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:
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:
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.
To my surprise, The Crime of Father Amaro has been one of my favorite reads so far this year. Those familiar with the Mexican movie of the same name may be familiar with its general premise. But where the movie is somber, the book is oftentimes downright funny and fairly scathing in its judgments against the Catholic Church and high society.
Set in Portugal, the book is about a reluctant young priest who is bored with his life serving in a rural parish. Through personal connections, he manages to get transferred into a highly desirable position in a big city where he is coddled by the women and adored by all. He falls in love with his landlady’s daughter, a devout Catholic girl engaged to another man. The girl soon finds herself falling in love with the handsome young priest as well, and the two begin a secret relationship that eventually results in her illegitimate pregnancy.
At the time it was published, The Crime of Father Amaro won Eça de Queíros no fans in his country, and it is easy to see why. He is heavy-handed in his indictments of religious hypocrisy, painting the characters in ridiculous, over-the-top ways:
There was another sin that was tormenting her: when she prayed, she sometimes felt an urge to expectorate, and with the name of God or the Virgin Mary still in her mouth, she had to clear her throat; lately, she had taken to swallowing the phlegm, but was worried that the name of God or the Virgin would slide down into her stomach wrapped in phlegm and get mixed up with her faeces! What would she do?
I can only imagine the horror of people reading this back in 1875 when it was first published. Still, the resulting effect of his scathing novel is a delightful reading experience. I often found myself laughing out loud at some parts of the book, and even when events are at their most tragic, there’s always an air of satiric discontent bubbling beneath the surface.