One of the coolest releases of the winter has to be the new version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style—the classic Oulipian text in which Queneau tells and retells the same story of two men who get on a bus and have a minor row, ending with one telling the other to replace a button on his overcoat. The original version had 99 of these variations told in styles ranging from “Notation” to “Word game” to “Cockney” to “Awkward.” It’s a testament to Queneau’s ability as a writer, and just as interestingly, it sort of blows apart the idea of how many ways a story can be told—and how style can be more important than content.
Anyway, this new version, which celebrates the book’s 65th Anniversary, New Directions added in twenty-five exercises left out of the original, AND included new exercises written by Jesse Ball, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten, and Enrique Vila-Matas.
Anyway, anyway, to mark the release of this, ND posted a two-part conversation between Daniel Levin Becker and Chris Clarke about Queneau, Exercises in Style, and the Oulipo in general. You can read part one here, and click here for part two. And below are a few interesting bits:
Daniel Levin Becker: Maybe we should start with the book a little bit, if only to make it topical, and then go more general from there? For the sake of doing what I just suggested, here’s a question: what do you think is the particular relevance of Exercises in Style today?
Chris Clarke: I don’t know if I can speak so much to a “particular” relevance, it might be more appropriate in my mind to speak of a “continued” relevance. For me, Exercises in Style is the great reminder that there is no such thing as ideology-free writing. Even the simplest text, the most banal or inconsequential piece of writing, carries marks of style that affect the reader in one way or another. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that this is more important to understand now than it was in 1947, but it seems that way sometimes. Could just be a bias of time and place. But that was always the way Exercises affected me, by making me conscious of all the different ways it could affect me, and by reminding me that in its case, like in most, the whole process is intentional. Beyond that, well, I can’t not mention it, the other continued relevance of Exercises to me is simply that it’s a window into how much fun language can be, even when used to describe something as banal as a story of bus rides and button-shifting. Even the dullest crosstown trip on the S-bus can be utterly and infinitely fascinating.
DLB: I like your point about ideology. I guess what I had in the back of my mind when I asked that was something about the fragmentation of writing these days, literary or otherwise, such that fluency (so to speak) in a number of registers maybe counts a little more than it used to, because you don’t want to tweet in the same voice as you write an essay, a blog post, an email, etc. In any case, I don’t (maybe Tao Lin does). It feels a little overserious to claim that there’s all that much of a difference between an email and a blog post, but then maybe that’s where the ideology part of it comes in. [. . .]
Michael Barron: Chris, you say that there is no such thing as ideology-free writing, that everything has a semblance of style. I am curious to know how a style in the French, say “Promotional,” actually changes when rendered in English. I am also curious to know from both of you which exercises from the contributions by contemporary writers struck you as the most true to Queneau’s vision? And from there, I am wondering if you think that Queneau had a certain umbrella style that pervades all of his exercises?
CC: I thought the new contributions were a lot of fun. To me, closest to Queneau’s method might be Frederic Tuten’s “Beat.” I thought Shane Jones’ “Assistance” added a neat bit of insight into the narrator, in the same way that Queneau’s “There were oodles . . .” does. As far as style crossing over from language to language . . . well, it’s one of the goals of the translator to find the closest equivalent (s)he can. Of course, no two languages operate the same way, so it’s perhaps never a perfect transaction, but it’s something translators are very conscious of. Something like “Promotional” and its French counterpart “Publicitaire” are always going to have some little differences to them, some of them because of differences in the language and the way style works in those given languages, some because of cultural differences. In this case, a radio ad is going to have a different ring to it in a North American (or British) context than it would in a French context, just as much as it will be read differently now compared to how it would have come across 65 years ago. Also, in this case, the very last line in the French text is a riff on the slogan of a French battery called Wonder, which was so popular that it spawned a variety of parodies, including the slogan of a newspaper. The English reader isn’t going to see that in the English text, as the reference is no longer physically there, and even if it were, he likely wouldn’t react the same way because he doesn’t necessarily have the same cultural references at his disposal. In cases like this, the intertextuality can’t quite be the same. [. . .]
CC: Okay, here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask an Oulipian. If I were to tell you I was translating a piece of your writing that involved a particular constraint, my question (depending of course on the particular piece) would be, would you tell me that I should be more concerned about translating the finished piece of writing, or about reproducing the constraint used in creating the piece? For an easy example, a “faithful” literary translation of a lipogram with no “e” that attempted to stay close to the text would almost certainly contain “e”‘s.
DLB: [Trying to ignore the well-of-course-this-changes-everything implications of it being my writing,] I’d say it’s absolutely more important to reproduce the constraint or procedure than to reproduce the meaning. That is assuming, of course, that the constraint was instrumental in engendering the text, which almost has to be the case for the text to be like, good (in this admittedly peculiar entre-nous kind of way). If you were to translate La disparition for the story alone, you’d have a novel that’s not ultimately all that good; if you were to translate it without using the most common letter in the target language, you might not succeed in making the narrative/details “faithful” enough for it to be considered the same work, but I’d argue you’d have come much closer to preserving what’s essential about the book. (Fun aside: I recently translated Perec’s dream journal, which contains a few references to La disparition, and had an almost visceral aversion to the idea of rendering it in English as A Void, just because to me those are such manifestly different books. (The publisher has probably overridden my call on that; only time will tell.)) Anyway, an unofficial thought-test tells me this holds true for most constraint-based (or shall we say structure-forward) works that come to mind—imagine translating Abish’s Alphabetical Africa for content alone. Pointless! The pointlessness of the exercise would be rivaled only by the creepy colonialist overtones that rose to the surface.
MB: Hey now, we publish Alphabetical Africa . . .
So fun. And all this Oulipo talk makes me more excited to get to Scott and Lauren’s The End of Oulipo? (which I didn’t get to last weekend, since I had to read Merchants of Culture for class and am finishing up Böll’s The Safety Net. Oh, and I read Hilda Hilst’s fascinating The Obscene Madame D, but I’ll talk about that more in a Friday post . . .)
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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