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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Children of Clay

Raymond Queneau

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To purchase Children of Clay

Title: Children of Clay
Author: Raymond Queneau
Genre: Novel
Written: 1938 (Eng.: 1998)
Length: 434 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Children of Clay - US
Children of Clay - UK
Children Of Clay - India
Les enfants du limon - France
  • Translated (and with an introduction) by Madeleine Velguth.
  • Translation of Les enfants du limon

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable, broad, eclectically fun novel.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 14/9/1998 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/8/1998 William Ferguson
Review of Contemp. Fiction B Fall/1998 Marc Lowenthal
San Francisco Chronicle . 2/8/1998 Carey Harrison
The Washington Post B+ 20/9/1998 Gregory Feeley

  Review Consensus:

  Interested, but a bit uncertain about it. Some think it would be better as two separate books, some see it clearly as one unified work. High praise for the translation, and agreement that it is an important work.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Children of Clay is full of phonetic spellings, double-entendres, portmanteau words and typographical horseplay. Madeleine Velguth's translation of these oddities is nothing short of heroic." - William Ferguson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Craftsman that he was, Queneau managed to make all these characters tie into the novel's multiple allegories of megalomania and regeneration, but one cannot help but feel that Children of Clay would ultimately have served better as two books, with his original, unrecycled anthology of lunatics standing on its own." - Marc Lowenthal, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "As might be expected, the book itself is as playful as a barrelful of lemurs, lurching from prose to verse and back again, arbitrarily altering left and right margins as if at the mercy of a typesetter with hiccups, and either banishing punctuation -- goodbye, commas -- or spattering uncalled-for colons across the page like tiny, casually broadcast seeds. (...) Less predictably, Children of Clay has a full complement of fascinating, three-dimensional characters and a rich, conventional story. Well, let's say a rich, unconventional story -- but definitely a story to be enjoyed by readers of more conventional novels who appreciate eccentric characters and sudden, startling twists of fate." - Carey Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Longer and darker than Queneau's better-known novels, Children of Clay seems still fresh 60 years after its original publication: a Modernist novel of failed hierarchies and the quest to recover order in old texts, brought up like an exotic deep-sea creature into the light of day." - Gregory Feeley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Written between 1930 and 1938, Children of Clay was one of Queneau's greatest fictional undertakings. What began as a study of French literary eccentrics was turned into a work of fiction when he was unable to find a publisher for it. One of the characters in the novel, Chambernac, works on a similar study, grandly titled The Encyclopedia of the Inexact Sciences, about French "literary lunatics" of the 19th century. Numerous excerpts are found throughout the novel, based on Queneau's original research.
       The French title of the novel is Les Enfants du limon -- "limon" being "mud" or "silt", as well as the family name of the dynasty around which the novel revolves. Translator Velguth gives the family the name "Claye", a reasonable if slightly misleading (at least in the title) transformation.
       Queneau presents a large parade of of characters, colourful locals, the declining family Claye (once wealthy, now having lost their fortune), as well as the many "literary lunatics". Foremost among the characters is Chambernac, the school principal who devotes himself to his great encyclopaedic undertaking. His "literary lunatics" are published authors whose ideas found no resonance whatsoever, making bizarre scientific and technical claims, rewriting history and philosophy, all style and only far-fetched content. In other words: ideal fodder for a writer of fiction -- but also a less than ideal preoccupation for an impressionable misguided intellectual of Chambernac's calibre. Tricked into hiring a wayward young man, Purpulan (who cleverly insinuates himself into the Chambernac household), Chambernac is able to cleverly turn the tables on him: Purpulan becomes his secretary, working for a pittance. It is their obsessive work -- and the many examples that Queneau gives, often pages worth at a time -- that form the bulk of the novel.
       There are, however, other stories woven through. There is the musical maid Clemence, the Saint Anthony obsessed grocer Gramigni, and persons from all the social classes. There is an organization called "Nation without Classes" -- the NWC -- which attracts a number of the characters, an attempted political ideal amidst times of great upheaval.
       Divided into 168 chapters, some only a sentence long, Queneau keeps the story moving along. Much is fairly straightforward narrative, but -- as is prefigured in the title -- there is a fair amount of wordplay, and Queneau's imaginative asides stretch form as well as content. The English presentation (astonishingly the first translation of the novel) conveys most of this well. The book does not feel dated, and it reads very well.
       The "literary lunatics" also make for amusing digressions, taking the reader far afield on unusual trains of thought. Most of this is a great deal of fun, and some of it quite clever. Queneau's ending -- the fate of Chambernac's epic -- nicely brings the book to a conclusion, the author stepping in, having found this unusual way of saving his work. The last scenes (and especially the marvelous last line) effectively tie together the book and show that Queneau could do the traditional as well as he could the experimental.
       An unusual book, probably not for everyone, but an important piece of French literature with many fine and entertaining parts. And certainly a great sourcebook for bizarre ideas.

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Reviews: Raymond Queneau: Other books by Raymond Queneau under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Oulipo books under review
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) is one of the most influential figures in modern French literature. He was General Secretary of the publisher Gallimard, and one of the founders of the Oulipo.

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