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mheu, Historical Museum of the Urban Environment

Exercises in Style

Raymond Queneau


One day at about midday in the Parc Monceau district, on the back platform of a more or less full S bus (now No. 84), I observed a person with a very long neck who was wearing a felt hat which had a plaited cord round it instead of a ribbon. This individual suddenly addressed the man standing next tohim, accusing him of purposely treading on his toes every time any passengers got on or got off. However, he quickly abandoned the dispute and threw himself on to a seat which had become vacant.Two hours later I saw him in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare engaged in earnest conversation with a friend who was advising him to reduce the space between the lapels of his overcoat by getting a competent tailor to raise the top button.


One midday in the bus - the S-line was its ilk
I saw a little runt, a miserable milk -
Sop, voicing discontent, although around his turban
He had a plaited cord, this fancy-pants suburban.
Now hear what he complained of, this worm-metamorphosis
With disproportionate neck, suffering from halitosis:
A citizen standing near him who'd come to man's estate
Was constantly refusing to circumnavigate,
His toes, each time a chap got in the bus and rode,
Panting, and late for lunch, towards his chaste abode.
But scandal was there none; this sorry personage
Espied a vacant seat - made thither quick pilgrimage.
As I was going back towards the Latin Quarter
I saw him once again, this youth of milk-and-water.
And heard his foppish friend telling him with dispassion:
"The opening of your coat is not the latest fashion."

excerpts from "Exercises in style"
by Raymond Queneau
Editions Gallimard, 1947

View this work in the Urban transportation exhibition

The work

Exercices de style in French

This unusual book, published in 1947, is a collection of 99 retellings of the same anecdote, each in a different style. It was a huge success and has been performed in the theater on many occasions. The book prefigures the work of the Oulipo group which was characterized by inventive writing using constrained techniques.

The author

Raymond Queneau was an unclassifiable French literary figure. Born in Le Havre in 1903, he moved to Paris at a young age and published his first writings in 1931. After flirting with the Surrealists and the "new novel", he developed his own original work characterized by an unrelenting exploration of the forms of language. The founding of Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians, was an important step in this process. Studying the ways that literature is constructed, the group sought literary inspiration within the confines of strict constraints. Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) is an example of this: the verses of the ten sonnets, each of which has a proper grammatical and poetic structure, are interchangeable, enabling a vast number of different poems -100,000,000,000,000 - to be constructed at random. This movement gave rise to a significant body of literature, like Georges Perec's novel La disparition (translated into English as A Void), written entirely without using the letter "e". Another side to Queneau's inventiveness was displayed in satirical novels such as Zazie dans le metro (Zazie in the Metro), a seminal work.