A man on a crowded Parisian bus watches as a young man with a long neck and a hat trimmed with a cord instead of a ribbon suddenly turns on the passenger next to him, accusing him of deliberately treading on his toes. Then, spotting an empty seat, the young man sits down. Two hours later, our narrator is on another bus and spots the young man from the window. He is talking to a friend who is telling him to have the top button on his overcoat raised. In Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau takes that simple story and tells it 99 different ways. And that’s it.
Queneau was a founder member of the French Oulipo group, a loose affiliation of writers and mathematicians later joined by, among others, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. The group sought to stimulate literary creativity by imposing unorthodox constraints and structures.
Queneau had been exploring different approaches to storytelling for years and Exercises in Style predates the formation of the Oulipo group. Many of the exercises are amusing, some are insightful and others are just bizarre. Here’s an excerpt from the exercise entitled Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters:
“Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da he nt ar re at pl rm fo an of us sb aw is ou ay ma ng ho nw ne se wa ck oo st ng lo dw an wa ho ea sw ng ri at ah th wi la ap ro it dt un sa he me.”
Figured it out? Queneau has broken the text into two-letter fragments and then, because that’s too easy, jumbled them up. So “Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da...” could be rearranged as “on ed ay to wa rd sm id da yo...” and then, by moving the spaces, turned into “one day towards midday o...”.
All well and good but I’m not sure what it says about the ways stories are told. I was hoping for more exercises like The Subjective Side or Speaking Personally, both of which explore the ways stories can be altered by a shift in narratorial perspective. Queneau spends too much time on word games, such as the one above, for my liking and some of the exercises, such as the one written in ‘cockney’, are far less interesting to a modern reader than they would have been on publication.
Nevertheless, Exercises in Style is fun and often thought-provoking.