A man with a noticeably long neck and a plaited cord around his hat instead of a ribbon boards a crowded bus called the S bus. Each time the bus makes a stop, his neighbor steps on his foot, prompting conflict. When a seat opens up, however, he takes a seat. Two hours later, the man is found with a friend, who tells him his coat needs a new button.
Raymond Queneau’s 1947 avant-garde novella Exercises in Style retells that exact banal story in ninety-nine different ways. Examples of this include the chapter ‘Cockney’, written as if told in a cockney accent; ‘Ode’, which tells the story as a musical composition; ‘Medical’, which explains everyday phenomena as if they applied to a doctor’s diagnostic criteria; ‘Onomatopoeia’, using words resembling sounds to narrate the story; ‘Comedy’, a three-act play; ‘Reactionary’, narrated by a politically conservative observer and; ‘Haiku’, which reduces the story to seventeen syllables. While many may see this as pointless and indubitably boring, Queneau’s book is nothing short of a triumph, demonstrating not only the vast possibilities of linguistic styles while storytelling, but also the power of language itself.
In a sense, Queneau’s story gains somewhat of a mythic quality throughout the book; by its mere retelling, the story metamorphoses from a completely average event into a legend of sorts, bound to secure itself stubbornly into the conscience of any reader. The reader is never given any reason to care for the characters; as a matter of fact, the reader never really figures out who the characters are at all. Moreover, the story itself says nothing interesting or significant whatever – it is as bare and trite as could possibly be. These factors should deter anyone from seeking in the story pleasure, but it remarkably does quite the opposite, with the tale becoming increasingly fascinating with each retelling.
Exercises is all about language and literary form; it thrives only as a result of its ambition in toying with different techniques and styles. Although a simple and quick read, Queneau succeeds tremendously in communicating his fervent love of language. The novel forces one to consider how they use language on a daily basis – what words they use, how they use them, how their thoughts are channeled into language, and how they build their narratives. It reminds one to consider their words more carefully and to explore alternate methods of speech and presentation. With incomparable zest and wit, Queneau’s Exercises in Style is an exemplary work of postwar French avant-garde literature and is bound to secure a place in the heart of every eccentric who dares open it.
Buy here: https://www.amazon.ca/Exercises-Style-Raymond-Queneau/dp/0811207897
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