians interested in such structured works. The group remains active still today.
     Today Queneau is seen as one of the major French authors of the 20th century. He was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1951.


Chêne et chien: roman en vers (Paris: Denoël,1937); Les Ziaux (Paris: Gallimard, 1943);  L’Instant fatal (1946); Petite cosmogonie portative (1950); Cent mille milliards de poems (Paris: Gallimard, 1961); Le chien à la mandolin (Paris: Gallimard, 1965); Battre le champagne (Paris: Gallimard, 1968); Courir les rues (Paris: Gallimard, 1967); Fendre les flots (Paris: Gallimard, 1969); Morale élémentaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975)


Raymond Queneau: Poems, trans. by Teo Savory (Santa Barbara, California: Unicorn Press, 1971); One Hundred Million Million Poems (Paris: Kickshaws, 1983); Pounding the Pavements; Beating the Bushes; and Other Pataphysical Poems (Greensboro, North Carolina, Unicorn Press, 1985); Eyewaters, trans. by Stephen Kessler and Daniela Hurezanu (in manuscript)


Blue birds above the green when on the ground
heard they are seen and seen they’re also heard
but wings extend the borders of the land
but from their feathers winged fires spread

Clouds come alive in various changing forms
agile chameleons seen by the sharpened eye
ideas and then their opposites in turn
protean in the limitless blue sky

they’re sailing through the purest excellence
of sublime laws stamped into the horizon
the stars make the moon’s games and their own
visibly present in the course of a season

—Translated from the French by Stephen Kessler and Daniela Hurezanu

(from Les Ziaux, 1943)


Green seahorses
singular swimmers
you have filled
my winter dreams

So much for preferring
Pegasus! Licorn!
gray ivory lice
routinely trotting

The passerby flees
the streetlamp’s light
beneath which is buried
a hopeless corpse

  —Translated from the French by Stephen Kessler and Daniela Hurezanu

(from Les Ziaux, 1943)

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