Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau

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A twentysomething bus rider with a long, skinny neck and a goofy hat accuses another passenger of trampling his feet; he then grabs an empty seat. Later, in a park, a friend encourages the same man to reorganize the buttons on his overcoat. In Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, this determinedly pointless scenario unfolds 99 times in twice as many pages. Originally published in 1947 (in French), these terse variations on a theme are a wry lesson in creativity. The story is told as an official letter, as a blurb for a novel, as a sonnet, and in "Opera English." It's told onomatopoetically, philosophically, telegraphically, and mathematically. The result, as translator Barbara Wright writes in her introduction, is "a profound exploration into the possibilities of language." I'd say it's a refresher course of sorts, but it's more like a graduate seminar. After all, how many of us are familiar with terms such as litote, alexandrine, apheresis, and epenthesis in the first place?...

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Seated in a Paris cafe, a man glimpses another man, a shadowy figure hurrying to the train. Who is he? he wonders, and how does he live? Instantly the shadow comes to life, precipitating a series of hilarious encounters involving a range of disreputable and heartwarming characters that prove as incredible as "real life." The Bark Tree is an enchantment itself....

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