Throw any label at him that you want–writer’s writer, literary eccentric, the last of the great polymaths–and Raymond Queneau will dodge it. A novelist, poet, mathematician and linguistic theorist, retiring in demeanor yet one of French literature’s most influential éminences, Queneau began his career with a brief and tumultuous passage through Surrealism and devoted the final decade of his life to the experimental literary-scientific collective Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), which he co-founded. Along the way he produced an oeuvre, as Jordan Stump rightly notes in his introduction to Letters, Numbers, Forms, the first selection in English of Queneau’s essays, that is “among the smartest and most restless in all of recent literature.” Despite Queneau’s rarefied affiliations, however, his writing is not just for the happy few. The novel Zazie in the Metro (1959) has sold more than half a million copies since publication and served as the basis for Louis Malle’s classic film, and his tongue-in-cheek primer Exercises in Style, which reads like a novel written by Strunk and White on acid, has been continuously in print since 1947. Queneau was an experimentalist who did not talk down to his audience.
Raymond Queneau was born in Normandy in 1903, and had just completed his studies in philosophy at the Sorbonne when André Breton published the Manifesto of Surrealism of 1924. He soon joined the Surrealists and began publishing in their magazine: the first of these writings, a dream narrative that begins with the dreamer wondering what the English slang term is for “urinal,” already suggests Queneau’s lifelong enthusiasm for linguistic permutations; the last, a 1928 review of a Chirico exhibit in which he dismisses the painter as an “appalling buffoon,” among other things, shows an equally abiding talent for invective. But Queneau’s association with Surrealism was not to outlast the decade. In 1929, having recently married Janine Kahn, Breton’s sister-in-law, Queneau found himself on the opposite side of the family feud when André and Simone Breton divorced.
Queneau’s differences with Breton extended beyond broken family ties, of course. From the start, profound divergences in attitude and interests placed Queneau in Surrealism’s dissident camp. His love of linguistic fancy was not shared by Breton, for whom, as one critic put it, “language was precisely not a game,” and his aptitude in mathematics and the hard sciences aroused the distrust of the technophobic Surrealist leader and put Breton’s pretensions of erudition to shame. Queneau also set himself apart by rejecting such Surrealist mainstays as automatic writing and by practicing an iconoclastic but ultimately life-affirming sense of humor that had little to do with the nihilistic, cruelly gravid “black humor” promoted by the group. He later attacked the whole concept of black humor as nothing more than “a ready excuse” for turpitude and cowardice: “If they commit a dirty trick, they do it in the spirit of humor, and of course if it’s meant in the spirit of humor, we can only bow down before it…but they, the humorists, never laugh at themselves…. The humorist can’t tolerate not being tolerated; a burst of laughter wounds him to the very core of his seriosity.” In 1930 Queneau sealed his self-exclusion by contributing to the anti-Breton broadside A Corpse, in which he portrayed his former friend with “a finger up his asshole” signing a pact with the Devil.
Given such invective and bile, one wonders what could possibly have drawn Queneau to Surrealism in the first place. One attraction seems to have been fellowship. Queneau was by his own admission “exceedingly shy” and must have felt a rare sense of belonging among the Surrealist oddballs–though even here he seems to have preferred the gaggle of eccentrics (such as Jacques Prévert and Yves Tanguy) who shared a studio in Montparnasse over the comparatively orthodox clan that gathered uptown in Breton’s Montmartre neighborhood. Whatever the case, his split from Surrealism left him feeling “guilty and pointless,” and he spent the next several years hiding out at the Bibliothèque Nationale. The result was a voluminous unpublished study of “literary madmen” and, in 1937, the vitriolic roman à clef Odile, a thinly veiled satire of his time among the Surrealists. Only after the war did the antagonism between Queneau and Breton subside, as the two men, who like the rest of the world had bigger grievances to nurture, re-established tentatively amicable relations.