Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau
Born (1903-02-21)21 February 1903
Le Havre, France
Died 25 October 1976(1976-10-25) (aged 73)
Paris, France
Occupation Novelist, Poet
Nationality French
Education University of Paris


Raymond Queneau (French: [ʁɛmɔ̃ kəno]; 21 February 1903 – 25 October 1976) was a French novelist, poet, and co-founder of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), notable for his wit and cynical humour.


Queneau was born in Le Havre, Seine-Maritime, the only child of Auguste Queneau and Joséphine Mignot. He received his first baccalauréat in 1919 for Latin and Greek, and a second in 1920 for philosophy, then studied at the Sorbonne (1921–23), where he was a fair student of both letters and mathematics, graduating with certificates in philosophy and psychology.

Queneau performed military service as a zouave in Algeria and Morocco during the years 1925–26. He was drafted in 1939 after Germany's invasion of Poland, and was demobilized in 1940. Through the remainder of World War II, he and his family lived with the painter Élie Lascaux in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat.

Marriage and family

He married Janine Kahn in 1928, with whom he had a son, Jean-Marie, in 1934. They remained married until Janine's death in 1972.


Queneau spent much of his life working for the Gallimard publishing house, where he began as a reader in 1938. He later rose to be general secretary and eventually became director of l'Encyclopédie de la Pléiade in 1956. During some of this time, he also taught at l'École Nouvelle de Neuilly. He entered the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in 1950, where he became Satrap.

Effigy of Raymond Queneau, Satrap of Collège de ‘Pataphysique, by Jean-Max Albert Rt

During this time, Queneau also acted as a translator, notably for Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (L'Ivrogne dans la brousse) in 1953. Additionally, he edited and published Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Queneau had been a student of Kojève during the 1930s and was, during this period, also close to writer Georges Bataille.

As an author, Queneau came to general attention in France with the publication in 1959 of his novel Zazie dans le métro. In 1960 the film adaptation directed by Louis Malle was released during the Nouvelle Vague movement. Zazie explores colloquial language as opposed to "standard" written French, a distinction that is perhaps more marked in French than in some other languages. The first word of the book, the alarmingly long "Doukipudonktan" is a phonetic transcription of "D'où qu'ils puent donc tant?" – "How come they stink so much?".

Juliette Greco popularized the song "Si tu t'imagines", a song by Joseph Kosma, with lyrics by Queneau.

Before he founded the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo) in 1960, Queneau was attracted to mathematics as a source of inspiration. He became a member of la Société Mathématique de France in 1948. In Queneau's mind, elements of a text, including seemingly trivial details such as the number of chapters, were things that had to be predetermined, perhaps calculated.

A later work, Les fondements de la littérature d'après David Hilbert (1976), alludes to the mathematician David Hilbert, and attempts to explore the foundations of literature by quasi-mathematical derivations from textual axioms. Queneau claimed this final work would prove "a hidden master of the automaton." Pressed by GF, his interlocutor, Queneau confided that the text "could never appear, but had to hide to glorify that without agency." A conference on the matter will be held in Coral Gables, FL.

One of Queneau's most influential works is Exercises in Style, which tells the simple story of a man's seeing the same stranger twice in one day. It tells that short story in 99 different ways, demonstrating the tremendous variety of styles in which storytelling can take place. A graphical story adaptation of the book's concept, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, was published by the American Matt Madden in 2005.

The works of Raymond Queneau are published by Gallimard in the collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

Queneau is buried with his parents in the old cemetery of Juvisy-sur-Orge, in Essonne outside Paris.

Queneau and Surrealists

In 1924 Queneau met and briefly joined the Surrealists, but never fully shared their penchants for automatic writing or ultra-left politics. Like many surrealists, he entered psychoanalysis—however, not in order to stimulate his creative abilities, but for personal reasons, as with Leiris, Bataille, and Crevel.

Michel Leiris describes, in Brisees, how he first met Queneau in 1924, while vacationing in Nemours with André Masson, Armand Salacrou and Juan Gris. A common friend, Roland Tual, met Queneau on a train from Le Havre and brought him over. Queneau was a few years younger and felt less accomplished than the other men. He did not make a big impression on the young bohemians. After Queneau came back from the army, around 1926-7, he and Leiris met at the Café Certa, near L'Opera, a Surrealist hang-out. On this occasion, when conversation delved into Eastern philosophy, Queneau's comments showed a quiet superiority and erudite thoughtfulness. Leiris and Queneau became friends later while writing for Bataille's Documents.

Queneau questioned Surrealist support of the USSR in 1926. He remained on cordial terms with André Breton, although he also continued associating with Simone Kahn after Breton split up with her. Breton usually demanded that his followers ostracize his former girlfriends. It would have been difficult for Queneau to avoid Simone, however, since he married her sister, Janine, in 1928. The year that Breton left Simone, she sometimes traveled around France with her sister and Queneau.

By 1930, Queneau separated himself significantly from Breton and the Surrealists. Eluard, Aragon and Breton had joined the French Communist party in 1927; Queneau did not, and instead participated in Un Cadavre (A Corpse, 1930), a vehemently anti-Breton pamphlet co-written by Bataille, Leiris, Prévert, Alejo Carpentier, Jacques Baron, J.-A. Boiffard, Robert Desnos, Georges Limbour, Max Morise, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Roger Vitrac.

For Boris Souvarine's La Critique sociale (1930–34), Queneau mostly wrote brief reviews. One characterized Raymond Roussel as one whose "imagination combines the passion of the mathematician with the rationality of the poet." He wrote more scientific than literary reviews: on Pavlov, on Vernadsky (from whom he got a circular theory of sciences), and a review of a book on the history of equestrian caparisons by an artillery officer. He also helped with writing passages on Engels and a mathematical dialectic for Bataille's article, "A critique of the foundations of Hegelian dialectic."

Legacy and honors




Essays and articles


In other art

See also


  1. "Discography". Pierrebastien.com. Retrieved 2016-04-21.

Further reading

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