Exorcisms in Style

In his Exercises, Raymond Queneau demonstrates not how to build a style but how to dismantle one.

It’s hard to imagine a bygone work of experimental writing more perfectly suited to our literary moment than Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The book, first published in French in 1947, has good avant-garde cred: It’s seen as a foundational text for the Oulipo movement (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), which Queneau established in 1960 and which included Italo Calvino and George Perec among its members. It also starts with a beautifully simple, sound-biteable idea: Queneau takes one short anecdote, about an encounter on a bus in Paris, and tells and retells it 99 different ways.

Aside from its cool pedigree and catchy premise, the book’s present-day appeal rests on a word in its title. Style is in style, you could say. Fueled in part by writing programs and the craft courses and workshops that comprise them, contemporary literature is preoccupied with questions of language, form, and voice. Where popular wisdom used to say that a story is inseparable from the way it’s told, it seems more and more now that style precedes content and meaning. The postmodernist Gilbert Sorrentino once wrote about Queneau’s book that it “lays to rest (or should) the quaint idea that fiction is composed of two equal parts: Form and Content.”  The implication is not only that the two parts depend on each other but that the former is more crucial than the latter. Sorrentino’s words prefigure the growing faith in the idea that how you write determines what you write.

The recent reissue of Exercises in Style, published in December by New Directions, provides more hows than ever before. In addition to Barbara Wright’s original English translation of the 99 exercises, the book includes a slew of outtakes: exercises that Queneau wrote and published in subsequent years, as well as some he’d never published.  It also contains ten new exercises written by ten new “stylists” (as the book’s blurb describes them), from Jonathan Lethem and Ben Marcus to Lynne Tillman and the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas. Altogether, the volume promises to be a primer on, and a celebration of, the possibilities of language — a style love-in.

Until you actually read it. The book is, in fact, much stranger, more difficult and provocative, than any neat description of it suggests. It’s fair to say that Exercises in Style turns the current thinking about writing entirely, and brilliantly, on its head.

Past its title, what’s immediately obvious about the book is its deliberate oddness. The “Double Entry” exercise, the second in the collection, starts like this:

Towards the middle of the day and at midday I happened to be on and got on to the platform and the balcony at the back of an S-line and of a Contrescarpe-Champerret bus and passenger transport vehicle which was packed and to all intents and purposes full.

The stuttering synonym-rhythms in the sentences have a peculiarly beautiful musical quality; yet it’s clear that this isn’t a practical stylistic method, an example of how to write. You won’t ever call upon Double Entry to recount a story. Nor would you likely have a reason to employ Anagrams (“In het S sub in het hurs hour a pach of tabou swnettyx”), or Spoonerisms (“One May about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus”), or something called Permutations by groups of five, six, seven, and eight letters (“Ed on to ayrd wa id sm yo da he n tar re at”).

It’s not all number games and wordplay. Queneau makes use of poetic and rhetorical devices: He composes an alexandrine and a sonnet, writes metaphorically and with litotes and apostrophe. Some exercises display imaginative wit (“Cross-Examination”: “At what time did the 12.23 p.m. S-line bus proceeding in the direction of the Porte de Champerret arrive on that day?”); others play with point of view (two back-to-back chapters, “The subjective side” and “Another subjectivity,” offer the story from the perspective of two different men on the bus); still others heighten a particular mode of experience (“Olfactory”: “In that meridian S, apart from the habitual smell, there was a smell of beastly seedy ego”).

What’s most notable about the collection is the sheer variety of the variations. As the chapters pile on, as Polyptotes is followed by Hellenisms is followed by Haiku is followed by Geometrical, there is a sort of flattening, a leveling out of the distinctions between styles. “Dog Latin” begins to feel interchangeable with “Ode,” and “Modern style” becomes just another textual permutation.

Though it’s tempting to see Exercises in Style as a showcase, a dazzling display of the many ways to tell a story, the truth is that most of these exercises don’t make very good versions of the story at all. Either they’re plain incomprehensible or they’re forced and awkward. Barbara Wright, the translator, says in the introduction that the styles are exaggerated “ad absurdum — ad lib., ad inf., and sometimes — the final joke — ad nauseam.”

This is exactly the point. Quite the opposite of a showcase, the book’s ad nauseam variations mount a challenge to the primacy of style and the preciousness of language. The crucial word in the title is not “style” but “exercise,” with its connotations of both the physical and educational drill. It suggests that you can throw on and throw off a multitude of styles, or that you might cycle through a host of them to give the writing a workout. For Queneau, language is meant to be pushed around and played with, stretched and bent and chopped and tested.

What is it being stretched and tested for? In the first place, the exercises could be said to benefit the individual writer. Just as runners train with high-knee sprints and musicians practice scales, writing about a bus ride in Opera English or by using Zoological terms expands your flexibility and range.

While this seems like a relatively obvious idea, it contests a prevailing notion about how writers develop. These days the emphasis for writers is on finding, honing, pinpointing their voice, a language purportedly unique to them — as though there is an essential style to be mined from within each person and then sharpened and exacted on each successive narrative. Style today is about branding. But Queneau’s endless parade of ventriloquisms and games is distinctly anti-branding. Nowhere is this contrast made clearer than in the juxtaposition between the original book and the tribute exercises appended in the New Directions edition. It’s interesting to read Jonathan Lethem’s stylish “Cyberpunk” version of the anecdote, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s clever “Metaliterario” account, but the writers’ singular offerings only highlight how hectic and multifaceted Queneau’s Exercises are. When he wrote the book sixty-five years ago, he wasn’t honing his voice, associating his name with a particular style. He was tearing a story apart a hundred times over — for his own writerly exercise, but also as a kind of cure for a more collective honing or codification of style.

Ultimately, Queneau’s larger project is a kind of style purge. When asked about his book, he ventured that “the finished product may possibly act as a kind of rust-remover to literature, help to rid it of some of its scabs.” The ideas he later developed in Oulipo, his Workshop for Potential Literature, provide some insight into which rust and scabs he means. François Le Lionnais, the mathematician who founded the group with Queneau, wrote a manifesto for Potential Literature that defined the key Oulipoan concept of constraint:

Every literary work begins with an inspiration (at least that’s what its author suggests) which must accommodate itself as well as possible to a series of constraints and procedures that fit inside each other like Chinese boxes. Constraints of vocabulary and grammar, constraints of the novel (divisions into chapters, etc.) or of classical tragedy (rule of the three unities), constraints of general versification, constraints of fixed forms (as in the case of the rondeau or the sonnet), etc.

Must one adhere to the old tricks of the trade and obstinately refuse to imagine new possibilities? The partisans of the status quo don’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative. Their conviction rests less on reasoned reflection than on force of habit and the impressive series of masterpieces (and also, alas, pieces less masterly) which has been obtained according to the present rules and regulations . . .

A significant point here is that all writing exists within constraints. The constraints range from the basic rules of grammar to the conventions of particular traditions. They include fixed traditions — Le Lionnais mentions the rondeau and the sonnet — as well as indeterminate methods that nevertheless solidify over time. We write novels and stories more or less the way novels and stories have previously been written; we approach sentences and paragraphs and chapters how they’ve been approached before. Even the ways in which we establish our so-called originality tend toward sameness and pattern. Both consciously and not, we inherit our habits.

Oulipo imagined ways to break free the deep grooves that have been etched in literary practice. Their “new possibilities” fixated on mathematical patterns. Queneau is well-known for  Cent mille milliards de poèmes, or A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a series of ten sonnets with each line of each sonnet on a separate strip: Any line from any sonnet can be combined with any from the nine others, resulting in 100,000,000,000,000 poems. Another famous Oulipo book is George Perec’s La Disparation (A Void) — a novel written without the letter e — but Perec is also the author of La Vie mode d’emploi, or Life: A User’s Manual, a complex puzzle-novel that presents the life of a Parisian apartment block and employs both The Knight’s Tour (moving between narratives, and between different rooms in each apartment on the block, like a knight in a chess game) and The Story Machine (setting predetermined lists of items, references and objects that each chapter must contain). Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, with its oscillating sine-wave chapter structure, and If on a winter’s knight a traveler, with its alternating and interlocking storylines, also illustrate the group’s absorption with numerical structures.

Their works are not mere play, extra challenges the writers manufactured to inspire themselves. They needed the math, their Knight’s Tours and sine waves and ninety-nine variations, to jostle the buried conventions from their place. Exercises in Style is one machine Queneau built to disable the rusty habits of writing. By naming all the old ways, from Cross-Examination to Alexandrine, by rounding them up and subjugating them to the demands of a new pattern, Queneau leaches them of their importance. If we reread his book now, it’s to remind us that our polished originalities inevitably become mechanical exercises, to remember how easily they all turn into some drills on a list.

We might also read this small book for its story. With all the fuss about concepts and formal experimentation, not much attention gets paid to the plot itself. Yet this is the one thing that occurs again and again in the book. The events might seem unexceptional, but of course they aren’t meaningless. The narrator sees a young man on a crowded bus, accusing another man of pushing him. A couple hours later, the narrator sees the same young man in the street, being advised by a friend about the position of the top button on his coat. In one of the previously unpublished exercises that appear in the new edition, Queneau sums up the latter half of the anecdote in one vague, dismissive sentence: “Afterwards came, but some time later, and elsewhere, the question of style.” Sometimes style is nothing but a button on your overcoat.