Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau 1947
This is one of the strangest and most fascinating books I’ve ever read, perhaps because Queneau (1903-1976) was one of the founders of Oulipo, the French society of mathematicians, writers, and scientists who beginning in 1960 created works of literature that responded to an a priori mathematical or structural hypothesis. One example was a book by George Perec which was a lipogram, a book without a single letter ‘e’. Queneau’s volume responded to the challenge of telling a simple story in 99 different ways. Queneau’s story is the rather unremarkable tale of a young man with a long neck and a hat with a plait instead of a ribbon who gets on a crowded bus and argues with another passenger who was stepping on his toes and then encounters another friend in front of the Gare St. Lazare who tells him that he needs to have the top button on his coat raised higher. Not much to go on, right, but Queneau narrates this story in 99 different versions using different accents (Cockney, French, German), different. pbscure rhetorical techniques (e.g. apocope (loss of a sound at the end of a word), epenthesis (insertion of a sound within a word), metathesis (transporting a sound within a word), and different styles (philosophic, comedy, cross-examination, past and present). You get the idea, but you can’t possibly envision this very weird volume without reading it and seeing the clever illustrations that introduce each ‘chapter’. It’s not for everyone, but if you love wordplay, give it a try. As a side note, the translation from the French was done by one Barbara Wright whose work on this volume was cited as one of the 50 Outstanding Translations of the Last 50 Years by the Society of Authors in 2008.