Saturday, February 21, 2009


Today is the birthday of French poet & novelist Raymond Queneau, born Feb. 21, 1903.

The endlessly fascinating and self-contradictory Queneau was a life-long student of languages, literature, philosophy, mathematics and psychology, making significant contributions to all of them.

Queneau was associated with the Surrealist movement in the 1920's, and was an early adherent of psychoanalysis. He was the first translator of Amos Tutuola's influential novel The Palm Wine Drinkard in 1953, and in 1959 he published the sumptuous comic novel Zazie Dans le Métro, for which he later wrote the film adaptation with director Louis Malle.

Queneau was always attracted to mathematics as a source of inspiration. In Queneau's mind, all of the elements of a text, including seemingly trivial details, were things that could be mathematically predetermined. One of Queneau's most influential works is Exercises in Style, which tells the same short story in 99 different ways.

In 1967 he wrote "A Story as You Like It," which is widely cited as the very first example of a hypertext. He's also responsible for the brilliant and baffling "One Hundred Million Million Poems," or Cent mille milliards de poèmes. This word game, published in 1961, is a series of sonnets with each line printed on an individual card, like a "heads-bodies-legs" book. Each line of every sonnet has both the same rhyme scheme and the same rhyme sounds, so that any line can be combined with any other, resulting in 100,000,000,000,000 different poems. Reading twenty-four hours a day it would take some 200,000,000 years to read them all. Should you have the time, you actually CAN read ALL of the poems on mathematician Jacob Smullyan's ingenious website.

Whatever the medium, Queneau was ever brilliant at revealing the complex structures hidden beneath the seemingly unremarkable.

The Commission for Equalising Things

The systematic destruction of yellow was their project.

The daffodil remained a problem
with its thoughtless persistence
and butter was liked by many.
But soon the advertisers
and the public relations persons,
revived by cash injections,
floated rafts of measures
on our streams of consciousness
and we all came to see that
yellow was vile,
had always been vile.

Sun-drenched beaches with their golden sands
were hidden under red carpets.
Sufferers from cowardice and jaundice
were subjected to severe administrative reassignment.
A protest campaign led by wasps and bees
had its sting drawn by honeyed words.

"Next year", it was announced,
"we shall eliminate circles."

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