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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Exercises in Style

Raymond Queneau

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To purchase Exercises in Style

Title: Exercises in Style
Author: Raymond Queneau
Genre: Fiction
Written: 1947 (Eng. 1958)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Exercises in Style - US
Exercises in Style - UK
Exercises in Style - Canada
Exercices de style - Canada
Exercises in Style - India
Exercices de style - France
Stilübungen - Deutschland
Esercizi di stile - Italia
Ejercicios de estilo - España
  • French title: Exercices de style
  • Translated and with Notes for the 1981 American Paperback Edition and a Preface by Barbara Wright
  • The most recent US edition (2013), from New Directions, includes additional exercises translated by Chris Clarke, as well as variations by numerous authors, including Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, and Enrique Vila-Matas

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Our Assessment:

A+ : brilliant, essential

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 17/5/1981 John Weightman
TLS . 9/8/2013 Dennis Duncan

  From the Reviews:
  • "I am willing to bet that this unassuming little volume, first published in France in 1947, will prove to be one of the more enduring works of 20th-century French literature. (...) (T)his is a truly original work, even by international standards. In its witty, glancing way, it makes a greater contribution to the philosophy of language than many a portentous, academic tome. (...) Barbara Wright has exactly caught the spirit of the book, and where direct translation was not possible -- as, for instance, in the case of the variations in country dialect or argot -- she has transposed creatively into such corresponding forms as West Indian immigrant speech or Cockney jargon. Her rendering deserves the highest praise, but of course it remains a British-English version." - John Weightman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The latest edition of Exercises in Style from New Directions uses Wright's text as its base, but includes a number of extra styles (Queneau would occasionally revisit the Exercices), translated by Chris Clarke. There are also a number of specially commissioned exercises by contemporary writers, of which the best are Ben Marcus's pastiche of Beckettian negation ("Had a bus been possible ...") and Jonathan Lethem's pitch-perfect skewering of cyberpunk." - Dennis Duncan, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       The idea behind Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style is simple enough; he takes a very simple story -- little more than an episode (well, two), really -- and recounts it ninety-nine different ways. The episode(s) on offer are arguably banal: the template consists of someone taking a bus in rush hour, and then two hours later meeting a friend in front of the gare Saint-Lazare; there's some jostling on the bus, and at the later encounter the friend tells him he should get an additional button for his overcoat, but that's pretty much the extent of it. Yet Queneau's achievement is far greater than merely showing off that he could conceive of ninety-nine different ways to re-tell, and re-present the tale: Exercises in Style is, in fact, simply astonishing -- not only in its variety, and the ingeniousness of Queneau's approaches (and equally here, Barabara Wright's translations and inventions), but simply the quality of its pieces.
       [As Wright notes in her very useful Notes for the 1981 American Paperback Edition, there ultimately were in fact more than ninety-nine pieces, as Queneau substituted several in the 1973 French edition; the English edition, however, is faithful to the original ninety-nine from the 1947 edition -- although in some cases Wright has to offer wholesale transformations of the texts, most obviously in such chapters as the ones she titles 'Gallicisms' and 'For ze Frrensh', which were Anglicismes and Poor lay Zanglay in the original.]
       The tale is retold in seemingly every conceivable way including, aside from the obvious, metaphorically; as a book-blurb; reduced to entirely logical analysis; presented in the form of a cross-examination; as an entire three-act play and as an ode (set to music, no less); reduced to a mere haiku. Several approaches look at the story entirely differently -- most simply 'Retrograde' (the story told backwards) and 'Antiphrasis' (the opposite of every detail). Then there are the linguistic variations, as the story is told in anagrams as well as a variety of permutations (recall that Queneau would go on to be a founding member of the Oulipo), taken apart and listed by the different parts of speech, or even just entirely in the form of interjections. Among the more straightforward approaches is a brilliant awkward turn, an entirely dream-like variation, and variations of the story told entirely in terms of each of the senses in turn (tactile, olfactory, etc.).
       Queneau isn't just clever, he's an extremely fine writer; as significant here is the hand of Wright, who in this volume -- which is much more than just a basic translation of the original Exercices de style -- must be considered Queneau's equal partner. From sections which are entirely her own devising -- such as those relying on dialect and slang -- to the deft touch she shows in those where she can't just imitate Queneau but must aim for close correspondence to the original, this is not only a great book but a great translation (specific to its place (the UK) and time, but holding up very well even now, half a century later).
       Exercises in Style is a true classic, and as essential as any twentieth century text. There's a richness to these variations, and a surprising depth, that makes this much more than a mere curiosity: many of the most significant issues -- philosophical and practical -- about writing and reading are addressed here, and it could serve as the basic textbook for any course in literature or writing. Indeed, if any book should be required reading for students of literature (and would-be writers), it's hard to imagine one more suitable than this one; and this exemplary translation would serve similarly well as a foundational text for anyone interested in translation.
       A truly great -- and both highly entertaining and thought-provoking -- work that can't be recommended highly enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 September 2011

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Exercises in Style: Reviews: Raymond Queneau: Other books by Raymond Queneau under review: Other books of interest under 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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© 2011-20121 the complete review

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