Since my 26th birthday has come and gone, it's about time I finished writing about the books I received for my 25th birthday, isn't it? Well, truth be told, I've yet to read all of them, but I have read one of those given to me by Colin: Exercises in Style (1947) by Raymond Queneau.
Oddly enough, I was offered a review copy of this back in the dim, distant past. I said yes-please-thank-you-very-much, and they sent me... The Fox by D.H. Lawrence. (Which, incidentally, was very good - read more here). Not sure how that happened, but it put Exercises in Style onto my radar, and I was pleased when Col gave it to me. Before I go further, I must add that it was translated by Barbara Wright. Thanks, Barbara!
The premise is simple, and the execution is complex. An everyday incident takes place, described thus on the blurb:
Queneau's experiment is to find as many ways as possible to express this anecdote. There are ninety-nine different styles used - some are expected (Past, Present, Reported Speech), some are quirky (Couplets, Cross-Examination) and some are just plain weird (Paragoge, Parts of Speech, Permutations by Groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 Letters).On a crowded bus at midday, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him deliberately. When a seat is vacated, the first man takes it. Later, in another part of town, the man is spotted again, while being advised by a friend to have another button sewn onto his overcoat.
This definitely isn't a book to read cover-to-cover in one go. I read it gradually over the course of several months, which worked out to be a pretty good approach. Exercises in Style is, of course, more of an experiment in what can be done with words than a gripping beginning-middle-end read. As such, it is interesting in the abstract, wider-view - but would be far too repetitive if read in one go. I have to admit to flicking past the styles which removed any linguistic sense from the anecdote, and the Dog Latin meant little to me, but I was impressed by how varied the same unremarkable story can be, simply through stylistic choices.
Perhaps Exercises in Style should be on hand for the aspiring novelist - it should certainly be flicked through by anybody who claims to like novels 'in a plain, unfancy style' - because it reveals that there is no such thing as a plain style. True, few novels would focalise wholly through smell, feel, or sound (as some of these styles do) but Queneau reveals how many different ways a writer can approach even the most mundane objects. I'd recommend anybody interested in language or the importance of writing in fiction should have a copy of this on the shelves, to dip in and out of, smiling.
It goes without saying that, being in translation, some of Queneau's nuances will have been lost - perhaps more important in Exercises in Style than other books, but the fact of translation doesn't diminish the point that language choices affect the ways we read. Indeed, it enhances it.
Rather than go on any further, I think I'll type out a few examples, so you can see for yourself the sort of variety which Queneau creates:
In the dog days, while I was in a bird cage at feeding time, I noticed a young puppy with a neck like a giraffe who, ugly and venomous as a toad, wore yet a precious beaver on his head. This queer fish obviously had a bee in his bonnet and was quite bats, he started yak-yakking at a wolf in sheep's clothing claiming that he was treading on his dogs with his beetle-crushers. But the cock got a flea in his ear; that foxed him, and quiet as a mouse he ran like a hare for the perch.
I saw him again in front of the zoo with a young buck who was telling him to bear in mind a certain drill about his pelage.
Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which hat was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. A long neck was sported by the gentleman. The man standing next to him was being grumbled at by the latter because of the jostling which was being inflicted on him by him. As soon as a vacant seat was espied by the young gentleman, it was made the object of his precipitate movements and it became sat down upon.
The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He was clothed in an overcoat and was having a remark made to him by a friend who happened to be there, to the effect that it was necessary to have an extra button put on it.
On the bus once (an S, or of that ilk)
I saw a little runt, a wretched milk-
Sop, voicing discontent, though round his turban
He had a plait, this fancy-pants suburban.
How he complained, this strange metamorphosis
With elongated neck and halitosis:
One standing near who'd come to man's estate
Refused, he said, to circumnavigate
His toes, when passengers got on and rode,
Late for lunch, panting, to some chaste abode.
There was no scandal; this sad personage
Found where to sit and end his pilgrimage.
As I went back towards the Latin Quarter
He reappeared, this lad of milk and water;
I heard his foppish friend say with dispassion:
"The buttons on your coat are not in fashion."