Exercises in Style

A twenty-something year old man with a long neck and a strange hat gets on the S bus at rush hour.  He angrily accuses someone nearby of “jostling” him every time someone gets off the bus, then he moves into an empty seat. Two hours later, the narrator observes the man in the Cour de Rome having a conversation with someone who’s saying “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.”

Exercises in Style, written by Raymond Queneau and published in France in 1947, starts with this little paragraph-long story. The book is a play on language, comprised of 99 variations of this story–the variations literally are exercises in style. Each “exercise” is given its own title and takes the form of poetry, word games, one-act plays, and narratives told from different–and sometimes unintelligible–perspectives:

Word-composition

I was plat-bus-forming co-massitudinarily in a lutetio-meridional  space-time and I was neighbouring a longisthmusical plaitroundthehatted greenhorn. Who said to a mediocranon: “You’re jostleseeming me.” […]

An example of something even more nonsensical:

Apheresis

Ot us sengers. Ticed ung an eck embled at affe ring at ith ted ord. Ot gry nother senger plaining rod oes very one n ut. Ent at own here as ree eat. […]

In his introduction, the translator mentioned the difficulties of translating humorous made-up French words into humorous made-up English words. Some of the variations are supposed to be nonsense, but I do wonder what the original French text is like.

That said, I did enjoy some of the variations, if only because it was fun to try to say them!

Cockney (Vulgaire)

So A’m stand’n n’ ahtsoider vis frog bus when A sees vis young Froggy bloke, caw bloimey, A finks, ‘f’at ain’t ve most funniest look’n’ geezer wot ever A claps eyes on. Bleed’n’ great neck, jus’ loike a tellyscope, strai’up i’ was, an’ ve titfer ‘e go on ‘is blonce, caw, A fought A’d ‘a died. […]

Another favorite:

Haiku

Summer S long neck
plait hat toes abuse retreat
station button friend

This book is pretty short, and I read it all in one sitting. I’m not sure I would recommend doing this; reading the 99 versions of one paragraph grates on one’s nerves after a while, especially with the more nonsensical variations. If I were to do it again, I’d probably just stick to reading a few at a time. Still, it’s a funny–albeit strange–little book. Who would’ve thought you could write 99 versions of one little paragraph? I have a feeling that Queneau could have easily kept going!

GoodreadsAmazon
I read it as a(n): 
Paperback
Source: 
Personal copy
Pages: 
204

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