Authors: Raymond Queneau
THE BARK TREE
© Librairie Gallimard, 1933
© This translation, Barbara Wright, 1968
Originally published as
by Librairie Gallimard, 1933
First published clothbound and as New Directions Paperbook 314 in 1971
Queneau’s first book, is a book with a history. When it was first published, in 1933, it was so different from anything that had gone before that it was appreciated only by a minute minority. Now, though, it is not only regarded as a classic but also as a vitally contemporary book. Robbe-Grillet recently called it: “the new novel, twenty years ahead of its time.”
contains in embryo many of Queneau’s later books, and perhaps even poems. Queneau started to write it while on a journey to Greece in 1932. Here he became acutely aware of the difference between classical, written Greek and modern, spoken Greek, and this acted as a catalyst to the ideas he had long been forming about the French language. Written French had become fossilized, spoken French was a totally different language; since he wanted to write in what he considered his maternal language, he could not possibly use “the conventions of style, spelling and vocabulary that date from the grammarians of the sixteenth century and the poets of the seventeenth.”
He wanted to write in a living language, the language of the ordinary man. He wasn’t merely aiming at a transcription of the “language of the ordinary man,” though, but at a transformation of it, something which would become a third language, a new, viable literary language.
Queneau considered that the first statement in this new, third language “should be made not by describing some popular event in a novel (because there people might misunderstand one’s intentions), but, in the same way as the men of the sixteenth century used the modem languages instead of Latin when writing on theology or philosophy, by putting some philosophical treatise into spoken French.”
He has described how, on his voyage to Greece: “I had taken Descartes’
Discourse on Method
with me, so I decided to translate it into spoken French. With this idea in mind I began to write something which later became a novel called
You will find a good deal of popular language in it, but also a few efforts in the philosophical sense, I seem to remember.”
Descartes and demotic French, though, were not the only elements in the genesis of
Another factor was Queneau’s equally early and equally lifelong conviction that there was no essential difference between the novel, as he wanted to write it, and poetry. Classical poetry has rigid rules, and Queneau, in
(and to a lesser extent in many of his later novels) invented for himself a rigid structure to which he strictly adhered.
“A novel is a little like a sonnet, though it is much more complicated. I believe in things being highly constructed. I don’t expect everyone to do as I do, but that’s the way it is with me. I like my characters’ entrances and exits to be very precise. If there are repetitions, they are intentional. That’s how I work. I hope it isn’t obvious. It would be terrible if it were obvious. Though I all but count the lines that separate the entrances of each character. Certain words, certain phrases, must be repeated during the course of the book—for my personal pleasure.”
He cannot bear the idea of leaving the number of chapters to chance. In
for instance, their number and form were decided on for “egocentric” (and also for complicated mathematical) reasons. The seven chapters are each divided into thirteen sections; the last section of the last chapter is simply headed: XCI. Each section observes the three unities “as in a tragedy,” and the last section of each chapter is quite separate; it is “in another direction, or dimension.”
is a cycle; it ends as it began: “like a man who has been walking for a long time and who finally comes back to his point of departure.”
I hope it isn’t obvious”—Queneau said about his framework for
It wasn’t obvious in 1933, and it isn’t obvious now; no one might ever have realized it was there if Queneau hadn’t later referred to it in an article on the technique of the novel. I doubt if anyone could have known, either, that the germ of the idea for the book was that it should be a transcription of Descartes; Queneau very soon realized that the original idea had got extended, and that he was in fact writing a novel. The connection with the
Discourse on Method
remains, though: Etienne is the embodiment of “cogito, ergo sum”—he doesn’t begin to exist as a person until he (accidentally) begins to think. Pierre, a character who is both
the story and
it, is necessary to the book as the gratuitous observer who is the only person to be aware of what is happening to Etienne. Already in this first book there is much that in retrospect can be seen as typical Queneau; the accident which is to transform Etienne’s life is not something noble, magnificent, transcendental: it is merely the ridiculous sight of two little rubber ducks swimming in a shop window—in a hat. To prove that the hat is waterproof. This, and particularly the fact that he discovers that the little ducks have been there for two years without his noticing them, is enough to start Etienne off on a metaphysical journey and a new life—in which outwardly, however, nothing is changed.
The effects of the little ducks is reinforced by something equally banal, but which this time has consequences not so much in the domain of mind as in that of matter. From his commuter’s train, Etienne notices in the desolate suburbs north of Paris a hut which has
French fries) written up on it in large letters. When he decides to visit this forlorn place,
for no reason,
he there meets several people who are to have a vital importance in his life. The other objects that Queneau chooses to set Etienne off on his meditations on appearance and reality, and on the further train of reflections in which he becomes so passionately involved, are also no more world-shattering than an ordinary potato peeler and a hard-boiled egg cutter. But these ducks, these chips, and these kitchen utensils, are on a par with Queneau’s preferred characters. No marchionesses leaving their elegant houses at 5 o’clock for him. There is a key passage where the obnoxious Madame Pic reflects bitterly on this. She “appears to accept her comedown in the social scale with resignation, but
her heart bleeds
when she remembers the people they used to know—Lieutenant de la Boustrofe, a titled gentleman, and M. Béquille, the lawyer, and M. Dife, who wrote poetry that actually got printed—and compares them with the people she is with at the moment: a junk dealer, a café proprietor, a concierge, an N.C.O., a magician, a midwife and a waitress
These are the stuff of Queneau’s novels, these are the ordinary human beings (even if they have their fantastic sides) through whom Queneau chooses to express himself. There are some of his characters, he has admitted, whom he comes near to detesting, and obviously beastly old Cloche in this book is one of them, and beastly young Théo another. To say nothing of that incarnation of evil, Bébé Toutout. Nevertheless, Queneau is always fair enough, human enough, to give his readers every reason to understand why these people had to become the way they did.
Claude Simonnet, whose short, discreet and enlightening book on Queneau
no one interested in
can afford to ignore, says that “like all Queneau’s novels,
both has no meaning and at the same time conceals a profusion of meanings.” Talking about the book as a “supreme example of the novel-poem,” he describes it as therefore “a supreme example of the novel whose story cannot be told.” Jacques Bens, who has also written an excellent study of Queneau,
was required by his publishers to give a brief résumé of the plot of each of Queneau’s novels. Ingeniously, he got over this difficulty—this impossibility—by quoting the books’ blurbs—written by Queneau himself.
about? Well, it is not
something. And that “something” includes a vast amount of what goes to make up human life. There is the terrible, and terribly sympathetic, and all the more realistic for sometimes being fantastic, description of the ordinary man (and woman) caught in the ordinary meshes of trying, unarmed, to make a living, to live a life. There are many of the eternal philosophical themes, humanized as the eternal problems of ordinary suffering humanity—Etienne’s anguished cry: Who am I?—the Greek chorus of the wedding party waiting for Ernestine’s tragic and beautiful death: Ernestine—who is she? There is the terrible prophecy (six or seven years before the event) of the phoney war of 1939—40, and the
reductio ad absurdum
of all wars, when the French army is finally reduced to eight men, holding out against the superior force of thirty Etruscans. There are the comic passages of irrepressible verbosity (the fight between Yves le Toltec and Hippolyte), a presage of many such later exercises in style. There is great pity for humanity. There are the passages that lead to mental speculation: “The moment you look at things disinterestedly, everything changes.” There are the elliptical descriptions: “Suzy is a blonde, and goes to the cinema three times a week.” There is (in 1933!) the preoccupation with communication: “Even though I’m trying to tell you something, I see that I have to admit that I find it impossible to be precise about its nature.” There are reflections on education—Théo struggling with his list of battles, and his isolated, useless German words.
How it is—that is what Queneau, in his own way, is always describing. How life is. His own way is not anyone else’s—hence something of his quality, and hence, also, the difficulty people do sometimes have in knowing how to read him. In the blurb he wrote for his second novel, Queneau said: “After all, why shouldn’t we demand a certain effort from the reader? We always explain everything to him. In the end, he gets fed up with being treated with such contempt.” Queneau has no verbalized message. That is perhaps why it may be necessary to reread him (or to read other books by him) in order to understand him. He has nothing to sell—but when the reader finishes a Queneau book,
has become enriched.
silhouette of a man appeared in profile; so, simultaneously, did thousands. There really were thousands. He had just opened his eyes, and the teeming streets were seething; seething, too, were the men who worked all day. This particular silhouette emerged from the wall of an enormous, unbearable building, an edifice which looked as if it were designed for suffocation, and which was a bank. The silhouette, detached from the wall now, oscillated, jostled by other shapes, not visibly behaving as an individual, pushed and pulled in various directions, less by its own anxieties than by the sum of the anxieties of the thousands of people surrounding it. But this oscillation was only apparent; in reality, it was the shortest distance between toil and sleep, between affliction and boredom, between suffering and death.
The other man shut his eyes for a few moments, and opened them again just as the silhouette was being pocketed by the metro, and disappearing. There was a wave of silence, and then the
and its fellow evening papers started yelling on the boulevard again.
For years now, this same instant had been exactly repeated, every day, with the exception of Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays.
had nothing to do with all this. He didn’t work, but he had got into the habit of coming here between five and eight, and not budging. Sometimes he would stretch out a hand and pick something up; that day, it was a silhouette.
The silhouette, meanwhile, was arriving at Obonne. Its wife had got the supper ready; she too worked in an office.