The Cleverest Rat In The Maze: On Raymond Queneau’s "The Blue Flowers"

The Cleverest Rat In The Maze: On Raymond Queneau’s "The Blue Flowers"

Raymond Queneau | The Blue Flowers | New Directions | August 28, 2018 | 232 Pages | Translated by Barbara Wright


"Let me show you something," a sample barks at the beginning of Dr. Octagon's "Blue Flowers." An alter-ego of underground rap icon Kool Keith, Dr. Octagon's exploits as a time-traveling, sociopathic gynecologist were chronicled in 1996's Dr. Octagonecologyst. The album is a distillation of all of Keith's obsessions: science fiction, Surrealist imagery, and pornography. "Blue Flowers" is both Dr. Octagonecologyst's most sedate and most unnerving song. Animated by a haunting violin concerto by Bartok, Octagon raps about blue flowers in purple pastures, blue flowers sprouting in the pouring rain. "Look at the land—Blue flowers," the doctor exclaims with glee.

To the best of my knowledge, "Blue Flowers" has no connection to Raymond Queneau's novel of the same name. In fact, the song is a lyrical homage to another novel entirely: Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. A speculative novel about an undercover narcotics officer so deranged by drug use that he doesn't realize the subject he's spying on is himself, it ends with its broken protagonist farming the blue flowers that make the Substance D drug that drove him mad in the first place.

And yet, history has a way of accidentally repeating itself. There are thematic resonances that link Kool Keith's drugged-out fantasia with The Blue Flowers, an Oulipo masterpiece by Raymond Queneau published in 1965. Like Keith's Dr. Octagon persona, one of the main figures in The Blue Flowers is a time-traveling, decadent sociopath. The immortal Duke d'Auge glides through the pages of Queneau's novels in an indolent haze, reluctantly pulled into conflict after conflict despite his best efforts to stay out of history's way. And as druggy blue flowers bloom in the rain and dot the landscape of Dr. Octagon's purple pastures, the immortal Duke d'Auge sees blue flowers blossoming out of the mud after another great Deluge covers the earth: "A layer of mud still covered the earth, but he could already see, blossoming here and there, some little blue flowers." Or as the good Dr. Octagon succinctly puts it: "Look at the land—Blue flowers."

Raymond Queneau had already produced a staggering body of work by the time he wrote The Blue Flowers. Born in 1902, Queneau developed an early fondness for encyclopedias and mathematics: twin fascinations that would go on to inform much of his work and life. Like many of the French Surrealists he'd occasionally fraternize with, Queneau served in the military—he was a light infantryman in North Africa, and would later get drafted in 1939. He didn't suffer the brutal losses that would afflict his Oulipo compatriots like Georges Perec (who lost family in the Holocaust, chronicled fictionally in his devastating W). Perhaps that's why Queneau was so adept at mixing together playful and heavy subject matter in a way that felt harmonious. It was because of that balancing act that critics often described his work as "jocoserious" (simultaneously jocular and serious), a portmanteau that would also get applied to Queneau's idol James Joyce. Queneau may have witnessed the horrors of war, but they didn’t make themselves at home in his books the way they did in Perec's.

Working his way up the ranks at France's prestigious Gallimard publishing house, he became the editor of the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Translating lectures on Hegel, mathematics, Pavlov, and all sorts of other complex scientific subjects, Queneau made a name for himself as a rigorous polymath. Like the titular character in Woody Allen's Zelig, Queneau had a knack for always being in the right time and place in the French avant-garde—name any prominent experimental French art movement or figure active between 1920 and 1975, and you'll find some degree of connection between them and Queneau. He became an associate of Georges Bataille and briefly joined up with the Surrealists from 1924 to 1930, before having a falling out with the movement over their embrace of Soviet politics. Though he publicly distanced himself from Grand Surrealist Poobah Andre Breton, he remained linked to the movement through his long marriage to Janine Kahn (sister-in-law to Breton).

Queneau also established ties with the spiritual grandfather of the French underground, Ubu Roi playwright and pataphysician Alfred Jarry. Joining the Jarry-inspired Collège de 'Pataphysique in 1950, Queneau combined his explorations of experimental writing and poetics at the Collège with his interests in mathematics. Becoming a member of the Société Mathématique de France in 1948, he started working with the mathematician Francois Le Lionnais. It was a fateful collaboration, providing the spark that would birth the Oulipo movement in 1960.

The name is a shortening of "Ouvroir de litterature potentielle" ("workshop of potential literature"). Drawing in prolific authors and intellectuals like Perec and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo movement was obsessed with the "seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy."

The Oulipo writers were inspired by how mathematicians used proofs and equations to expand the possibilities of their field: with each new proven hypothesis and ventured theorem comes a whole new web of theories, counter arguments, and variables to play with. They were fascinated by the idea of creating "potential literature." That's what Queneau meant by 'new structures and patterns': Oulipo writers didn't just want to create new works, they wanted to create new ways of making work.

The Oulipo writers were fascinated by the use of constraints; "I set myself rules in order to be totally free," Perec explained. Queneau likened the Oulipo to "rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape." While freedom is often defined as being without restriction or restraint, Queneau saw real freedom in submitting to stylistic bondage. He saw his elaborate exercises as a way of freeing himself from the tyranny of choice: "Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery."

The Oulipo authors were tapping into a spirit of innovation-through-deprivation that more popular artists like Lars Von Trier and Philip K. Dick would later embrace in their own work. Von Trier's 2003 documentary The Five Obstructions showed Von Trier trying (and failing) to make his filmmaking mentor Jørgen Leth admit defeat by making Leth remake his own short film The Perfect Human five times, each time having to shoot the short film under a different set of preposterous constraints. Von Trier is no stranger to creative constraints: he was one of the architects (along with Thomas Vinterberg) of the Dogme 95 film movement, an austere school of thought that challenged directors to make films under "Vows of Chastity" that included constraints like only using hand-held cameras and using only the props and sets that can be found on location.

As for Dick, he wrote his classic novel The Man In The High Castle by consulting the I Ching between chapters and letting the divinations shape and guide his narrative. Musicians like John Cage have also used "chance operations" to determine the shape of their performances. Cage wrote a series of piano solos called the Etudes Australes by using a combination of I Ching consultations and astronomy star charts to create random patterns of notes.

The field of general semantics was also experimenting in a similar vein with their E-Prime adaptation of the English language. E-Prime (as championed by authors like Robert Anton Wilson) forbade the use of "to be" verb forms, creating a more precise version of English that emphasized the subjectivity of our language. Eliminating words like "is" from your vocabulary, even for just a couple of days, can radically alter how you see the world.

It's that ability to shift our perceptions that makes the linguistic experiments of writers like Queneau and Perec more than just idle wordplay. The Oulipo writers were interested in the mathematics of language—pulling apart our literature to find the formulas and principles that dictate how we communicate with each other. Because once you know what the rules are, you can change them; Once a rat understands the limits of its maze, it can knock down a few walls and build a new wing to get lost in.

While the most famous and extreme example of Oulipo's rats-building-rat-mazes ethos is Perec's 1959 novel A Void (a lipogram text which omits the use of the letter E), Queneau turned heads with his own bold experiments. Exercises in Style, published in 1947, saw Queneau stretching storytelling to its limits by retelling the same short story in 99 different ways. For 1961's A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Queneau printed ten sonnets on pages that were split into 14 strips (one for each line). Designed so the strips could be placed in a myriad variety of formations, Queneau estimated it would take 200 million years for someone to read every possible combination of sonnets.

While Oulipean works like Exercises in Style and A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems are inspiring examples of radical form, they can be frustrating reads. It's in his more "conventional" works like The Last Days and Saint-Glinglin where Queneau achieves the best of both worlds by marrying his sense of playfulness with his experimental impulses.

So much of his work is marked by a deep love for James Joyce. Queneau shows his Joycean colors time and time again in the way he portmanteaus and mangles language into strange new shapes. The hilarious Zazie dans le Metro reads like Looney Tunes director Tex Avery's creative interpretation of Finnegans Wake, a vibe that the 1960 Louis Malle film adaptation captures perfectly. Queneau's gangster farce We Always Treat Women Too Well (published under the pseudonym Sally Mara) makes the author's man-crush on Joyce even more explicit by naming the group of Irish militants who hold up a building after minor characters from Ulysses.

In his introduction to We Always Treat Women Too Well, John Updike points out that a common thread that unifies Queneau's sprawling body of work is its focus on "the ineluctable banality of existence, as shown by the subtle clumsiness and foreordained triteness of our attempts to render life into words."

One of the ways that Queneau underlines this banality is by mastering the art of the hilarious understatement. Much in the way that Voltaire could describe soldiers committing atrocities with a deadpan shrug in Candide, look at how Queneau describes a women being sodomized by a pair of hostage takers in We Always Treat Women Too Well: "Changing hands, Gertie continued to dispute the fundamental merits of the case."

All of these elements that power Queneau's work come together beautifully in The Blue Flowers. His obsession with underlying structures, sculpting words like they're Joycean Silly Putty, the juxtaposition of comedy with brutality, his clinical deadpan - it's all there in his story about two men dreaming of each other across the vast gulf of history.

The Blue Flowers alternates between two men: Cidrolin, a fennel-quaffing layabout idling away on a barge moored on the Seine in 1960's Paris; and the Duke, a nobleman who professes his love for eating five-year old kids on a spit and his kinship with mass-murderer Gilles des Rais, dabbles in alchemy, fires cannons at kings, and seems untouched by the passage of centuries. Whenever one man falls asleep, the narrative immediately shifts to the POV of the other, much like the Kingdom Hearts side-game Dream Drop Distance. Sometimes the men swap places in between sentences; it's a testament to Queneau's skill with setting and structure that these sudden hops in time and space aren't too confusing or jarring.

While it isn't as wildly anarchic as Zazie dans le Metro or as formally inventive as Exercises in Style, The Blue Flowers serves as a perfect introduction to Queneau's style and thought. It's also a text that rewards multiple re-reads, as Queneau leaves the meaning of his book up to the reader. Even though Cidrolin and the Duke eventually cross paths, it's never entirely clear if either man exists. Is one of them the dream of the other? Are they both dreams of another, unseen sleeper? Queneau cites a Zuangzhi proverb in connection with The Blue Flowers: "I dream that I am a butterfly and pray there is a butterfly dreaming he is me." He also opens his text with an epigram from Plato's Theatetus: "He heard a dream for a dream." Queneau asks the same question posed by Monica Belluci in Twin Peaks: The Return: "But who is the dreamer?"

Perhaps the biggest lingering question from The Blue Flowers is how it hasn't been adapted by Terry Gilliam yet. Talking horses, men on deluded quests, skipping across time and space, all-we-are-is-a-dream-within-a-dream musing: it has all the hallmarks of being the sort of thing that would ring The Fisher King auteur's bell.

The Blue Flowers also displays one of the ironies of Queneau's work: for a man who spent much of his life working as a translator, his own work is a translator's nightmare. Consider the litany of alliterative insults a group of peasants rain down on the Duke after he refuses to join the Crusades: "The wicious wild-boar, the rotten ring-worm, the verminous Jemmy-Jessamy, the lily-livered mange-pot." Like his heroes Jarry and Joyce, Queneau packs his texts with "paternosters" and "deflagrating" and pun sentences like "When she's got bells on her bubs, she's Beelzebub's."

Barbara Wright, who has handled the English translations of Queneau's work published by New Directions, deals with all these curveballs deftly. Her translations preserve Queneau's jagged, confounding manhandling of the written word. The nonsense and the poetry, the mathematics and the wit of his lines come through loud and clear.

In an age where many modern writers strive for profundity in their themes and characters at the expense of formal invention, Queneau's works reminds us that style possesses its own kind of depth. Precision can be a gateway to enlightenment: instead of waiting for the muse to alight on his doorstep, Queneau built mazes and waited for inspiration to make a beeline for the cheese.

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