I like to read books in the order in which they were written (for which reason I've yet to have reached Moby-Dick); and I'm an irregular researcher, to say the least. So for years I was frustrated at not having found an English translation of Queneau's first book, published in French in 1933 as Le Chiendent. A couple of weeks ago, looking over the list of Books Wanted in my pocket computer while trolling the shelves at Powell's in Portland, it jumped off the shelf: Witch Grass, translated by Barbara Wright (who has translated many of the French avant-gardists, including Jarry, Tzara, Sarraute, Pinget, and Beckett).
Chapter One began to sound familiar, and I realized soon that I'd read the book before -- an eariler publication of the same translation came out in 1971, published by New Directions, under the title The Bark Tree. I took it down from my shelf, and there were the dates: began reading it August 9, 1998; finished two days later. That slowed me down a bit: this is a book to savor and consider, however fast its narration moves the reader along. This time I took two weeks.
Queneau was a polymath, well read in philosophy, mathematics, languages, and world literature; for years he worked for the important French publisher Gallimard; eventually he became director of l'Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, the mammoth project that publishes definitive texts of French literature. (The Library of America is our own country's version of la Pléiade.)
Witch Grass, to use the translation's (current) title, is a novel in seven chapters of 13 sections each: Queneau was always interested in form as a driving constraint on his work. (He was a founder of the French literary movement OuLiPo, " OUvoir de LIttérature POtentielle (Potential Literature Workshop), a group of writers interested in exploring artificial constraints; another member was Georges Perec, whose novel La Disparition (the English translation is called A Void) omits the letter "E" throughout.)
The structure of the novel, however, hardly intrudes on the cursory reader's impression of the book, except for one overall device: the characters gradually take on more realistic aspects, emerging from unnamed two-dimensional contours to really quite memorable men and women (and two, no, three children), then lapsing into less believable entities in the sudden, allegorical close of the book.
D. Brian Mann writes, in The International Fiction Review:
The Bark Tree’s central dilemma amounts to deciphering the “real” from the many deceptive appearances that surface as the plot unfolds. And as we read, we realize that the characters are simply trying to do the same. The various “real” and deceptive threads in the narrative ultimately lead to a farcical war between the French and the Etruscans. More characters die, others disappear, and still others revolt against the novel itself, thus bringing it to an uncertain and unsatisfying end. Within this simple, yet vastly complex, narrative framework, conventional notions about the perception of identity, chronology, and spatiality are questioned in what has been called “an attempt to renew narrative forms" [Allen Thiher, Raymond Queneau , Twayne’s World Authors Series 763 (Boston: Twayne, 1985) 71. ]MORE TO THE POINT, where the casual reader is involved, is the plot: a mystery story in which the nature of the plot itself is part of the mystery. Also more to the point: the characters and their livelihoods — concierge, waitress, restaurateur, bank clerk, student, private detective, unemployed saxophonist, midwife, all thrown in together in and around the grimy Paris suburbs, circa 1930.
One of Queneau's recurring interests is the ordinary, even the bathetic. He does this invariably to humorous effect, but his portrayal of the inhuman aspects of contemporary life — which hasn't improved particularly in the last eighty years — is both sardonic and critical. If Ulysses and even Finnegans Wake are not far from Queneau at the beginning of his career, neither are the Orwell and the Beckett who are waiting in the wings.
I like the book, and for a number of reasons. It's funny as hell; the plot is interesting and suspensful; the characters are both exotic and oddly familiar. The ending is cruel, a wake-up call, reminiscent of Russell Hoban's very different Riddley Walker. It was worth re-reading after nine years, and has got me started, I suppose, on a re-read through all Queneau. These books grow as their readers age, profiting from the accumulated readings of their companions-in-literature along the way.