Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
"BUS CROWDED STOP YNGMAN LONGNECK PLAITENCIRCLED HAT APOSTROPHISES UNKNOWN PASSENGER UNAPPARENT REASON STOP QUERY FINGERS FEET HURT CONTACT HEEL ALLEGED PURPOSELY STOP YNGMAN ABANDONS DISCUSSION PROVACANT SEAT STOP 1400 HOURS PLACE ROME YNGMAN LISTENS SARTORIAL ADVICE FRIEND STOP MOVE BUTTON STOP SIGNED ARCTURUS
At least a part of my acute disappointment with Raymond Queneau's famous Exercises in Style (1947) makes little sense. Despite the title that clearly refers to style and restricts the scope of the work, I had expected something like Kurosawa's Rashomon, where different accounts of the same event are provided by several people, from different points of view, thus yielding contradictory yet somehow complementary stories. Mr. Queneau obviously delivers on his promise and the book illustrates how a simple story can be told using different styles (manners) of writing.
A passenger on a Parisian bus describes how he noticed a fellow commuter, conspicuous by his long neck, having a slight altercation with yet another passenger. Later in the day, the narrator sees the same long-necked man talking to another man and being told that he needs another button in his overcoat. This is it! This is the entire story that Mr. Queneau tells 99 (yes, ninety-nine) times, using different writing styles.
While some retellings read well - for instance, the story told as a dream (#7), as a blurb (#24), the Tactile telling (#56), and, perhaps most impressively, the Opera English style (#83) - and some others are clever and funny - like the retelling entitled Awkward (#50), which indeed reminds me of my own lame writing, or the Parts of Speech (#74) list, where the author offers a buffet of words for the reader to construct the story DYI style - many are just plain graceless and devoid of any charm or humor - for instance the "styles" that omit the beginnings of words, their mid-parts, or endings. It is because of the weak, forced retellings that the whole book has - to me - a belabored, artificial feeling. I hesitate to say this, but the quantity by far dominates the quality.
One needs to praise the translator, Barbara Wright, for superbly handling the job that must have been really difficult. Alas - at least in my slow-witted and simpleminded view - the book itself is an inconsequential literary trifle.
One and a half stars.
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