The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Language, Humor, and Estrangement in Raymond Queneau’s L’instant fatal

Patience Haggin

For Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), the ingredients of poetry are language, invention, and humor. In his collection of poems, L’instant fatal (1948), he deals with themes of life, death, and the nature of poetry. This volume, which offers a humorous take on the essence of life itself and the approaching menace of death, is at once amusing and grim—and, for that reason, disorienting. The volume’s effect of estranging the reader results from a combination of careful linguistic and structural techniques.

As an experimental writer who would later be one of the founding members of the group Oulipo, Queneau’s chief interest in writing was the inventiveness of language. His poems are full of linguistic invention of all forms—at the level of the word itself, the rhetorical device, the formal structure, the genre, and the speaker. To understand L’instant fatal’s particular estranging power requires a detailed understanding of the linguistic forms and structures that Queneau uses throughout the work. Theoretical approaches examining the role of linguistic forms in poetic writing will help illuminate Queneau’s methods and meaning.

I. Queneau and language: his self-stated goals

The Oulipo, or the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, were dedicated to the exploration of new literary devices and forms, which they hoped would allow them to tap the undiscovered “potential” of literature by developing new literary forms and styles. Famous for their use of “constraints,” the Oulipo challenged themselves to play with the untried possibilities of language and style. Queneau wrote in a 1964 essay on “Potential Literature” that the Oulipo’s fundamental goal was to offer writers “new structures, of a mathematical nature” that would serve as “aids to creativity” (Queneau, Letters, numbers, forms 181). Their goal was to thereby “ranimer la langue” (Le Tellier 128)—reanimate the language—and discover unknown “potential” literary techniques.

Queneau, known for his experimentation with unconventional spellings and neologisms, became famous later in his career for encouraging poets and writers to let their works reflect the spoken language of the people, rather than the obsolete conventions of formal written French. Queneau made a distinction between the “pure” French guarded by the Académie française and used only by journalists and government functionaries, and “la démotique,” the language of ordinary speech used by the people (Queneau, Bâtons, chiffres et lettres 40). In his essays on language, Queneau called for a “revolution” in the French language, arguing that the archaic conventions of vocabulary, syntax, and spelling in written French should be altered to conform to the actual speech of modern Frenchmen (16). His proposed system of orthography insisted on consistent rules conforming to colloquial pronunciation, intending to “deform, reform, inform, and phoneticize” the French language (Belaval 14).

“La démotique” of ordinary speech, Queneau insisted, was the proper language for poetic composition. If poets didn’t craft their work according to the actual standards of pronunciation and vocal rhythm, they could not take advantage of the authentic rhythms and sounds that created “la véritable musique du langage” (17). Queneau called on other poets to embrace his “néo-français,” arguing that composition in néo-français would both advance the movement and open their work up to a new potential. He called on poets to raise popular language to the dignity of written language by making it the “la source d’une nouvelle poésie” (20). With the adoption of a new language, French poets could open up a new realm of potential literature.

Most of the poems of L’instant fatal contain select, carefully-chosen instances of both phonetically spelled néo-français words and neologisms of Queneau’s own invention. Within L’instant fatal, this embrace of simple, colloquial language contributes to the crafting of a rather naïve, at times childlike, poetic voice. As other critics have elaborated, Queneau liked, at times, to create the voice of a “naïve” poet, as though unconscious or indeliberate of his art (Baligand 8).  In L’instant fatal’s third chapter, “Pour un art poétique,” several of his poems describe poetry as an innocent, childlike and child-adored play with language, in which the poet relies on the sounds of the words and the power that they hold as words themselves. For example, in poem “3” of this chapter, he describes composition as an exercise of arranging words as the poet finds pleasing, then discovering the poetry that emerges:

Bien placés bien choisis

quelques mots font une poésie

les mots il suffit qu’on les aime

pour écrire un poème

on sait pas toujours ce qu’on dit

lorsque nait la poésie

L’instant fatal 155

Many of the poems of L’instant fatal, particularly those of “Pour un art poétique,” are written in this delicate, nursery rhyme-like tone that gives Queneau’s poetry both its characteristic innocence and its melodic quality.

L’instant fatal becomes a rich ground for experimentation with language as Queneau, with a voice of naïveté and humor, confronts the sobering topic of mortality. Queneau, whose lifelong corpus of work has been said to consist of inquiries into every subject of human existence (Queval 76), focuses in these poems on the cycle of life and death. Critic Jane Hale, who writes that each of Queneau’s major works can be interpreted as a poetic meditation on some domain of human knowledge or activity, identifies L’instant fatal as his treatment of eschatology (Hale 34). The poems of L’instant fatal address the cyclical progress of life (with a recurring particular interest in life’s mundanities) and the inevitability of death.

The collection is composed of 90 poems written individually, beginning from as early as 1920. It consists of four parts, titled “Marine,” “Un enfant a dit,” “Pour un art poétique,” and “L’instant fatal.” “Marine” contains 28 poems written very early in Queneau’s career that deal with the natural world, often taking an interest in the cyclical nature of natural phenomena. The 20 innocent poems of “Un enfant a dit” seem as if spoken by a child. Many of them consist of a series of descriptive images that offer an imaginative, childlike perspective on a quotidian scene. “Pour un art poétique” consists of 11 poems that muse on the practice and purpose of writing poetry, many of them portraying the poet as naïve and the practice of poetry-writing as inspired. The final chapter, for which the collection is named, consists of 31 poems that contemplate the inevitability and gruesomeness of death. On the whole, these poems are fatalistic, invoking an element of memento mori for the reader, even while most of them employ elements of humor.

Queneau’s constant play with language permeates the poems of L’instant fatal. To more closely examine precisely how Queneau uses language and linguistic devices throughout the collection, we can examine it through several different theoretical lenses offering different but intersecting views of how language is used in poetry. To apply the methods of each theoretical approach to Queneau’s work, we will take advantage of individual Queneau poems that are representative of the work as a whole.

II. L’instant fatal and poetic “literariness”

Queneau’s poetry is often heavily structured, richly endowed with poetic devices, and laced with hidden patterns and meanings at the level of the words and devices themselves. Poetry of this sort begs to be studied under the Russian Formalists’ pattern-based approach. The philosophy of experimentation and invention that lay behind Queneau’s play with conventions and constraints harbors a remarkable affinity for the Formalist conception of literaturnost, the defining feature of poetic expression. The Russian Formalists believed that this “literariness” lay in a work’s “mode of presentation” rather than its fictionality or subject-matter (Erlich 173). They came to see language, rather than genres or emotions, as the material of poetry, and took an interest in the word itself as an instrument for creative manipulation.

Leading Russian linguist Roman Jakobson distinguished poetry as a particular function of language distinct from all other forms of communication. As Jakobson created a model of the six functions of language (distinguishing aesthetic forms of language from utilitarian communication), he defined the poetic function as language that focused on the message (Jakobson’s technical term for the utterance considered for its own sake, rather than for communicative purposes) (71). This belief, that poetic expression lay in the power and presentation of the message itself, rather than transparency of understanding, shaped Jakobson’s approach to studying and interpreting the language of poetry. Queneau and his Oulipo allies shared the Formalists’ interest in the mode of presentation as literature’s source of power; their interest in unknown “potential” literary techniques placed a similar emphasis on the inventiveness of language.

In Jakobson’s conception of poetry, the word becomes an object in its own right, rather than a signifier (Erlich 175). The understanding of language itself as the material for creation and invention in poetry welcomes the kind of experimentation that Oulipo writers undertook. For instance, Formalist criticism explicitly defends the types of innovations that Queneau worked with, such as neologisms. The Formalists understood that novel invented words carry a meaning that is present and understood by readers, thanks to the effects of context and associations with “real” words (185).

The key element in the Formalists’ philosophy of poetics was the concept of priem ostranenija, or the device of “making-strange.” Priem ostranenija was the indispensable poetic technique of taking what is habitual and familiar to the reader and defamiliarizing it, requiring the reader to become estranged from what he knows and then reacquainted with it. The poet’s innovative mode of discourse pushes the reader to see his familiar world through a novel lens, and rediscover it (178). It was the poet’s task to devise inventive new ways of seeing and describing the world, and it was the reader’s task (and reward) to come to grips with the poet’s reformulation, and to have his understanding enhanced by the experience.

The Oulipo’s stated goals show a remarkable affinity with the Formalists’ philosophy of innovation. Queneau wrote in a 1964 essay that the Oulipo’s fundamental goal was to offer writers “new structures, of a mathematical nature” that would serve as “aids to creativity” (Queneau, Letters, numbers, forms 181). For Queneau and the other members of Oulipo, the exploration of novel modes (often under devised constraints) was a means to push the limits of writerly creativity, hopefully toward novel ways to defamiliarize the familiar world.

Jakobson argued that the defining linguistic feature of poetic discourse was pattern—including patterns of all sorts, in grammatical structures, sounds, themes, and figurative elements. His method of analyzing poetry was to identify both the conspicuous and inconspicuous patterns that shaped the poem. Applying Jakobson’s method to representative poems from L’instant fatal will elucidate the sort of structure and forms that Queneau uses frequently throughout the collection. Many of Queneau’s poems employ constant repetition of the same words and whole lines, making them rich grounds for Jakobson’s sort of verbal pattern-seeking. Because Jakobson’s devices specialize in uncovering the most inconspicuous, unsuspected, and, his critics would argue, perhaps contrived, symmetries, it will instead be more fruitful and revealing to apply his methods to poems that are less obvious in their patterning.

“Ombre d’un doute,” a verse from the fourth part of the collection, which is representative of the work as a whole in both style and subject matter, is a ripe subject for a Jakobson-style analysis:

« Ombre d’un doute »

Je mdemandd squ’on fait icigo                        1

sur cette boule d’indigo                                    2

c’est pour la rime qu’on dit ça                        3

et c’est pour la raison sans doute                        4

que tout lmonde va sfairfoutre                        5

en grand habit de tralala                                    6

on est là comme cornichons                                    7

susglobnaturellement rond                                    8

comment trouver d’autre épithète                        9

de même qu’après l’agonie                                    10

quand on sait bien que c’est fini                        11

faut dire qu’en fait il réquièste                        12

les gens vont à droite et à goche                        13

comme si y avait pas d’anicroche                        14

car c’est la vie euh qui veut ça                        15

et c’est la mort assurément                                    16

qui provoque ces enterrments                                    17

qu’on aperçoit ici et là                                                18

L’instant fatal 174

The poem’s basic formal structure nearly conforms to traditional rules of French classical meter. The poem uses octosyllables in a aabccb rhyme scheme. The poems arranges masculine rhymes (in which the rhyming words end in vowel sounds) and feminine rhymes (in which the tonic vowel is followed by a mute syllable) in an alternating pattern, as dictated by the conventions of classical French verse (Scott 109). The poem includes one instance of a dual-syllable rime léonine (in the icigo/indigo rhyme in lines 1 and 2) and one presence of rime redoublée  (in the repeated use of the ça/là rhyme in the first and third stanzas).

While the poem nearly conforms to a conventional formal structure throughout, it falls short—intentionally, defiantly—in a few particulars. Two of the rhyme pairs are what might be called “super-poor” near-rhymes, cheekily defiant of typical rules. In both cases (doute/foutre in lines 4 and 5, and épithète/réquièste in lines 9 and 12), the near-rhyme is created by the use of the same vowel sounds, but spoilt by the difference of the consonne d’appui (the r in “foutre” and the s in “réquièste”).

Queneau’s contempt for spelling conventions is on proud display. Most of his orthography-flouting misspellings omit the unstressed “e,” which goes unpronounced in colloquial French but traditionally is heard in the formal reading of verse. His playful spellings (of “mdemandd squ’on” in line 1, “lmonde” and “sfairfoutre” in line 5, “susglobnaturellement” in line 8, and “enterrments” in line 17) also allow the poem to hold to its octosyllable structure, by trimming the number of pronounced syllables in each of these lines. These omitted letters are even arranged in a symmetrical pattern: they appear in the first and fifth lines of the first stanza, in only the second line in the second stanza, and in the first and fifth lines of the third stanza.

While Queneau mockingly omits the unstressed e in many instances, he just as mockingly insists on retaining it in line 15, where “vie” (a one-syllable word even in poetry) is paired with a groan “euh.” This “euh” comically exaggerates the poetic pronunciation of an unstressed e. Given Queneau’s known comments on the evolution of French usage and pronunciation, his omissions and additions of the pronounced e make a playful commentary on the fate of the unstressed vowel in the French language (which disappears, like the “ombre” of the title).

Queneau’s other uses of néo-français spelling poke fun at other rules of French orthography. In two instances (the “sus” in “susglobnaturellement” in line 8 and in “goche” in line 13), the poem substitutes a single vowel for a biliteral vowel giving the same sound. The poem also takes the liberty of coining a new French word (whose meaning is immediately understood): “réquièste” in line 12 imitates the bastardized French pronunciation of “requiescat in pace” on tombstone inscriptions (Queneau, Œuvres complètes 1200, vol. 1).

These occasional misspellings encouraging colloquial pronunciation contribute to the familiar tone that Queneau uses throughout the poem. From the first line, in which “icigo” firmly roots the poem in the famous Parisian “argot,” the register of language is familiar, even vulgar. The occurrences of this argot follow their own patterning by occurring only at the end of a line (as “icigo” in line 1, “sfairfoutre” in line 5, “tralala” in line 6, and the colloquial “ça” in lines 3 and 15). The first-person voice also keeps the tone of the poem colloquial: the poem’s speaker is introduced as “Je” in line 1. Throughout the rest of the poem, he consistently uses “on” as a collective “we” that presumably refers to the human race.

Symmetry also occurs in the poem’s repeated juxtaposition of opposites. In each stanza, Queneau juxtaposes a pair of opposing abstract concepts in the stanza’s third and fourth lines: “c’est pour la rime …”/ “c’est pour la raison” in lines 3 and 4, “autre”/ “même” in lines 9 and 10, and “la vie”/ “la mort” in lines 15 and 16.

Another Queneau poem that makes a good subject for Jakobson’s symmetry-seeking method of linguistic analysis is his “A d’autres”:

 “A d’autres”

Puisque vous appréciez ces os dans la tempête                        1

ces os brisés broyés brassés par les cailloux                                    2

ces os tapés de froid plus secs que des arêtes                                    3

puisque nous n’apprécions pas                                                4

puisque vous accordez la vermine infernale                                    5

et les démons surgis au-dessus des étangs                                    6

les masques cramoisis les danses sépulcrales                                    7

puisque nous n’accordons pas                                                            8

puisque vous acceptez les vautours qui s’envolent                        9

assassinant le ciel de leur cou décharné                                    10

dégustant le bon jus des charniers qui bouillonnent                        11

puisque nous n’acceptons pas                                                            12

puisque vous approuvez les dents que l’on arrache                        13

le carcan qui sertit le cou du prisonnier                                    14

les coups de pied au cul et les coups de cravache                        15

puisque nous n’approuvons pas                                                16

puisque vous admettez et le pauvre et le riche                        17

et le mal et le bien et l’aumône et le poing                                    18

et le roi sur son trône et l’idiot dans sa niche                                    19

puisque nous n’admettons rien                                                20

puisque vous acclamez les meilleurs et les pires                        21

les singes chamarrés les chiens qui font le beau                        22

les chaouchs les chacals les chameaux et les chbires                        23

puisque nous n’acclamons pas                                                24

puisque vous tolérez le bon dans la mélasse                                    25

le méchant en enfer le doux dans la prison                                    26

les malheurs éternels l’imbécillité crasse                                    27

puisque nous ne tolérons rien                                                            28

puisque vous dites oui aux misères des hommes                        29

pourquoi donc trempez-vous le pain dans notre soupe            30

pourquoi donc buvez-vous l’alcool de notre vin                        31

L’instant fatal 209-210

The poem is composed of seven quatrains, followed by three strophes which each consist of a single line. Each quatrain adheres to a form of three standard twelve-syllable alexandrine lines, followed by a six-syllable concluding line. Each of the three solitary lines at the poem’s end contains exactly twelve syllables. Many lines contain the traditional caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables, dividing the line into hemistiches. Each quatrain uses an aba rhyme scheme in its first three lines, leaving the final line unrhymed (and always ending in ‘pas’ or ‘rien’).

As is immediately evident, the poem uses constant anaphora in the repetition of  “puisque” to begin the first and last lines of every stanza, and in the nearly identical form of the final line of every stanza. To summarize the poem’s literal meaning: the poet offers a series of images of the inequality, brute violence, and harshness that occurs in everyday life. Since the addressee ‘concedes, accepts, approves, tolerates’ all of these injustices and horrors, the poet finally asks, why (in the sense of ‘how’) does he go about his daily life without regard to them? Given that the poem ominously dates from 1938, its list of brutalities (particularly those describing the mistreatment of prisoners) is understood to have been inspired by incipient rumblings of fascist violence. The poem leaves ambiguous the identity of its addressee: the poem may be read as either a condemnation directly addressed to the fascists, to the general French population that has not intervened, or to the gods (modeled after the Greek conception, who accept human offerings of wine and overseeing human affairs). All of these interpretations are equally likely until the final line, when the speaker’s challenge, “pourquoi donc buvez-vous l’alcool de notre vin?” makes the latter interpretation, that the gods are the proper addressee, more likely. Despite this line, the other interpretations must not be discarded, as the ambiguity among the possible addressees is significant.

Aside from the immediately evident anaphora (the repetition of “puisque vous” and “puisque nous” in each quatrain, the use of six different verbs of accepting that begin with the letter a), the poem’s semantic argument is structured around a more subtle symmetrical arrangement. The seven quatrains can be divided into two groups of semantic meaning: The first four quatrains consist of gruesome images of the brutal ugliness of life and make liberal use of vivid descriptive language. The final three quatrains invoke abstract concepts, often by presenting them in pairs of opposites (as in “le pauvre et le riche” in line 17 or “les meilleurs et les pires” in line 21). This shift from vivid, particular description to abstract conception is inverted in the single-line strophes: the first strophe uses a simple, abstract and distant metaphor of generally ‘saying yes to the miseries of men,’ while the second two strophes pose their challenges in detailed visual images, much like the first set of quatrains. Therefore the level of detail employed in the poem has symmetry in its outer and inner strophe groups: the outer two groups (which are the set of the first four quatrains and the set of the last two single-line strophes) evoke particular detail, while the inner two groups (which are the set of the final three quatrains and the first single-line strophe taken as a set by itself) evoke abstract concepts.

The seven quatrains can be divided into two thematically separate groups: the first four quatrains, and the final three. When the structures within these two groups are compared to each other, another symmetry emerges in the arrangement of references to the human and animal worlds. In both groups, the only direct references to animal creatures fall in the inner stanzas: in the first group, both the second and third stanzas refer to animals (“la vermine infernale” in line 5 and “les vautours” in line 9). In the second set, the only references to animals occur in stanza six, in an alliterative list including “singes, … chiens, … chacals, and chameaux’ in lines 22-23). By contrast, the outer stanzas of each refer to human suffering: in the first group, “les os” in the first stanza and the prisoner in the fourth stanza, and in the second group, “le roi” and “l’idiot” in the fifth stanza and the bon/méchant types described in the seventh stanza.

Queneau’s typical playfulness is notably absent from this poem, which has a tone more serious than many of the other poems found in L’instant fatal. His only use of invented language occurs in line 23, where he uses it to create an alliterative series of animals. Individual uses of alliterative lists are found sprinkled throughout the poem, notably in line 2 (“ces os brisés broyés brasses”) and line 15 (“les coups de pied au cul et les coups de cravache”).

III. L’instant fatal and the poem as a poem

Jakobson’s method can reveal an impressive number of patterns buried in a poem’s structure, some of which may seem unimportant or unconsciously created. To Jonathan Culler, a Structuralist critic working in the 1970s, Jakobson’s approach was overly contrived and erudite. For Culler, Jakobson’s treatment of poems created arbitrary patterns for their own sake: “If one wishes to discover a pattern of symmetry in a text, one can always produce some class whose members will be appropriately arranged,” he wrote (57). Culler argued that, while the patterns that Jakobson finds are truly present in the poems under consideration, they should not be considered noteworthy simply due to their existence. To Culler, Jakobson’s identification of patterns was useless by itself; he argued that an interpretive method needed to explain how these effects contributed to the reader’s experience of the poem. “To say that there is a great deal of parallelism and repetition in literary texts is of little interest in itself and of less explanatory value,” Culler wrote (71). “The crucial question is what effects patterning can have.” Culler calls for a method that examines how one understands a poem.

Culler essentially shares the Formalist conception of priem ostranenija as poetry’s fundamental function; he describes poetry as an exercise of liberating language from its commonplace prosaic usage, and makes the understanding of this exercise one of the main goals of his criticism. A Structuralist critique explains how the poem’s language “makes strange” its subject-matter, as critics “illustrate the ways in which poetry undermines the functions of ordinary language” (183). Culler charges the critic to not simply identify symmetries in the poem’s structure, but to explain how the poet’s (consciously or unconsciously crafted) structures give the poem its power.

To Culler, the way we read a poem is deeply and inextricably rooted in the fact that it is a poem. The reader, he argues, is ever-conscious of the fact that it is a poem he is reading, and his interpretation grows out of his understanding of how a poem may work, an unconsciously held “implicit theory of the lyric” (162).

Culler theorizes that a reader approaches a poem with an unconscious understanding of how he may interpret it. To understand how poetry shapes this unconscious understanding in the minds of poetry readers, he asks, how will this poem alter the reader’s existing theory of poetry? how will this poem challenge the reader’s expectations about what a poem can do? Culler argues that every poem can be interpreted in terms of the argument it makes about poetry itself, that every poem is “an allegory of the poetic act and the assimilation and transformation it performs,” (178). He proposes interpreting every poem as a sort of commentary on poetry.

This interpretation reveals the extent to which “Ombre d’un doute” both explicitly and implicitly comments on the nature and function of poetry. As is typical of Queneau’s sly winking style, the poem makes a few outright references to the fact that it is a poem. In the first stanza, the poet defends his composition against anticipated criticism. He admits sheepishly in line 3 that he ‘said that just for the rhyme’ to justify his forced icigo/indigo rhyme, reminding the reader that the poet works with formal constraints. His admission that it was said just for the rhyme is a bit self-deprecating; it makes a statement that the poet ought not to take himself too seriously, and ought to be able to admit if his work is contrived or weak. Having cited rhyme as one formal concern constraining him, he then cites reason, the other one of the classic dual forces of poetry (“c’est pour la rime … / c’est pour la raison” in lines 3 and 4). But he twists this into a belligerent, defensive challenge: his “reason” is to tell his critics to “sfairfoutre” (line 5).

When the poet challenges his critics to “sfairfoutre” (line 5), we see his proud, defiant character; the poem is making a statement about the role of the poet to challenge existing rules and brave criticism. The speaker continues to comment on his own work throughout the poem: in line 9 he defends and explains his choice of “cornichons,” asking rhetorically how he could have chosen another word to describe the human race, with its futile manner of confronting death. In the third stanza, he stops himself short—cutting himself off from invoking a cliché in “c’est la vie” (line 15). “Ombre d’un doute” makes a unique subject for Culler’s method of inward examination of a poem as a poem examination.

In view of this approach, the use of néo-français and colloquial language throughout the poem takes on a special meaning. It is striking to the French reader, as the use of colloquial speech was traditionally not tolerated in French poetry. Queneau’s use of it throughout his work may be interpreted as a statement about the archaic rules of French verse, as he proposed in his essays on néo-français cited earlier.

In “A d’autres,” the poetic allegory offers an argument about what a poem can functionally do. “A d’autres” is a denunciation, a politically charged (if not overtly political) accusation condemning the addressees (whether they be humans or deities). Though Queneau’s work never turned overtly political, he was anti-collaboration and published several poems in journals founded by the Resistance (Lécureur 273). This poem serves as an example of the way poetry can reflect real-world events or sentiments in subtle ways. The brutal images evoked in “A d’autres” are universal enough that they may refer to any time and place in the course of human history; but, in view of the poem’s historical context, they are pointed and specific enough to also potentially be ascribed to a particular political belief. “A d’autres” strikes a delicate balance between politicism and apoliticism: the boldness of its condemnation demonstrates how a poem may harness a practical message, while the ambiguity with which the poem does so demonstrates how it may remain both universal and local at once. “A d’autres” can be read as a commentary on the power and flexibility of the poem itself.

IV. L’instant fatal as parody of existing forms

Based on the conception of priem ostranenija as definitive of poetic discourse, the Formalists determined that, in order to understand a new work of art and evaluate its inventive value, they needed to consider it in the context of the generic conventions that had hitherto governed the form, and consider the poem as a response to the corpus of existing work (Erlich 190). Considering the evolution of poetry from this perspective, critic Viktor Shklovsky examined how writers made innovations in their craft by defamiliarizing not only their subject-matter, but also defamiliarizing the existing literary forms. “Art removes objects from the automatism of perception,” Shklovsky wrote (Russian Formalist Criticism; Four Essays 13). The realm of this “perception” which was at risk of becoming automatized included aesthetic expression itself. When a literary technique became standard and common, it lost its power to “make strange” its subject. Thus, Shklovsky argues, literary innovation occurs when new forms emerge that allow the reader to see both the world and literary expression itself in a novel, unfamiliar form. As a fellow Formalist critic, Yury Tynyanov would extend this theory, making parody was the system of literary evolution (Steiner 118). For Tynyanov and Shklovsky, parody was a means of “making strange” a familiar mode of writing—by displacing and violating the established literary conventions, poets challenged the existing familiar modes of presentation, and the readers’ prevailing conception of what poetry was itself.

Shklovsky and Tynyanov’s theory endorses an interpretative approach that evaluates poetry in comparison to the prevailing generic norms imposed upon it. A few poems from L’instant fatal that were written as intentional, explicit rewrites of classic French poems are particularly interesting subjects for this approach. Queneau’s parodies of Verlaine and Ronsard make useful case studies, allowing us to see what elements of the traditional form Queneau refuted or mocked, and which he admired and kept.

Queneau’s playfully morose poem “Le gai rétameur” explicitly imitates a melancholy imagistic rhyme, “Je ne sais pourquoi” by the nineteenth-century poet Paul-Marie Verlaine. Queneau’s rewrite imitates the line lengths and rhyme scheme of the original, departing from them only slightly. Queneau’s version of the poem mocks the brooding, melancholy spirit of the original with exaggerated parody of its imagistic style. In Verlaine’s original poem, the speaker begins “Je ne sais pourquoi” as he watches a melancholy seagull representing his lonely spirit fly over the sea. The poem consists of a series of melodramatic, gloomy images.

Queneau’s version mocks Verlaine’s moody melancholy by humorously (at times puzzlingly humorously) reflecting on the nature of death. In stark contrast to the reflective speaker watching the gull fly over the ocean, Queneau’s opening image is a tinker challenging, “Who knows if we die?” (Queneau, L’instant fatal 183). The comparison of these two lines is suggestive of the overarching tonal and subject difference between the two poems. While Verlaine’s speaker broods over his turbulent emotions, Queneau’s speaker is instead preoccupied with pondering what he does and does not know about the nature of death and of the world. This interest in the known and the unknown is characteristic of many of Queneau’s eschatological poems. As Queneau’s tinker reflects on the death that he isn’t certain will ever come, he finds that it would be a relief to him. He reasons in the opening stanza:

car si la rumeur

prévient le r’ameur

alors je ne m’inquiéterai plus de rien au monde

L’instant fatal 183

“R’ameur” is both a syncope for the rétameur himself (Queneau, Œuvres complètes 1207) and a reference to the “rameur,” Charon, the ferryman who rowed dead souls to Hades in Greek mythology. This attitude, that death should be a cause for relief rather than fear, is characteristic of Queneau’s penchant for playing around with weighty matters of life and death. It continues in the third stanza, when the speaker states that he does not believe that death will come ‘to embrace him with its red velvet arms.’

In the second stanza, Queneau’s poem begins to cheekily mock Verlaine’s. Verlaine’s second stanza describes in rich, romantic detail the morose gull that embodies his spirit. In reply, Queneau’s corresponding stanza satirizes Verlaine’s style with a melodramatic image in overblown language:

Mouette à l’essor mélancolique,

Elle suit la vague, ma pensée,

À tous les vents du ciel balancée,

Et biaisant quand la marée oblique,

Mouette à l’essor mélancolique.

Verlaine 132

L’étain coule mélancolique

le long du trottoir piétiné

il pleut dans cette boutique

ouverte à tous les vents désolés

L’instant fatal 183

Queneau’s echo of Verlaine’s “mélancolique” in the first line and his use of the same rhyme syllables throughout the stanza make the parody even more pointed. In this stanza and the fourth, Queneau invokes arbitrary images that are incongruent with the tone of the rest of the poem. Queneau’s poem delicately satirizes the original, implicitly critiquing Verlaine as overly morose and romanticized. His parody replaces Verlaine’s style with a new form, one that allows him to treat weighty subjects with a light, mocking tone.

Another poem that is an explicit rewrite of a classic is “Si tu t’imagines,” (L’instant fatal 181-182), Queneau’s most famous poem and a popular song during his lifetime. Queneau’s notes indicate that it was inspired by an “Ode à Cassandre” by the canonical Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard (Ronsard 1195). Rather than a satire/parody like his version of “Je ne sais pourquoi,” Queneau produces an admiring, appreciative modernization (and Queneau-ization) “sur un t’aime de Ronsard” as the notes on his original manuscript explain (Queneau, Œuvres complètes 1202, vol 1).

Queneau’s poem, which is much less descriptive and more impressionistic, functions as a pared-down and abstracted version of the emotions present in the original. Each of Ronsard’s three stanzas consists of six octosyllables, while Queneau’s consist of an irregular number of five-syllable lines. In Queneau’s version, the addressee “mignonne” becomes a more period-appropriate “fillette.” In place of the extended comparison Ronsard makes between likening his beloved to a rose, Queneau describes his addressee with a series of impressionistic images evoking her beauty and youth. The only descriptive feature Queneau retains from the original is his beauty’s “teint de rose.”

Both poems invoke the Sun to illustrate the passing of time, though they each do so with a different prerogative and on a different scale. Ronsard invokes the Sun that has risen ‘this morning’—his image is of the Sun that rises every day and indicates the day-by-day ebbing away of one’s lifespan (1195, line 2). By contrast, Queneau invokes ‘suns and planets / [which] go round and round’ (page number, line 29)—his image is of the cycle of the Sun over the course of years, and with its reference to multiple suns, even refers to time over many worlds.

Queneau’s version is, overall, more violent in its expression. The poem’s manner of address takes on a harsher form: Queneau’s poem is a calling-out, accusing the young woman of under-appreciating her youth and (gently) admonishing her for it. But the alteration that is most distinctive of Queneau and of L’instant fatal is the interest that Queneau’s rewrite takes in the sinister memento mori aspect of the original. Ronsard’s original makes no reference to death; it merely alludes that as times passes, “une telle ne dure / que du matin jusques au soir” (lines 11-12). Queneau z death as an unseen, inescapable menace: “tu marches tout droit / vers sque tu vois pas / très sournois s’approchent / la ride véloce” (lines 32-34). In this passage, Queneau uses ‘wrinkle,’ which must be interpreted in a literal sense as a metonymy for aging; given the menacing, fatalistic language introducing this reference, it is understood to instead refer in a more figurative sense to the approaching menace of death. Ronsard doesn’t take this approach at all; the nearest his poem comes to an image of menacing death is his brief mention of “marastre Nature” (1195, line 10).

Making the image of death more sinister, Queneau’s description of aging is harsh too: rather than simply allude to the fading of a flower, as Ronsard does, Queneau offers a series of unsavory images of the ugliness of aging (lines 34-37). This list is unsavory enough for a pop song, but is no match for the gruesome lists of bodily maladies that Queneau indulges himself in elsewhere in the volume (notably, in “Le bon usage des maladies,” 89, “Vieillir,” 171-173, and “A d’autres,” 209-210).

Paradoxically, despite its unpleasant subject-matter and harshness of address, “Si tu t’imagines” is tender. Queneau’s homage to Ronsard intensifies the dark meaning lurking behind the original and introduces the presence of inevitable death, yet it remains gentle and pleasant. Despite the doom and gloom fate it invokes, its call to seize the day can even leave an optimistic impression on the reader, as a “hyper-modern parodic variation on the theme of carpe diem” (Bergens 27). This power to express heavy, dark, fatalistic themes in a tone that remains tender and even fanciful is characteristic of Queneau throughout the volume, particularly within the final chapter. Queneau’s imitation of Ronsard demonstrates the respect he had for the French poetic tradition and the way he looked to it for inspiration. His alterations to the poem demonstrate how his style of parody worked: tackling somber subjects in a playful manner was one of his key methods of making strange familiar literary forms and tropes.

V. L’instant fatal and the poetic speaker

As Queneau’s work challenges prevailing conceptions of what poetry is, the poems are frequently spoken in the voice of the poet himself—though at other times they aren’t. A more precise understanding of the speaker in a poem will shed new light on the arguments about poetry being advanced in the work. A new approach founded by linguist Ann Banfield considers this novel question not addressed by Culler or the Formalists: by closely studying the diction and grammar of literary texts (principally fiction), Banfield examines the finer points of syntax to consider more closely who is the speaker of a literary text. Banfield argues that written literary texts are able to make two distinctions in syntax that do not exist in practical linguistic communication: she points to a distinction of voice between the SPEAKER (the character in a work of fiction who is assigned dialogue or thought) and the SELF (meaning the point of view assigned to the narrator’s voice, which, she argues, often takes on a subjective perspective) and a distinction of time between the PRESENT (the time of performance of the action indicated by the verb) and the NOW (the time of consciousness as the written sense is articulated) (Banfield 93–94). Considering these distinctions, Banfield argues that much third-person narrated literature is a uniquely literary type of sentence called ‘represented thought’ (Banfield 143). Banfield’s book deals mostly with the style of narration in fiction, and the way that, as she demonstrates, narrative sentences often contain portions that are differently assigned as to point of view and time, mixing objective narration with free indirect discourse. While Banfield’s analysis is primarily concerned with fiction, its questions—who is the speaker of a literary work? are there multiple speakers?—reveal some interesting, unexpected quirks of narration and speaker in the poems of L’instant fatal.

Queneau’s poem “L’archipel,” which narrates a fanciful fable about a personified archipelago that is redistributed as the Caribbean islands, is, due to its third-person narrated form, a natural candidate for Banfield’s system of analyzing the various “speakers” that can be heard in a narrative sentence. Multiple narrative voices are present in its opening lines:

L’archipel était un bon vieux                                                            1

qui laissait ses diables d’enfants d’îles                                    2

courir à la dérive                                                                        3

mais lorsque l’un d’eux (ou l’une d’elles)                                    4

se perdit                                                                                    5

mangé (ou mangée) par un méchant volcan                                    6

alors il décréta la loi martiale                                                            7

et fit fusiller sur la place publique                                                8

le prépuce du facteur qui lui apporta la triste nouvelle            9

L’instant fatal, 124

From its opening lines, this poem shows the presence of Banfield’s third-person SELF, a non-objective, evaluative narrator. Banfield argues that the use of expressive elements such as evaluative adjectives indicates the presence of a subjective narrator (Banfield 188). Some of the evaluative expressions in these lines (as in “un bon vieux” in line 1 or “la triste nouvelle” in line 9) are spoken by a Banfield-style non-subjective SELF narrator. The narration also includes instances of free indirect discourse, as in “ses diables d’enfants d’îles” in line 2 or “un méchant volcan” in line 6, which seem to be in the point of view of l’archipel himself.

In the next few lines, Queneau begins to play with the narrative style, making asides to the reader. In lines 4 and 6, the speaker (who now sounds like the fanciful poet himself) jokes about being uncertain of the gender of his antecedent: he debates between “ils” or “elles,” unsure whether it is more correct to refer to the masculine “enfants d’îles” or the feminine “îles.” This joke is an even more direct proof of a subjective narrator—it is the voice of the poet commenting on the silliness of his own personified mode of narration, coupled with a joke about the complexities of French grammar. Queneau seems to be conscious of the subjectivity present in his narration, and seems to be winking at the reader as he plays with it.

Another poem that, while less obviously narrative in style, makes an interesting subject for Banfield’s speaker-oriented analysis is the sixth poem from the “Pour un art poétique” set:

L’encrier noir au clair de lune                                                1

L’encrier noir au clair de lune                                                2

au clair de la lune un encrier noir                                    3

au clair de la lune un encrier noir                                    4

au pauvre poète a prêté sa plume                                    5

au pauvre poète a prêté sa plume                                    6

il fait un peu frais ce soir                                                7

au clair de la lune un encrier noir                                    8

sur le papier blanc a couru la plume                                    9

la plume a couru zen petits traits noirs                        10

une lune blanche un sombre encrier                                    11

sont les père et mère de ce nouveau-né                        12

une lune blanche un sombre encrier                                    13

L’instant fatal, 158

For Banfield, the use of demonstrative adjectives indicates a subjective SELF narrator (Banfield 188)—and the speaker of this poem refers to “ce soir” in line 7. An even stronger proof of this poem’s subjective narrator is the evaluative comment on the weather in line 7: a narrator who comments that ‘it is cool tonight’ is much more subjective than the kind of non-character subjective SELF that Banfield discusses—he is himself a character in the scene, narrating from a first-person voice. The detached reference to “le pauvre poète” in lines 5 and 6 seem to impede the possibility of the poet himself being the narrator (a case that would have been different if he referred to “ce pauvre poète,” which might have been read as a third-person reference to himself). Rather, the speaker of this poem is the poem itself (which, in line 12, refers to itself as “ce nouveau-né”). This narrative mode, with the poem as the subjective speaker of the poem, satisfies and deepens the argument advanced in the poem: the poem, by stating that the moon and the inkwell are its parents, makes the point that the poet is not its author. The poem’s argument, that the elements that inspire the poem are its authors, is strengthened and deepened by the unique narrative device of letting the poem be the speaker itself. This unique device, of a poem speaking for itself about itself, makes a salient contrast with most of the other poems from the group, which are clearly written in the first-person voice of a poet.

This type of analysis can also serve to illuminate “A d’autres,” though in this case it is more interesting to ask who is the speaker’s addressee. In the poem’s anaphoric forms, the speaker constantly refers to a blameless, concerned “nous” including himself and addresses a condemned, apathetic “vous” that condones the injustice of the world. The poem leaves unclear, however, whether the “vous” are the gods of Greek mythology, the fascists themselves, or onlookers who have not intervened. The speaker accuses the “vous” of ‘dipping your bread in our soup’ and ‘drinking the alcohol of our wine’ (lines 30-31). While the reference to the Greek tradition of offering the alcohol of wine to the gods suggests that he addresses the deities, all the rest of the poem leaves the addressee open to either possibility. Given the events of the period in which it was written, it must be understood in reference to the rising power of totalitarian fascist regimes in Europe (particularly in view of the images of suffering prisoners in lines 13-15). The addressee may be either the fascists who were behind the injustices described, or the gods who condone the actions of the fascists during this time. The speaking “nous” may be understood as Queneau and his fellow opponents to the growing fascist power.

Queneau’s chief aim as a writer was to innovate, to develop new literary forms and techniques by experimenting with language. His goal of innovation is best understood in view of the Formalist conception of “making-strange” in literature. Considering his work through multiple critical approaches in turn allows us to understand the multiplicity of devices that contribute to the inventiveness of L’instant fatal. The Formalists’ philosophy of poetry makes us aware of the value of the word itself as the material of poetry, helping us understand the aesthetic value of Queneau’s wordplay and experimentation. Jakobson’s method of poetic analysis helps us appreciate the structures and patterns at work in Queneau’s language. Culler’s Structuralist approach leads us to consider L’instant fatal in terms of the experience it provokes in view of its genre. This approach allows us to see how Queneau’s work is inventive not just in its language, but also in how Queneau uses poetry and what his poems mean as allegories of the poetic practice. Shklovsky’s Formalist conception of parody as a means of “making strange” illuminates the way that Queneau appropriates and alters classic literary forms and themes. The poems that Queneau parodies in L’instant fatal demonstrate his interest in presenting weighty subjects of death and mortality in a light, humorous style. The modern approach of asking who is the speaker? who is the addressee? helps us understand precisely how a text functions and how it articulates its argument. Banfield’s theory of multiple voices in a literary text demonstrates the way that literature defamiliarizes our world by creating voices that are ambiguous or speech that is impossible in actual communication. Banfield’s approach shows us more clearly how Queneau toys with idiosyncrasies of voice and character, and these techniques make his work even more inventive and novel. As Queneau tinkers with language to innovate new forms and techniques, his work constantly finds its inventive power in techniques that estrange it from the norms of literature and perception.

One of Queneau’s overarching techniques of estrangement is humor. Even in writing about somber subjects, his tone is light and his style is wry. His work is both amusing and serious. Queneau’s work provokes laughter at the absurdity of all things (Guicharnaud 4). This light-hearted approach to somber material constitutes a use of priem ostranenija in itself: Queneau distances his readers from the sober truth of death by presenting it in a playful mode, simultaneously mocking his subject and mocking himself. This effect is the product of highly developed linguistic and literary techniques, not simply word-games and childlike rhymes. For Queneau, play with language was the valid aim of literature, and the means of creating meaningful work. As Queneau famously wrote in his novel Zazie dans le métro, “Il n’y a pas que de la rigolade. Il y a de l’art” (Œuvres complètes 685, vol. 3). This line could be a defense of Queneau’s philosophy of writing and justification of his inventiveness.

In L’instant fatal, Queneau presents eschatology as a deep, somber subject—not without the violence of death and moral implications of life’s brutalities, as seen in “A d’autres”—but he allows himself and the reader to laugh, at death, life, and themselves. As Jacques Jouet wrote, Queneau used humor as “une emancipation, l’affirmation d’une liberté” (Jouet 126). As in “Si tu t’imagines,” the collection as a whole offers us both a memento mori and a carpe diem. L’instant fatal allows us to see the fatal moment that is approaching, but to estrange ourselves from it and laugh at it.

Works Cited

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Appendix: Literal English translations

Near-literal translations of the poems discussed in this paper are excerpted below to aid reader comprehension.

Pour un art poétique, no. 3 (“Toward an ars poetica”)

Carefully picked and placed

some words make up a poetry

we need only love words

to write a poem

we don’t know what we say

in that, poetry is born

Ombre d’un doute (“Shadow of a doubt”)

I wonder what we’re doing here

on this blue sphere

we say that for the rhyme

and of course so that

everyone will go fuck off

and have a grand old time

here we’re all idiots

on the obviously round earth

what else could we be called

when, after death’s throes

when the end we fine’ly know

we just say ‘may he rest’

so men go here and there

as if without a care

c’est la vie, ugh, who wants that

and it’s defnitly death

that leaves these fyoonrals

we see right and left

A d’autres (“To the Others”)

Since you appreciate these bones in the storm

These bones smashed, crushed, mixed in by the stones

These bones stricken cold, drier than fishbones

Since we don’t appreciate

Since you concede to the infernal vermin

And the devils, shot up from beneath the ponds

The crimson masks, the sepulchral dances

Since you don’t concede

Since you accept the vultures that fly off

Murdering the sky with their scrawny necks

Tasting the sweet juice of mass graves bubbling up

Since you don’t accept

Since you approve of the teeth that we wrench away

The collar clinching the prisoner’s neck

The kicks to the ass and the blows from the whip

Since you don’t approve

Since you accept rich and poor

And good and evil and charity and force

And the king on his throne and the idiot in his nest

Since you don’t accept

Since you cheer on the best and the worst

The brightly colored monkeys, the dogs who sit up and beg

The choo-choos, the jackals, the camels, the shpiers,*

Since you don’t cheer on

Since you tolerate the good mixed in with the syrup

The wicked in hell, the gentle in prison

Endless misfortunes, filthy stupidity

Since you don’t tolerate

Since you say yes to the misery of men

Why do you then soak your bread in our soup

Why do you then drink the spirits of our wine

Both “les chaouchs” nor “les chbires” are words of Queneau’s own invention.

Excerpted lines from Le gai rétameur (“The merry tinker”)

Because if rumor

Warns of the rower

Then I won’t worry about anything in the world

The tin runs melancholy

Along the meandering sidewalk

It is raining in this shop

With all its bleak windows open

Si tu t’imagines (“If you imagine”)

If you imagine

If you imagine

Little girl little girl

If you imagine

If you imagine

It will it will it will

Last forever

The season of lah

Season of lah

Season of love

You are wrong

Little girl little girl

You are wrong

If you think, little one

You think oh,

Oh, what a rosy face

Your waspy waist,

Your cute biceps,

Your painted nails

Your nymph’s legs and your light step

If you think, little one

It will it will it will

Last forever

You are wrong

Little girl little girl

You are wrong

The good days

Have passed

The good feast days

Suns and planets

turn around us

But you, my little one,

You walk straight

Toward what

You don’t see

The insidious approaching

The quick wrinkle,

The heavy fat,

The triple chin

The slouched muscle,

Go and gather

Roses roses

Roses of life and

May their petals be

The still sea

Of all your gladness

Go and gather

If you don’t do it

You are wrong

Little girl little girl

You are wrong.

L’archipel (“The archipelago”)

The archipelago was a good old man

Who let his devil children of islands

Run down the drift

But when one of them

Got lost

Eaten by a nasty volcano

Then he declared martial law

And in the public square shot

The foreskin of the one who had made this sad event

Pour un art poétique, no. 6  (“Toward an ars poetica”)

Black inkpot in the moonlight

Black inkpot in the moonlight

In the moonlight a black inkpot

In the moonlight a black inkpot

Loaned his pen to the poor poet

Loaned his pen to the poor poet

It’s a bit cool tonight

In the moonlight a black inkpot

The pen raced on white paper

The pen raced in little black lines

A white moon a dark inkpot

Are the father and mother of this newborn

A white moon a dark inkpot