Since I am working on a novel, I am reading novels. Novelist sum, ergo I steal. For some reason, I've decided to give myself a dose of Conrad, since my novel is about politics and murder. But I've also been treating myself to Raymond Queneau's Le Chiendent. This was translated as "The Barking Tree" a long time ago. Recently, NYRB re-issued it as witchgrass -- since that variety of plant is what Chiendent literally means. Barbara Wright's intro to the book is here.
Here, according to Wright, is how the book germinated:
He [Queneau] has described how, on his voyage to Greece: "I had taken Descartes'
Discourse on Method with me, so I decided to translate it into spoken French. With this idea in mind I began to write something which later became a novel called
Le Chiendent. You will find a good deal of popular language in it, but also a
few efforts in the philosophical sense, I seem to remember."
That seem to remember is good. When Sartre, in La Nausee, writes about a tree trunk, he is treading in R.Q.'s footsteps, except that Sartre cannot find his trees and things in general funny. Queneau is one of the great comic writers. Those people, and there are all too many of them, who think that French literature has no sense of humor have never read Le Chiendent. They probably wouldn't make sense of it anyway.
How does Descartes work, as a platform for the novel? The famous idea that existence can be deduced from thought -- since thought presumes thinking, thinking presumes a thinker, a thinker presumes a quelconque -- becomes a sort of science fiction in R.Q. Etienne Marcel is your regular on the subway train -- into work at seven, out of work at six. In R.Q.'s vision, he is merely one of a world of shadows, until one day he stands in front of a shop window.
"Already in this first book there is much that in retrospect can be seen as typical Queneau; the accident which is to transform Etienne's life is not something noble, magnificent, transcendental: it is merely the ridiculous sight of two little rubber ducks swimming in a shop window-in a hat. To prove that the hat is waterproof.
This, and particularly the fact that he discovers that the little ducks have been there for two years without his noticing them, is enough to start Etienne off on a metaphysical journey and a new life-in which outwardly, however, nothing is changed.
The effect of the little ducks is reinforced by something equally banal, but which this time has consequences not so much in the domain of mind as in that of matter. From his commuter's train, Etienne notices in the desolate suburbs north of Paris a hut which has CHIPS (i.e. , French fries) written up on it in large letters. When he decides to visit this forlorn place, for no reason, he there meets several people who are to have a vital importance in his life. The other objects that Queneau chooses to set Etienne off on his meditations on appearance and reality, and on the further train of reflections in which he becomes so passionately involved, are also no more world-shattering than an ordinary potato peeler and a hard-boiled egg cutter."
The "no reason" underlined by Wright is an allusion, probably clearer at the time than now, to Gide. And in fact Gide's best novel, Les Caves du Vatican, has just this kind of plot. A blank in life -- the gratuitous act, the non-reason -- is an invitation to reasons and highly motivated acts. Society abhors a vacuum. More than that -- give society a vacuum, and it will give you back a vacuum cleaner. The sovereignty of non-sense, which Bataille, Queneau's friend, found so glorious, comes down to earth in R.Q. with a crash.
Wright has another essay that profiles Queneau's entire life and work in Context.
Finally, for those who are unafraid to risk the sometimes recondite corners of the French dictionary, there's a remininscence of Queneau during the resistance in Magazine-litteraire.
It's by Jean Lescure, who published a magazine, the Messenger, during the occupation. It's in that Magazine that some of the first Exercises de style appeared. Or is it the Batons chiffres poems? Ourselves, we think the fey, pataphysical side of Queneau has been overdone by his readers. He was far more than an amateur of the kind of things you get sick of reading Carroll's Sylvia and Bruno. But here's an interesting graf:
"Ces mots et ce qu'ils pouvaient faire de la po�sie (tout autant que ce que la po�sie pouvait en faire) occupaient nos conversations - bien plus que les � id�es � que Bataille agitait tous les mardis soirs chez lui, dans le Coll�ge de sociologie qu'il avait plus ou moins r�veill� et qui r�unissait donc Queneau, Leiris, Blanchot, Fardoulis-Lagrange, Ubac, Fr�naud et moi. C'�tait le temps o� Georges lisait obstin�ment Nietzsche, et nous administrait hebdomadairement les �blouissantes r�flections de ses lectures (� quoi nous cessions de comprendre quoi que ce soit au bout d'une demi-heure, mais qu'il suffisait � Blanchot de reprendre, du fond de son fauteuil, pour qu'en trois minutes tout redevienne lumineux, riche et nous autorise � un d�part repu)."
"These words (of a poem quoted in the above graf-R.) and what they could do to poetry (or what poetry could do to them) occupied our conversations -- much more than the 'ideas" that Bataille agitated every Tuesday at his (RQ'S) office, in the College of Sociology that he had more or less re-animated and which united Queneau, Leiris, Blanchot, Fardoulis-Lagrange, Ubac, Frenaud and myself. At this time Georges was obstinately reading through Nietzsche, and he administered a weekly dose of the spendiferous reflections resulting from his reading (which we ceased to understand period at the end of a half hour, but which were sufficient for Blanchot to reconstitute them, from the bottom of his drawer, in three minutes in order that they become luminous, rich, and left us feeling justly satiated."