Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Spring 2004 Newsletter

Queneau News is Good News

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Raymond Queneau, c. 1965. Photographer unknown.

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Manuscript for Les Enfants du limon. 1938.
Raymond Queneau.

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Lobby card for Zazie dans le metro (1960).

The Harry Ransom Center recently acquired the archive of French author Raymond Queneau, and it is already receiving lots of attention. With the archive barely out of its packing boxes, plans are afoot for an international conference in 2005, celebrating, in the Quenellien spirit of diversity and playfulness, the author and his work. The archive, rich in original material, includes manuscripts of Queneau's influential first novel Le Chiendent (The Bark Tree) as well as his masterpiece -- the complex, allegorical comedy Les Enfants du limon (Children of Clay). It also comes with a complete library of first editions of Queneau's works and presentation copies of books given to him by such authors as Georges Bataille, Albert Camus, René Char, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. It joins a significant unpublished correspondence between Queneau and Henry Miller in the Carlton Lake Collection and takes its place alongside the Center's prestigious Samuel Beckett and James Joyce collections to offer scholars multiple insights into the modern zeitgeist.

Along with Samuel Beckett -- though in a decidedly more humorous and lighter vein -- Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) is considered one of the most original French writers of the twentieth century. He was, like Beckett, a poet, novelist, critic, editor, translator, playwright, filmmaker, philosopher, mathematician, and lover of puns and wordplay. Both artists acknowledge a profound debt to James Joyce. (The Ransom Center's new acquisition contains Queneau's notebook in which he jotted down thoughts as he read Ulysses.)

Known chiefly as a novelist whose works critics say "span a host of isms," Queneau preferred to remain distant from literary movements. Although he had a brief flirtation with the Surrealists, he eschewed categorization. Consequently, he has not been literarily fashionable, though he has enjoyed public success with best-seller, Zazie dans le métro (Zazie), which received the Prix de l'Humour Noir and was made into a film by Louis Malle. He attained popularity, too with such hit songs as "Si tu t'imagines" ("If You Think"), present in the collection in a recording by Juliette Greco.

Queneau spent a period of his life working as an editor at the prestigious publishing firm of Gallimard. Before signing on with them in 1938, he had worked a number of odd jobs and wrote during his spare time. By the time he joined Gallimard, he had written five novels, four of which had been published by his new employer. All the while he researched his fous littéraires -- literary madmen -- producing a 700-plus page volume of work that was never published but portions of which he worked into his 1938 novel Les Enfants du limon. Les fous littéraires is present in the collection in various manuscript formats ranging from notecards to a 1200-page manuscript and nearly 600-page typescript.

In 1950, Queneau joined the Collège de Pataphysique, conceived by Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) but founded as an existing entity in 1949. The Collège brought together intellectuals and writers in an absurdist-scientific pursuit of imaginary solutions. While a member of this group, Queneau was appointed Director of the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, an editorial position eminently suited to Queneau's own encyclopedic approach to life.

In 1960, Queneau and François Le Lionnais founded Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), whose literary projects were largely the result of Queneau's love of mathematics. His Cent mille milliards de poèmes and Exercices de style grew out of this group's passion for abstract mathematical structures and patterns. Although Oulipo, with its linguistic games and mathematical challenges, ended up producing myriad texts, the function of the group was to create new literary forms and revitalize old ones. As one critic wrote, "[t]he Oulipo project generated a lucid reconstruction of the poetic language."

For his achievements, Queneau was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1951 and the Académie de l'Humour in 1952; he became a member of the Société Mathématique de France in 1948 and the American Mathematical Society in 1963.  

-Linda Ashton


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