Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

I’ve been thinking a lot about this book I stumbled on: Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau (it’s actually les Exercices de Style but I read the English translation).

The premise is thus: he tells a short story in 99 different ways. It’s short, like only a few sentences, but each time, he emphasizes something else–the order, the details, the sentence structure, etc. and the results are amazing. It’s the same old story, every single time, the same old story, but each time it’s new. Each time he switches the words around, changes the focus, sharpens the lens in another direction, and boom! It’s new again.

This makes me want to learn to read French, so I can see the original play on words, but I’m a few years away from that kind of sophisticated grasp. Just the way the translation plays with words boggles my mind.

Let me show you what I mean. The bold word is the style that Queneau has designated for the story. Here are some examples of what he’s done:

Narrative

One day at about midday in the Parc Monceau district, on the back platform of a more or less full S bus (now No. 84), I observed a person with a very long neck who was wearing a felt hat which had a plaited cord round it instead of a ribbon. This individual suddenly addressed the man standing next to him, accusing him of purposely treading on his toes every time any passengers got on or got off. However he quickly abandoned the dispute and threw himself on to a seat which had become vacant.

Two hours later I saw him in front of the gare Saint-Lazare engaged in earnest conversation with a friend who was advising him to reduce the space between the lapels of his overcoat by getting a competent tailor to raise the top button.

Precision

In a bus of the S-line, 10 metres long, 3 wide, 6 high, at 3 km, 600 m. from its starting point, loaded with 48 people, at 12.17 p.m., a person of the masculine sex aged 27 years 3 months and 8 days, 1 m. 72 cm tall and weighing 65 kg, and wearing a hat 35 cm. in height round the crown of which was a ribbon 60 cm. long, interpellated a man aged 48 years 4 months and 3 days, 1 m. 68 cm tall and weighing 77 kg., by means of 14 words whose enunciation lasted 5 seconds and which alluded to some involuntary displacements of from 15 to 20 mm. Then he went and sat down about 1 m. 10 cm. away. 57 minutes later he was 10 metres away from the suburban entrance to the gare SaintLazare and was walking up and down over a distance of 30 m. with a friend aged 28, 1m. 70 cm. tall and weighing 71 kg, who advised him in 15 words to move by 5 cm. in the direction of the zenith a button which was 3 cm. in diameter.

Hesitation

I don’t really know where it happened…in a church, a dustbin, a charnel-house? A bus, perhaps? There were…but what were there, though? Eggs, carpets, radishes? Skeletons? Yes, but with their flesh still round them, and alive. I think that’s how it was. People in a bus. But one (or two?) of them was making himself conspicuous, I don’t really know in what way. For his megalomania? For his adiposty? For his melancholy? Rather…more precisely…for his youth, which was embellished by a long…nose? chin? thumb? no: neck, and by a strange, strange, strange hat. He started to quarrel, yes, that’s right, with, no doubt, another passenger (man or woman? Child or old age pensioner?) This ended, this finished by ending in a commonplace sort of way, probably by the flight of one of the two adversaries. I rather think that it was the same character I met, but where? In front of a church? In front of a charnel-house? in front of a dustbin? With a friend who must have been talking to him about something, but about what? about what? about what?

Negativities

It was neither a boat, nor an aeroplane, but a terrestrial means of transport. It was neither the morning, nor the evening, but midday. It was neither a baby, nor an old man, but a young man. It was neither a ribbon, nor a string, but a plaited cord. It was neither a procession, nor a brawl, but a scuffle. It was neither a pleasant person, nor an evil person, but a bad-tempered person. It was neither a truth, nor a lie, but a pretext. It was neither a standing person, nor a recumbent person, but a would-beseated person. It was neither the day before, nor the day after, but the same day. It was neither the gare du Nord, nor the gare du P.-L.-M. but the gare Saint-Lazare. It was neither a relation, nor a stranger, but a friend. It was neither insult, nor ridicule, but sartorial advice.

 

And I have to include this one, in honor of the Inkslinger’s Guild exercises we do. Here, he has chosen several words at random, then worked them into the story:

Word Game

(Dowry, bayonet, enemy, chapel, atmosphere, Bastille, correspondence)

One day I happened to be on the platform of a bus which must no doubt have formed part of the dowry of the daughter of a gentleman called Monsieur Mariage who presided over the destinies of the Paris Passenger Transport Board. There was a young man on this bus who was rather ridiculous, not because he wasn’t carrying a bayonet, but because he looked as if he was carrying one when all the time he wasn’t carrying one. All of a sudden this young man attacked his enemy–a man standing behind him. He accused him in particular of not behaving as politely as one would in a chapel. Having thus strained the atmosphere, the little squirt went and sat down. Two hours later I met him two or three kilometres from the Bastille with a friend who was advising him to have an extra button put on his overcoat, an opinion which he could very well have given him by correspondence.

 

You can buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Exercises-Style-Raymond-Queneau/dp/0811207897

 

This book makes me truly appreciate the versatility of language, not just English, clearly, because he wrote it in French, but because you can actually translate it into English and still have the effect. Words are amazing things.

 

On Grammar: Prescriptive vs Descriptive

grammar_madness_large-01j

I just read a review of a book that advocated descriptive grammar over prescriptive grammar, that the way people use the language is more important than the way the language is “supposed” to be used, and I’m having a serious talk with myself.

I’ve always been what I consider a reasonable prescriptivist; that is, I think that language has rules, and those rules are what allows the language to function as a tool of communication–and that’s why they should be followed.

But I’m reasonable about it.

If people stop distinguishing between “who” and “whom,” is it the end of the world? No. There are some moments when case matters, when the distinction between subjective and objective  is critical, like the sentence “He likes Mary more than I” in which case it’s fine, he can like Mary more than I like her. People like different people. No problem.

But what if I say “He likes Mary more than me”? He prefers Mary’s company to mine? Now we are in a fight. And all over one little pronoun, the subjective “I” and the objective “me.” (In case it’s been a while since grammar lessons, the subjective is the doer or the actor in the sentence, like “I” do things. The objective is the recipient of the action in the sentence, as in things are done to “me.”) I would argue that prescriptive grammar trumps here, since communication will be lost if the rule isn’t followed. Relationships could end!

I do listen to my students when they say, “But you know what I mean!” and their pleas for descriptive grammar. So what if “irregardless” literally means “without without regard”? “People know what you mean when you say it!” my students cry. (Yes, they know that you don’t know how prefixes work!) But honestly, if the message of a lack of regard is sent to the receiver, does it matter if you add the extra syllable?  The ultimate goal of any language is communication after all, and if your message is received and understood correctly, what does it matter in the end?

But, I still argue, it does matter. Maybe not in the little words like “irregardless” or the oft battered “literally,” but in the big picture. Words change meaning. They adapt. That’s what makes English so awesome. And it’s going to happen. But there are some overarching guidelines that we can’t just ditch altogether, or we won’t be able to understand one another at all. People have been arguing over the “rules” of grammar for a long time now; let them have something to argue about. Language has to have some substance, some way that the speakers agree on; otherwise, we’re all just making sounds at each other and this post is a series of random letters with odd spaces thrown in for fun.

So I’m not advocating for a National Council for the English language to preserve the language or anything–that battle was fought hundreds of years ago and ended in dictionaries. I just think that prescriptive grammar still matters. Descriptive grammar is interesting and relevant, and worth studying, but it’s not worth emulating, not when the language is capable of such great feats.

After all, an important part of writing is learning the rules so that you can break them later.

 

 

That’s French, eh?

speak-french-quebec

I’ve been on vacation this week with my husband’s Canadian relatives, and I’ve heard a lot of French. My in-laws switch from English to French and back again mid-sentence. It’s been an interesting experience to hear a language that I definitely do not speak, and I’ve enjoyed sitting back in the crowded room, trying to follow conversations with half words and body language. I don’t mean to say that I’ve been ignored in any way–when they speak to me, they always use English, but I enjoy listening to the pockets of discussion amid family members: the exclamations of frustrated children, the questions from other rooms as someone hunts for something, the names of friends and relatives that I could understand if I saw them in print, but cannot hear except for a slurry of vowels and cadence.

The English major in me knows that English has a lot of French words, make that a ton of French words, that it absorbed after the Norman Invasion. I even know how French influence changed both pronunciation and spelling, and I explain the transition from Old English (Beowulf!) to Middle English (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales!) to my students each semester. But knowing the history of a language and being able to sit in a room full of people who speak it are very different things, and I’ve found my vocabulary straining this week as I try to parse the French sounds from the words I know on paper and then connect them to the French inspired English words. After all, the French gave English something close to 10,000 words (because English did what it does best between 1066 and the 13th century–absorbed words); in fact, some scholars say that the average English speaker already knows some 15,000 French words already. I find myself trying to remember that this week. It’s not that I don’t recognize the words, I think; it’s that I don’t hear the sounds and translate what I’m hearing (which is a lot of musical ups and downs with lots of “j” and “v” to my untrained ears) into something I recognize. I keep asking my husband to spell things for me so I can remember them that way (apparently, I retain more information this way–who knew?)

So, I’m having a lovely time with my extended family, but I’m also enjoying the practical lessons in language acquisition. And since my characters often find themselves in places where they do not speak the local language, I want to remember this feeling of curious intrigue–wanting to know more, but wanting to figure it out for myself.