Raymond Queneau (kuh-noh), novelist, poet, critic, editor, playwright, filmmaker, philosopher, mathematician, and painter, is regarded as one of the most audacious and ingenious French writers of the twentieth century, with a career spanning the period from Surrealism to the New Novel. Queneau was born in Le Havre at the beginning of the twentieth century. His mother was Josephine Mignot; his father, a businessman, was Auguste Queneau. After completing his studies at the lycée in Le Havre, Raymond Queneau went on to the University of Paris in 1920 and took his degree in philosophy in 1926. That same year he was called to military duty in Algeria and Morocco.
A year later he returned to Paris, where in 1928 he married Janine Kahn, sister-in-law of André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement. In 1934 they had a son, Jean-Marie, who became a painter. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Queneau took jobs that allowed him a meager income: He worked in a bank, gave private lessons, sold paper tablecloths to inexpensive restaurants, translated books from English into French, and did some journalism, writing a column called “Connaissez-vous Paris?” (Do you know Paris?) for the daily Intransigeant, from 1936 to 1938. In 1938 he became a reader at the prestigious firm Gallimard, which had already published four of his first five books, all novels, and would produce most of his subsequent works.
Queneau’s editorial career was briefly interrupted when he was drafted in August, 1939. Serving in small provincial towns, he was promoted to corporal just before being demobilized in July, 1940. Queneau then returned to Paris. Despite the hardships of World War II, this period was one of intense literary production. In addition to his editorial duties at the Gallimard publishing house, where he became general secretary, he collaborated on clandestine publications and wrote a weekly column for Front National until 1945. He received his credentials as a professional journalist in the same year; however, he was to remain at Gallimard for the rest of his life.
The Surrealist movement had a significant influence on Queneau’s writing, and he became involved in the movement from 1924 to 1925 and again from 1927 to 1929. Although he published a poem and two pieces of automatic writing in the Révolution Surréaliste, André Breton’s journal, central to Queneau’s interest in Surrealism was the way of life it represented: one of total revolt against the bourgeois values. Eventually quarreling with Breton over personal, rather than ideological, concerns (according to Queneau), the latter left the group in 1929. His break with Surrealism, however, left Queneau somewhat unsettled. The crisis led him to reexamine his life through psychoanalytic therapy and to reevaluate his literary goals. Subsequently, Queneau abandoned Surrealist experimentation and began writing his own unique brand of fiction. His first novel, The Bark Tree, appeared in 1933. Although the work is considered one of his best because of its innovative narrative technique and meticulously planned arithmetical composition, it was not a commercial success. Queneau’s reputation as a writer of originality and wit only began to be established with his autobiographical verse-narrative Chêne et chien (oak tree and dog) in 1937.
After the comic novel Pierrot, Queneau published The Skin of Dreams. Besides parodying the existential themes of freedom and absurdity, the work examines the mythmaking function of film as well as film’s relation to wish fulfillment. Literature is the subject in Queneau’s Exercises in Style. In this text, the author recounts an insignificant incident: A person boards a bus, gets his feet stepped on by another passenger, then sits down. This incident, however, is recounted in ninety-nine different styles, each one (like mathematical permutations) varying the arrangement of events, word choice, tone, and emphasis. Deflating the myth of literature, Queneau demonstrates that the writer can create literature out of the most banal, trivial subjects. Exercises in Style became one of Queneau’s best-known works.
Zazie in the Metro became a best-seller when it was published in 1959. The novel’s story of a young girl’s two-day visit with her uncle and his wife in Paris becomes a quasi-epic battle with the forces of evil; the novel questions certain ordering factors in civilization and undermines outworn conventions of language and literature. In 1965 Queneau published what is perhaps his most complex and profound text, The Blue Flowers. In this novel, in which each character is the dream of the other, the author situates dreams in the context of the philosophical tradition of illusion and reality. In their dreams, the dreamers are able to capture essential parts of their own identities. The variety of interpretations possible in this novel allow the reader to enjoy the novel on many different levels.
During his lifetime, Queneau, because of his distance from the mainstream of literary fashion and from literary movements, was given marginal attention by critics. His work, at times, was both greeted enthusiastically and underestimated. Queneau has been called everything from a literary lightweight (for his seemingly frivolous attitude toward literature and life) to a creative genius on the order of James Joyce (for his invention of new literary structures and for his linguistic virtuosity). Regardless, many writers have found affinities with Queneau and have acknowledged his influence.