Raymond Queneau (February 21, 1903 – October 25, 1976) was a French poet and novelist. In addition to his own writings, he edited and published Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Queneau had been a student of Kojève's during the 1930s and was, during this period, also close to Georges Bataille. It is hard to overestimate the influence of Kojève's re-reading of Hegel on twentieth century French intellectual life. It influenced an entire generation, including Queneau, Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre and later, Jacques Derrida, among many others. Kojève's humanistic reading of Phenomenology of Spirit focused on the "Master/Slave" dialectic as the prism through which all of history was read. This dialectic, in which the slave, while slave, becomes the true master because he performs the master's work, thus gaining real "mastery" over the world, which the "master" becomes enfeebled through inactivity, served as the basis for Kojève's and his disciples' reading of human society and human psychology. This dialectic is ultimately resolved in the Hegelian "end of history," which Queneau attempts to depict in his Le dimanche de la vie, or the Sunday of Life (1952), which takes as its point of departure the Hegelian notion of the "end of history."
Born in Le Havre, Normandy, Queneau was the only child of Auguste Queneau and Joséphine Mignot. He received his first baccalauréat in 1919 for Latin and Greek, and a second in 1920 for philosophy, then he went to Paris at the age of 17, where he studied at the Sorbonne (1921–1923) where he was a fair student of both letters and mathematics, graduating with certificates in philosophy and psychology.
Queneau performed military service as a zouave in Algeria and Morocco during the years 1925–1926. He married Janine Kahn in 1928, with whom he had a single son Jean-Marie in 1934, and remained with her until her death in 1972. Queneau was drafted in 1939 but demobilized in 1940, and through the remainder of World War II, he and his family lived with the painter Elie Lascaux in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat.
Queneau spent much of his life working for French publisher Gallimard, where he began as a reader in 1938, rose to be general secretary, and eventually became director of l’Encyclopédie de la Pléiade in 1956. During some of this time, he also taught at l’École nouvelle de Neuilly. He entered the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in 1950, where he became Satrap, and was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1951, l’Académie de l’Humour in 1952, and the jury of the Cannes Film Festival 1955–1957.
During this time, Queneau also acted as a translator, notably for Amos Tutuola's The Palm Wine Drunkard (l'Ivrogne dans la brousse) in 1953. Additionally, he edited and published Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Queneau had been a student of Kojève's during the 1930s and was, during this period, also close to Georges Bataille.
As an author, Queneau came to general attention in France with the publication in 1959 of his novel Zazie dans le métro (Zazie in the metro), which depicts a 12-year-old country girl's first visit to Paris, and with the film adaptation by Louis Malle in 1960 at the height of the Nouvelle Vague movement in French film. Zazie explores colloquial language as opposed to 'standard' written French; a distinction which is perhaps more marked in French than in some other languages. The first word of the book, the alarmingly long "Doukipudonktan" is a phonetic transcription of "D'où qu'ils puent donc tant?" "Why do they stink so much?."
Even before the founding of the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo) in 1960, Queneau was attracted to mathematics as a source of inspiration. He became a member of la Société Mathématique de France in 1948. Elements of a text, including seemingly trivial details such as the number of chapters, were things that had to be predetermined, perhaps even calculated. A later work, Les fondements de la littérature d’après David Hilbert (1976), alludes to the mathematician David Hilbert, and attempts to explore the foundations of literature by quasi-mathematical derivations from textual axioms.
Queneau is buried with his parents in the old cemetery of Juvisy-sur-Orge, in Essone outside Paris.
In 1924 Queneau met and briefly joined the Surrealists, but never really shared in the methods of automatic writing or Surrealist ultra-left politics. Like many surrealists, he entered psychoanalysis, but not in order to stimulate his creative abilities, but for personal reasons, like Michel Leiris, Georges Bataille, and Crevel.
Queneau questioned the Surrealist support of Joseph Stalin as early as 1926. Still, he remained on cordial terms with André Breton, founder of Surrealism, although he continued associating with Simone Kahn after Breton split up with her. Breton usually demanded that his followers ostacize his former girlfriends. Yet he seems to have understood, and accepted the fact that, for Queneau, it would be difficult to avoid Simone, since Queneau married her sister, Janine, in 1928. That year, while Breton left Simone for Suzanne, Simone ran around France, sometimes in the company of Janine and Queneau. Some traces of these journeys seem to survive in Children of Clay, where a rustic and right-wing inn-keeper salivates over sophisticated Parisian ladies.
There was, nonetheless, a significant break between him and André Breton in 1929. It may be said to begin, when in February, Breton did not invite Leiris and Tual, people Queneau was close to, to a meeting ( Pollizzotti, 314). Yet on March 11, Queneau served as an acting secretary at a meeting which discussed Leon Trotsky.
In 1930, the year Crevel, Eluard, Aragon and Breton joined the French Communist party, Queneau participated in Un cadavre (A Corpse, 1930), a vehemently anti-Bretonian pamphlet co-written by Bataille, Leiris, Prévert, Alejo Carpentier, Jacques Baron, J.-A. Boiffard, Robert Desnos, Georges Limbour, Max Morise, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Roger Vitrac.
Michel Leiris describes, in Brisees, how he first met Queneau in 1924, while vacationing in Nemours with Andre Masson, Armand Salacrou and Juan Gris. Incidentally, Salacrou was a childhood friend of Georges Limbour, who was a childhood friend of Jean Dubuffet. Their common friend Roland Tual met Queneau on a train from Le Havre and brought him over. Queneau was just a couple years younger and felt less accomplished. He did not make a big impression on the young bohemians. After Queneau came back from the army, around 1926-1927, he and Leiris met at the Certa bar (café Certa), near L’Opera, one of the Surrealist hangouts. On this occasion, when conversation delved into Eastern philosophy, Queneau’s comments showed a quiet superiority and erudite thoughtfulness. Leiris and Queneau became friends later while writing for Bataille’s Documents. Once, in the 1930s, Queneau and Leiris went together to hear "Art of the Fugue" in the Salle Pleyel.. They went to Ibiza, just before Spanish Civil War, together with Janine Kahn.
In Odile, the character of Saxel is based on Aragon.
For Boris Souvarine’s La Critique sociale (1930-34) Queneau mostly wrote brief reviews. One characterized Raymond Roussel as one whose ‘imagination combines passion of mathematician with rationality of the poet’. He wrote more scientific than literary reviews – on Pavlov, on Vernadsky (from whom he got a circular theory of sciences), and a review of a book on the history of equestrian caparisons by an artillery officer. he also helped with the passages on Engels and mathematical dialectic for Bataille’s article “A critique of the foundations of Hegelian dialectic.”
Exercises in Style (Exercices de style) is one of Queneau's most influential works. It tells the simple story of a man seeing the same stranger twice in one day. What makes the book unique — and a widely-used writing text — is that it tells that very short story in 99 different ways, demonstrating the tremendous variety of storytelling styles. The retellings range from breathless to humorous (especially "Maladroit," where the narrator recaps in one sentence the entire preceding page). By their nature, the various retellings of the story employ fine subtleties of the French language.
In each, the narrator gets on the "S" bus (now no. 84), witnesses an altercation between a man (a zazou) with a long neck and funny hat and another passenger, and then sees the same person two hours later at the Gare St.-Lazare getting advice on adding a button to his overcoat.
A graphical homage to Queneau, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style,, a graphical story adaptation of the book's concept by Matt Madden, was published in 2005.
Juliette Greco made popular his song 'Si tu t'imagines.'
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