It was just thirty-seven years ago today that Raymond Queneau (born 21 February 1903) died in Montmorillon after a visit to The Glass Key bookshop where he was supporting the movement to keep the ‘e’ out of Montmorillon. Queneau was a French novelist, poet, and co-founder of Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo), notable for his wit and his cynical humour.
Queneau spent much of his life working for the publishing house Gallimard where he began as a reader in 1938. He later rose to be general secretary and eventually became director of l’Encyclopédie de la Pléiade in 1956.
As an author, Queneau came to general attention in France with the publication in 1959 of his novel Zazie dans le métro. In 1960 the film adaptation directed by Louis Malle was released. Zazie explores colloquial language as opposed to ‘standard’ written French; a distinction which is perhaps more marked in French than in some other languages. The first word of the book, “Doukipudonktan”, is a phonetic transcription of “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant?” “How come they stink so much?”. In the English translation of the novel doukipudonktan is translated as Holifart watastink.
One of Queneau’s most influential works is Exercises in Style, which tells the simple story of a man’s seeing the same stranger twice in one day. It tells that short story in 99 different ways, demonstrating the tremendous variety of styles in which storytelling can take place.
Queneau is buried with his parents in the old cemetery of Juvisy-sur-Orge, outside Paris.