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Raymond Queneau's Biography

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Writers with rejected manuscripts should take a leaf out of Raymond Queneau's book. When he wrote L'encyclopedie des sciences inexactes, based on his research into les fous litteraires (Literary Madmen), he was unable to get it accepted. However, with a characteristic piece of lateral thinking, Queneau incorporated it into his novel Les enfants du Limon as an unpublishable manuscript by a character called Chambernac, thereby getting it into print.

Later on, Raymond Queneau had no problem getting published. He became one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century. Regrettably, however, outside France his works remain largely unknown. Far the most popular is Zazie dans le metro, which has sold over 500,000 copies. Published in 1959 it won the Prix de l'humour noir and achieved further fame through the 1960 screen version directed by Louis Malle.

One of Raymond Queneau's main delights is playing with language and Zazie is exemplary, employing phonetic spelling and phraseology. The story's first word is "Doukipudonktan?" - a compression of D'ou qu'ils puent donc tant? (which Barbara Wright, a regular translator of Queneau, interprets as "How canaystinksotho?"

A variation on these concertinaed words are a vast range of neologisms: for example, L'orama - a more limited panorama; and somnivore - sleep-destroying.

Raymond Queneau also invented many French versions of English words, for instance Cornede Bif. Zazie also features another common source of "Quenellian" levity, an obsession with Parisian street life. He wrote a daily column from 1936-8 in the newspaper L'intransigeant entitled "Connaisez-vous Paris?"

Another way in which Raymond Queneau derives humour from his use of language is through repetition. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Exercises de Style, where he tells the same banal story of a man on a bus in 99 different linguistic styles.

Further examples are precursors to the Monty Python "Parrot" sketch. From Loin de Rueil: "Do you take me for an old man already ? for a dotard? for a fogy? for a rag? a debris? a degenerate, an old half-wit, a booby, a decrepit, a dolt, a senile, decayed superannuated ruin, an anachronism, a worn-out defective, a grey beard and to put it frankly, a jerk?"

In 1960 together with Francois LeLionnais, he founded OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), whose stated aim was "the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit".

A year after founding OuLiPo, Queneau published his most extraordinary work. Entitled Cent mille Milliards de poemes, it consisted of ten sonnets, each divided into 14 strips so that their lines could be combined in 100,000,000,000,000 ways. It would require someone who read a sonnet a minute, 8 hours a day, 200 days a year, one million centuries to finish.

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