For its 65th anniversary, New Directions has just released an expanded edition of Raymond Queneau’s classic Oulipean text, Exercises in Style, featuring 25 previously untranslated exercises by Queneau, as well as new exercises by Jesse Ball, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten, and Enrique Vila-Matas. If you’ve never experienced Queneau’s encyclopedia of ways to write the same scene over and over, each time new, there’s never been a better time.
On Feb 21st, at 8:00pm, there will be a launch party for the book in Brooklyn, info here.
Below, we’re happy to feature a few of the new exercises from the book.
COQ-TALE (first published in Arts, November 1954)
Ever since the bistros got closed down, we just have to make do with what we have. That’s why, the other day, I took a pub bus, at cocktail hour, on the N.R.F. line. No point in telling you that I had a terribly hard time getting in. I even had a permit, but IT WASN’T ENOUGH. It was also necessary to have an INVITATION. An invitation. They are doing pretty well, the R.A.T.P. But I managed. I yelled, “Coming through! I’m an Éditions Julliard author,” and there I was inside the pub bus. I headed straight for the buffet, but there was no way to get near it. In front of me, a young man with a long neck who hadn’t removed the Tyrolean hat with a plait around it that he wore – a lout, a boor, a caveman, obviously – seemed set on gobbling down every last crumb that was before him. But I was thirsty. So I whispered in his ear, “You know, back on the platform, Gaston Gallimard is signing contracts.” And off he ran, the sucker.
An hour later, I see him in front of the Gare Saint-Bottin, in the midst of devouring the buttons of his overcoat, which he had swapped for some
Translated by Chris Clarke
- a means of transportation known as a bus that will subsequently be abbreviatedly designated by the letter S;
- the rear platform of said bus;
- a certain quantity of representatives of the genus Homo sapiens transported by this bus, from among them will be selected
- one specimen α of the species coolcaticus with maximal length of neck;
- one specimen of the species tepidus that measures up to said maximal length of neck;
- the plait surrounding the headwear of α;
- a vacant seat at time T.
Calculate the minimal distance α – β where β is subsequently projected onto ϒ after having pronounced remarks R.
II – Assuming that the preceding problem has been solved, with Time T having become Tʹ and the means of transportation passing in front of the Gare [Saint]-Lazare, determine which remarks regarding overcoat buttons Rʹ are exchanged by Homo coolcaticus A with another representative of the same species C.
Translated by Chris Clarke
I walked as far from where I’d lived as I could walk until I wasn’t walking any longer but only standing in a field. The field was filled with carrots and I was holding more carrots than I could hold. I can’t hold all these carrots⎯I don’t want these carrots, I heard me saying, in a voice. Who has put them in my hands? Just then a bus pulled up. It was an orange bus. I could hardly tell it from the field. I wasn’t aware this was a bus stop and I don’t think I should have to be at one, I thought. Why should I have to be somewhere with carrots and my face again today, this day again facing a machine inside this heat, today being the day it is as forced upon by sun and walls and fields on which I’d never meant to stand. Through the dark orange glass of the window I could see all these other people on the bus were holding carrots too, and they were crammed in and they were glaring. The bus was overcrowded to the point of several dozen forced to stand⎯nowhere to sit today inside a bus filled with anxious people armed with no idea about the way of now, like me. Regardless, the bus door opened, and regardless, I got on. I had to go on. Where else was I to go? It had always been this way, and I was not one to not follow directions. When I did, I found therein the man standing beside me had on the same coat as my coat, and of course he was standing up and holding carrots like me and was old like me and had my arms and had my face. The man beside that first man too I found shared our expression and our posture and our make. We were all three the other’s mirror this cold morning. I did not look to see about the rest of all those along the aisles, as no sooner had I noticed the men and how they seemed just like me then one of the men made like me threw all his carrots on the ground, right on the feet of the other made like me. Or was the man me? Or was I him? I could no longer tell, though I knew I’d been through this before. I could feel it in me. Held it in me always. Either way the men were screaming and I was screaming even as the bus began again to leave the field, where through the windows all the air held carrot-yellow as I watched where I’d been before this bus there leaving and I could not stop it and never would. The man now with his arms free of the heavy ugly carrots saw where the others of us could not see along the aisle. A free seat had appeared, a hole unfilled among the many bodies where in this thrall he could sit down, and with the other man and me beside him still just screaming not even knowing what words from anyone were coming out he jumped away and fell into his found hole all surrounded by our clasping arms, and as we passed on through the orange fields I could no longer see him. He’d disappeared among the flesh of all the fleshes, another me I’d never brush again, while meanwhile me here and the other still were one against the other, though our screaming shortly thereafter shattered too, stopping up the words inside the each of us unto the silence of the passing of the air among the many faces I’d not had the heart to look upon in stench of carrot rot and all the pressing skin of all our ways.
It seemed like years between us then. I felt the light of days come in and out and all against me, though in passing sheens I looked the same. A day could not have passed, nor could even several hours, though suddenly I found myself at last no longer on the bus, still holding carrots but not as many, and my stomach full of hell. My teeth hurt. My skin seemed beaten. So many buildings. The sky a bell. I stumbled forth in no clear color and felt a shape and turned around. Then there I was: all young and ugly as I had been on the bus before I’d disappeared, now reappeating in an orange coat, with some strange orange woman on my arm. From in the hole of me against the air I watched the woman put her mouth up to the younger me’s mouth and move her lips. I could hear her words as well in my own head, wound in warm breath: “My love, we need to mend you.”
I bought Exercises in Style, by Ramond Queneau, in Barcelona on October 26, 1987. I didn’t know what it was about, but I’d heard a lot about the book. Carrying my brand new copy of Exercises in Style I boarded the number 24 bus, which went near my house. I bought a ticket from the conductor and, afraid I’d be asked to show it and unable to find it, put the ticket in my mouth. I thought that way it would be in plain sight if the inspector showed up. Halfway home, I began to flip through Exercises in Style and saw that the book recounted, in a hundred different styles, the same trivial anecdote. Trivial it might be, but the story amused me very much, probably because it took place on a bus and I was on a bus, and maybe that’s why the story stuck in my head so quickly, as if I were riding around with a shoehorn, not one for shoes, but a shoehorn for stories that takes place on buses. The story was very silly, but I found it totally captivating. On a Paris bus, a young man with a felt hat and a long neck, becomes angry every time people get off the bus because there is one passenger––always the same one––who takes advantage of the circumstances to step on his foot. There is a big fuss, until the complaining crybaby finds a free seat and sits down. Two hours later, we come across the same foolish young man, now in the Cour de Rome; he is sitting on a bench with a friend, no less idiotic, who is telling him: “You ought to get an extra button sewn on your overcoat.” Well, like I said, the story was very sill, but the fact that the narration started on a bus captivated me. I’d never read a story on a bus that took place in the same space. I was so fascinated that without noticing, due to the satisfaction I got from reading what could be happening on the very bus I was traveling on, I started sucking on the ticket and finally swallowed it. When the inspector arrived, it was no use telling him I’d swallowed it because of a stupid story I’d been reading that me laugh a lot. I had to pay a huge fine.
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Enrique Vila-Matas is a Spanish novelist. His most recent book to be translated into English, Dublinesque, was published by New Directions in 2012.
Anne McLean has translated three of Vila-Matas’s novels, as well as the work of Evelio Rosero and Julio Cortázar.
Blake Butler is in Atlanta.
Chris Clarke was born in Western Canada, and is currently a Ph.D. student of French at CUNY. These are his first published translations of Raymond Queneau.