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.

The postwar years found Queneau devoting his attention to Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, the “science of imaginary solutions,” before joining mathematician François Le Lionnais in 1960 to form Oulipo. In an early lecture, Queneau defined Oulipo’s goal as being “to offer writers new ‘structures,’ of a mathematical nature, and also to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that might contribute to literary activity: encouragements for inspiration, so to speak, or else, in a way, aids to creativity.” In opposition to what it considered the illusory freedom peddled by Surrealism and other avant-gardes, Oulipo sought to outwit the restrictions inherent in language by substituting constraints of its own devising. As Queneau famously put it, “An Oulipian writer is a rat who himself builds the maze from which he sets out to escape.”

These constraints range from the fairly straightforward (such as the procedure known as N+7, a grown-up’s version of Mad Libs in which every noun of a given text is replaced by the seventh noun following it in the dictionary) to more challenging forms such as the lipogram, which eliminates all words containing a chosen letter–no doubt the most famous modern example being Georges Perec’s 300-page novel La Disparition (A Void), written entirely without the letter e. Other Oulipian creative aids include univocalism (the lipogram’s mirror image, in which only one vowel is used) and seemingly countless varieties of transposition and transformation, among them the “translation” of a fourteen-line sonnet into a fifteen-line poem, still in iambic pentameter and without a word being added. (The excellent Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, teems with such examples.) While to some this might seem like mere thumb-twiddling, the larger implication of removing writing from the realm of literary inspiration is that it widens our mental parameters, rejuvenating thought by reinvigorating the means of expressing that thought.

Indeed, a number of Queneau’s essays from as early as the 1930s return insistently to the need for recalibrating the French tongue. His most sustained arguments on the subject favor everyday oral speech over stilted written language and call for a radically new form of spelling based on real-life phonetics–the desired result being “a modern written French…corresponding to the language as it’s actually spoken.” That statement was made in 1937, when the divide between written and spoken usage, like that between educated and uneducated social strata, was much more pronounced than it is today. From among the few illustrations available at the time, Queneau cited the “oral style” evident in Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and in certain popular songs: such works, he contended, pointed the way to a vital linguistic revolution, one that would take its cue from actual usage rather than from the dust-laden ars rhetorica imposed by the Académie Française. “The most healthy (and sanitary) task of an ideal Academy would be not to codify syntactic forms or lexicological innovations, but to pave the way for the death of our current sclerotic French,” he was still saying a decade later.

Queneau turned his own writings into a lab for his experiments, and many of them are still exhilaratingly funny. Zazie in the Metro, for instance, begins with the puzzling vocable “Howcanaystinksotho,” then goes on to present a barrage of compounds, bastardized spellings, changes in syntactic register and other liberties that freshen, rather than obscure, the slim plot. (Admittedly, and despite Barbara Wright’s heroic translation, the humor of it comes through much more sharply in the original.) Such verbal contortions also account for the lasting appeal of Exercises in Style, which describes the same banal incident on a bus ninety-nine times over, in modes ranging from tabloid-speak to a classical sonnet to a three-act play. The narrator of the chapter “Notation,” for instance, begins his tale unassumingly: “In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been having a tug-of-war with it.” Not surprisingly, the narrator of “Reactionary” feels compelled to add his two cents: “Naturally the bus was pretty well full and the conductor was surly. You will find the cause of these things in the 8-hour day and the nationalisation schemes. And then the French lack organisation and a sense of their civic duties.” There’s also a telegraphic version (“Bus Crowded Stop Yngman Longneck Plaitencircled Hat”) and one specifically geared “For ze Frrensh.” The sheer breadth of expression and suggestion Queneau teases out of this single inane anecdote is dizzying and anticipates the verbal gamesmanship of Oulipian writers such as Perec, Mathews and Italo Calvino.

Unfortunately, Queneau’s verbal play, so central to many of his ruminations, is also the aspect that comes through least successfully in the present collection. Queneau would try the skills of any translator. In addition to treating words like Silly Putty, he had an ear for capturing language as it flew spontaneously from people’s mouths: whether these phrases are reproduced in standard spelling or in the phonetic variety he advocated, one can hear them in his retelling as surely as if one were standing in a Parisian bar or market stall. Jordan Stump does a fine job of bringing Queneau’s discursive prose into clear and natural English, but he generally comes up short when trying to replicate the author’s transcriptions of the demotic idiom. Although he tries gamely to re-create suitably colloquial English equivalents, he doesn’t demonstrate Queneau’s intuitive grasp of the cadences, elisions and contractions that characterize the spoken tongue. More often than not, his “daily patter” falls flat, when it isn’t so literally rendered as to flirt with gibberish (“Time! C’mon! You think I have any, me, to think about that stuff!”). Granted, we are dealing here with the very heart of what makes a given language unique. But rather than trying to convey Queneau’s examples with a kind of Frenglish that exists nowhere in speech or writing, the translator might have done better to mine the rich American idiomatic tradition for more convincing cues.

The irony is that by the late 1960s, even Queneau had come to realize that the gash between spoken and written French had gone a long way toward suturing itself–not with new spellings patterned after street talk but through the relative homogenization of class and regional dialects brought about by the great equalizer, television. It was an outcome he had not predicted, and though in some ways it vindicated his original thesis, he could not help greeting the phenomenon with resigned ambivalence. “Through repeated exposure to other versions of themselves on the small screen…the French people have begun to pay close attention to the way they speak,” he wrote in 1970. “If things continue as they’re currently going, a more or less homogenous French language will be spoken from Lake Chad to the banks of the Saint-Laurent–a somewhat impoverished French, but nevertheless one with a new lease on life, as they say.”

This is the author’s concluding statement in this volume, and it raises an interesting question: what would Queneau, who died in 1976, have made of more recent techno-linguistic phenomena, such as that truncated bane of parents and educators, IM-speak? Is there that much of a gulf between Zazie‘s verbal rebuses or Perec’s e-less La Disparition and such widespread transcriptions as “cu,” “u2” and “LMAO”–talk about your lipograms! It’s almost as if Queneau’s revolution had finally taken place, some seventy years after its most ardent proponent had first imagined its dimensions and several decades after he had essentially given it up for lost.