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Wonderful conversation between Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker, translator Chris Clarke and editor Michael Barron, on the publication of the new edition of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. Here’s a snippet:

Daniel Levin Becker: Is it possible that language is more fun when used to describe something banal?

Chris Clarke: I don’t know if it’s necessarily more fun because it is used to describe something banal, but I think the banality of that something allows the fun to show through. It highlights its playfulness, or at least it weakens or eliminates those other attributes of a text that could captivate us. Perhaps more than the banality, at least in the case of Exercises in Style, it’s about repetition. I don’t think the banality of our jostling bus ride would have been enough to make this playfulness apparent to the extent that it is here — it’s also greatly exaggerated and contrasted because of the repetition. This seems to have been clear to Queneau as well, as even from the beginning there was an attempt to work by accumulation. The first batch, begun in May of 1942 (according to his 1963 Preface), consisted of twelve exercises, and apparently was to have the name Dodécaèdre, the French word for dodecahedron. These didn’t end up being published at that time, but when he took the project up again the following year, the initial publication included fifteen exercises, and so on from there, always in groups. The effects of repetition on humor have been written about plenty, but I don’t know that his point could have been made on banality alone.

DLB: Excellent point about the repetition. I guess banality alone is only rarely effective as a creative conduit, and more often there’s something in the surrounding rhythm of it that makes it work. (I’m thinking of the record review chapters in American Psycho, which for some reason I’ve been re-reading/referring to often in the last couple of months; they’re hilarious because they’re so numb and deadpan, but they wouldn’t be if they weren’t sandwiched between awful grotesqueries.)

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.

DLB: This is much easier to answer given your comments on repetition, in that what’s feeling particularly germane and “true” to Queneau’s umbrella style isn’t any particular literary quality or sense of development, but a relatively transparent, almost self-effacing relation to the anecdote — enough preservation of the banality that the given “style” comes into some relief, but not too much. Harry Mathews’s gallicization plays it close in that way; Frederic Tuten’s ‘Beat’ strays a little further out, but it also feels pretty faithful to the baseline repetition. Maybe Marcus’s ‘Nothing’ and Lethem’s ‘Cyberpunk’ come in a bit behind. The others are so stylized (a funny word to use in this context) that they don’t really accomplish the same thing. Which is not a condemnation, of course, since following Queneau’s lead is pretty limited in terms of what it’s possible to do with this text.

First posted: Wednesday, February 13th, 2013.

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