An Oulipo French classic

Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright

Zazie’s mother has a hot date in Paris, so she has to leave her eleven year old daughter with her Uncle Gabriel.  Zazie is a mischievous and potty-mouthed youngster who, unable to achieve her aim of travelling on the Métro as they are on strike, runs rings about Gabriel and his friends generally causing chaos wherever she goes, whilst having a weekend to remember.

That is the plot of this short novel in a nutshell, but of course it is much more than this, for in 1960 Queneau was a co-founder of the Oulipo salon – ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle’, whose members espouse writing under extreme literary and/or mathematical constraints; other notable members include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.

Zazie was Queneau’s thirteenth novel published in 1959, but was the one that brought him to public notice, particularly after Louis Malle filmed it in 1960. I was inspired to retrieve it from the TBR after Simon T recently wrote about one of his earlier books, the highly experimental Exercises in Style here, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect…

The narrative is actually straight-forward, but with sudden scene-shifts occurring mid-flow as the story chops and changes between Zazie and the other characters.  As the story descends into a pure farce and slapstick near the end, it got quite complicated to know where I was, but arguably this didn’t matter much as the crescendo of mounting chaos must eventually come to a head!

Where Zazie was more experimental was in the language, and this is where translator Barbara Wright has done her stuff, by translating (I assume) both Queneau’s run-together-and-phonetically-expressed-colloquialisms (a txtspk precursor?) into English equivalents, and his interesting choices of verbiage (as in a Will Self novel!).  The first page of the novel gives you a hint of both styles to come: ‘Howcanaystinksotho, wondered Gabriel, exasperated.’, and a few lines later ‘Gabriel exstirpated from his sleeve a mauve silk handkerchief and dabbed his boko with it.’

Then we meet Zazie, the charming little imp.  Unkoo Gabriel, as she calls him, and the taxi driver Charles are keen to show Zazie the sights of Paris, but are arguing about which building is the Invalides and where Napoleon’s tomb is.  Zazie puts a stop to this…

‘Napoleon, my arse,’ retorts Zazie. ‘I’m not  in the least interested in that old windbag with his silly bugger’s hat.’

Endearing, isn’t she!  Being a fan of the TV show The Royle Family, it was doubly funny to see words more normally associated with the layabout Jim coming out of a little girl’s mouth, although Zazie was decades earlier.

What about the other characters?  Gabriel is interesting for he is a female impersonator in a celebrated gay nightclub, but is happily married to Marcelline. I suppose we get to know him marginally better than the others, but for the most part we don’t get under the skins of his friends, or the myriad people he and Zazie meet at all.

As a comedy, this book quickly became too cartoonish and silly for me. I’ve not seen the film, but I expect this could be one of those rare cases where I prefer the screen to the page.

As an impressionistic work describing a first visit to Paris and the sights and sounds of the city, Zazie is rather like Gershwin’s An American in Paris, full of snatches of noise and glimpses of fabulous buildings, and I enjoyed this aspect very much.

As a stylistic experiment in expressing conversations as they are heard, Zazie in the Métro requires more work, but still delivers, and can be summed up by the only words that Gabriel’s world-weary parrot can say…

Talk, talk, that’s all you can do!

A charming, quirky, wacky, wordy and very silly book!  (7/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Zazie in the Metro, Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

6 thoughts on “An Oulipo French classic

  1. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for your review: I’ve picked this book up countless times, enamoured by the little girl on the cover, but never quite had the courage to actually buy it. Having read your thoughts, I’m not sure it’s really my cup of tea, but nevertheless it sounds like an intriguing novel. I do like the sound of the film though!

  2. gaskella says:

    I thought I might buy the film to watch, but even s/h copies are over a tenner, so beyond a whim purchase …

  3. Simon T says:

    Goodness! This sounds almost as mad as the one I read, although in a very different way. I’ve got to admit, I can’t see myself buying this – potty-mouthed characters are a big turn-off for me, especially when they’re fairly young or fairly old. Next time I want an experimental novel, I think I’ll turn back to Milan Kundera instead…

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