April 5, 2019KR Reviews

Historical Constraints: On The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau

Translated by Barbara Wright. New York, NY: New Directions, 2018. 244 pages. $16.95.

Before the group’s anthology was released in 1973, readers had little sense of what to make of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle. Dubbed Oulipo for short, the collective—comprised of mathematicians, pataphysicians, and linguists—appeared scantly, conducting a lecture here, a radio broadcast there; special issues of avant-garde magazines devoted pages to their “findings.” The release of La Littérature potentielle (Potential Literature) changed all that. Showcasing a series of writing constraints alongside resulting texts, practitioners were introduced to Synthoulipism, inventive structures stemming from mathematics; and Anoulupism, exercises devoted to discoveries in language—taking a premise and reinterpreting it through various voices or perspectives.

No writer exemplifies the latter camp more than Raymond Queneau, whose wacky historical novel The Blue Flowers was recently reissued by New Directions. A founding member of Oulipo, his best-known work is Exercises in Style, which retells the same occurrence ninety-nine times. The experience of Queneau riding the bus, witnessing an altercation involving a man with a long neck and a funny hat, and encountering that same man two hours later getting advice on adding a button to his overcoat, is turned into a sonnet, a cross-examination, a cockney accent, an overly self-conscious narrator, a medical diagnosis, the recounting of a dream, and so on, ruthlessly drawing home the point that stories have a universal ownership.

When asked which one of his novels was his favorite, Queneau cited The Blue Flowers, but was unable to elaborate further. For the sake of argument, let’s wager that his great gifts of rhetoric were perfectly tempered by storytelling, his desire for narratives implicating the most amount of people grounded in concrete reality—in this case, the history of France.

Beginning in the year 1264, the Duke of Auge, one of two main characters, wakes up in his castle. On the way to view the progress on the Church of Notre-Dame, the Duke falls asleep on his horse. We’re then brought into the head of Cidronin, a man who lives on a barge, complaining to himself about his bad dream:

But where on earth was I going like that, riding a horse? I can’t remember. Anyway, that’s typical of dreams; I’ve never ridden a horse in my life. I’ve never ridden a bicycle in my life, either, but I never ride a bicycle in my dreams and yet I do ride a horse. There must be some explanation, that’s obvious.

Much of the pleasure of reading The Blue Flowers is the parsing out of what that explanation is. Cidrolin could be interpreted as a reincarnated version of the Duke, but then, what would that make his dreams of Cidrolin? The idea of royalty having divine visions isn’t uncommon, but the Duke’s language isn’t that far off from his future countryman’s—right down to leaning on the refrain “another fucking fiasco.”

The strictest reading is that Cidrolin—lounging on his barge guzzling essence of fennel, looking for a new chambermaid to clean up after him after his youngest daughter finally gets married—has inherited his loutish behavior through the ages. He might not be the Duke of Auge reincarnate, but his gluttony, lecherousness, and sense of superiority have a source.

Regardless, Queneau alternates us through the pair’s states of waking and sleep. Cidrolin passes out at the dinner table, or takes a siesta on his barge with a handkerchief on his face. The Duke, drying his clothes by a fire, drowsily nods off. These sections of transition are constructed seamlessly; waiting for the point at which one character wakes up as another offers a droll sense of recognition. The exchange isn’t so much a structural decision as how the narrative world of the novel works.

Each time we wind up in the Duke’s consciousness, large chunks of history are settled in referential blurs, like this one, a cheeky summary of a feud with the Duke of Burgundy: “[Louis the] Eleventh—not yet. I won’t tell you everything that has happened; what it comes down to is that the noble seigneurs behaved like nits and the Dauphin has let us down to such good purpose that I am now the only one left face to face with the King of France in a state of open rebellion. Luckily I have my little cannons.”

Or this, a pastoral scene of the Duke walking with a cleric who recounts the first flickers of the French Revolution:

They went through fields, through meadows, through woods, through wastelands, through heaths. The Abbé was in no mood to enjoy the natural scene, cursing Jean-Jaques Rousseau. . . . Empoigne made his appearance, followed by a horseman on foot but in appropriate costume.

“News from Paris, Monsieur the Duke.”

“Huh! What do I care about new from Paris! The interesting news is going to come from here, now. And from myself.”

“Indeed,” said Empoigne insolently. “They’ve taken the Bastille.”

Outside of the novel’s timing, kept clipped-paced by steady streams of dialogue and signposts letting the reader know, approximately, what century we’re in, one of the more impressive features of The Blue Flowers is its deftness at reconfiguring historical scenarios, rendered absurd by that passage of time, into comedic set pieces.

That, and the humor. Another reason why the work resists a reincarnation angle is because Queneau is in on his own joke. Far from a postmodern indulgence, the instances in which he gestures towards his structure are a sly way of teaching us how to read him. “What is history for you?” one character asks another in Cidrolin’s universe. “It’s when it’s written down,” his counterpart answers. Several pages earlier, the Duke, talking to himself, laments “. . . so much history, just for a few puns and a few anachronisms. . . . Shan’t we ever get away from it?”

The answer, of course, is no—and the firmness with which the author shakes his head at the suggestion is thrilling in and of itself. The question of who gets to tell certain stories isn’t going away anytime soon, but in recent decades a comic tradition has arisen that meets our collective shame head-on without diminishing its gravity. Before #MeToo, Helen DeWitt addressed the ways in which men justify the subjugation of women for profit in Lightning Rods. And somewhere in between Eric Garner and Philando Castile, Paul Beatty introduced us to a down-and-out narrator picking up the pieces of his delisted hometown and the tragic death of his father in The Sellout.

In The Blue Flowers, Queneau arguably pulls off the most difficult constraint of all: remaining true to the historical record while empathizing with a character whose relationship with that history is problematic. With the collective gaze trained towards dystopia, it’s refreshing to encounter a novel so ahead of its time in advocating for an equally-powerful method of tearing through uncertainty and discord: laughter. Not with it, but at it.

J. Howard Rosier
J. Howard Rosier lives in Chicago, where he edits the journal Critics’ Union. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New Criterion, Kenyon Review, Bookforum, and the Believer. Rosier is the recipient of the James Nelson Raymond Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle.