Raymond Queneau essentially launched the hyper-playful Oulipo tradition with the famed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems—a series of 10 sonnets with perfectly interchangeable lines. But by then, Queneau had put in a life’s work already, including The Sunday of Life, infused with the author’s peculiar mix of metaphysics and melancholic sweetness; and the hilarious, astounding Exercises in Style, which retells one mundane anecdote in 99 different manners. He had also written one of France’s most beloved books, the curiously adult children’s book Zazie in the Metro (immediately a Louis Malle film classic). And essays on Hegel. And lyrics to a hit song.
Canonical at home, Queneau’s had a hard time staying in print elsewhere—particularly with his earlier, Surrealist-influenced books (he left the group in 1929). America, it turns out, just doesn’t care for SurreaLit that much; we talk a good game over cheesy wine, but the two finest Surrealist novels, Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, remain available only through the devotional efforts of tiny Exact Change books. And it’s with these that Queneau’s debut Witch Grass (originally ignored in English as The Bark Tree) deserves to stand: a drifty, beautiful, hard-to-plot ambit through the old world’s new world, shadowed by war and money and tidal eroticism. It is the dreamlife of Modernity.
It starts with a guy who embodies Descartes’s cogito ergo sum—thinking for the first time, he becomes a shadow, gradually achieving three-dimensionality. If that seems too abstract, there’s also a series of wildly coincidental meetings in Parisian train stations and suburbs, a failed hanging in a forest clearing, a beggar’s rumored millions, a sham wedding, a real funeral, and an angry dwarf. But there’s no inescapable conclusion tumbled toward; how could there be, when the landscape keeps shifting? “The moment you look at things disinterestedly, everything changes,” thinks Etienne, the silhouette who ends as a field marshal in the French army—just as they lose a late-breaking war to the Etruscans. His, and Queneau’s, idea prefigures existentialism and the “new novel” movement, happily theoretical—until it reappears in sacrificial bride Ernestine’s deathbed speech. Casting aside soul, heaven, and hell, she says, “I’m talking, as you might say, objectively. When something else disappears, that’s already odd. But me. That’s just staggering.” And it is—there are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.