Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Surrealism and Pseudo-Initiation: Raymond Queneau's Odile

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Surrealism and Pseudo-Initiation: Raymond Queneau's Odile

Article excerpt

Raymond Queneau's literary practice has often been defined by contrast with Surrealism: he has been regarded as a rigorous formalist reacting against the exaltation of chance and the subconscious. Recently, however, this way of seeing his relations with the movement has been questioned in the course of a reappraisal of the values that underlie and structure his work. In the ensuing debate over Queneau and Surrealism, his fourth novel Odile, published in 1937, has been diversely solicited. This article presents a reading of Odile focused on its hostile portrayal of the Surrealist group, and then explains what is at stake in the current disagreement over the grounds of this hostility.

Queneau participated in the literary activities of the Surrealists during the late 1920s. But it was not until after his departure from the group that he emerged as the writer we know, quite suddenly and fully formed, with the publication of Le Chiendent in 1933. (1) By 'the writer we know', I mean, rather simplistically, the author of novels whose main distinctive features are the quasi-phonetic rendering of spoken French, ironic humour, and mathematically determined structures. I mean the novelist who begins Zazie dans le metro with the segment 'Doukipudonktan?'. (2)

In an article written in the year of Odile's publication, Queneau recounts that he began Le Chiendent during a trip to Greece in 1932 after conversations with Greek writers who were defending the literary use of the demotic. (3) This trip is transposed in Odile, and at the end of the novel there is a reference to Le Chiendent, easily deciphered in the light of the contemporaneous article: 'J'emportais avec moi la promesse d'une signification: oeuvre commencee dans l'ile.' (4)

Odile, then, fictionally recounts and opposes two capital episodes in the life of Queneau: his participation in Surrealism and the simultaneous discovery of Greece and his own way of writing. It is legitimate to hope that the novel will help to trace this way back to its origins. Yet the book that seems to offer a key to the writer we know is, in a sense, the work of someone else: there is no phonetic spelling, the humour is restrained, and no numeric structures are apparent (paradoxically, since of all Queneau's novels, this is the one in which mathematics plays the most important thematic role). The narrative is not even broken into chapters. Odile clashes with the dominant image of Queneau as linguistic experimenter, ironist, and technician: founding lather of Oulipo and Oulipian by nature from the start.

With regard to form and tone, it appears to be a singular anomaly, and this perhaps explains why it tends to be given short shrift in critical surveys. Yet Alain Calame has indicated the novel's philosophical and specifically metaphysical solidarity with other works, particularly Morale elementaire (1973), in the course of a thorough re-examination of the oeuvre, which has revealed its fundamental disunity. (5) To summarize very schematically: the work of the 1930s and early 1940s, particularly from 1935 to 1941, and that of the last years of Queneau's life, from 1968 to 1976, is informed by spiritual preoccupations that developed notably under the influence of Rend Guenon, while from 1942 to 1968 Queneau thought and wrote as a scientific humanist.

This periodization calls for numerous qualifications, and they have been provided, by Calame himself as well as by the critics who oppose him. Nevertheless, in the wake of his analyses it is impossible to deny that the oeuvre of Raymond Queneau, which might have once seemed of a piece, is traversed by profound discontinuities. Odile, then, belongs to what Calame calls the 'universal' (as opposed to 'individual') or 'traditional' (as opposed to 'modern') works, borrowing these oppositions from Guenon, an author of whom it cannot safely be said that he needs no introduction.

Rene Guenon (1886-1951) was a scholar of esoteric traditions and a prolific author read between the wars by Gide, Paulhan, Artaud, Breton, and Daumal as well as Queneau. …

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