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Exercises in Style
by Raymond Queneau
(New Directions)
Review by John Gabree

The idea for this book came to the author after a performance of Bach's "The Art of the Fugue." Queneau thought it would be interesting to attempt, in prose, a similar exploration of variations on a theme. To that end, he began to write a series of stories exploring forms ranging from the sonnet and the alexandrine to the parody and lampoon. He retold the same story 99 times, in numbers, dialect, dialogue, pig Latin, spoonerisms, metaphor, officialese, and so on.

The story is simplicity itself: On a crowded bus, a man accuses a fellow passenger of deliberately jostling him. When a seat opens, he grabs it. Later he is observed on the street being told by a friend "to get an extra button put on [his] overcoat." Anything more is dictated not by the facts but by the requirements of the chosen form.

In general, it was Queneau's ambition, unusual in a Frenchman, to write as unpretentiously and intelligibly as possible. He hoped his exercises in style would "act as a kind of rust-remover to literature, help to rid it of some of its scabs." His purposes certainly were serious enough -- to experiment variously with the possibilities of language, to explore the philosophy of language -- but his means are a fireworks display of witty and entertaining alternatives. Translator Barbara Wright offers an amusing and helpful introduction. Not many studies in linguistics will have you laughing out loud. The publication of "Exercises in Style" in paperback marks the welcome return of classic. (1981)



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