To Raymond Queneau. Read More
- The following are things we’re sending to the moon: text messages between a husband and wife, thirty-three artists’ blood, microscopic sculptures, river water, DNA from a genetically modified goat. They’re all part of Lowry Burgess’s MoonArk, a four-chambered mass of conceptual art he designed with dozens of other contributors. Soon it will go hurtling into the dark abyss on a privately funded space flight. “A poem is like a bell,” he said: “every word in a poem rings and makes all the rest of the other words ring. So in this, everything that’s there is making something else ring. So the totality is meant to hum together … We think it should be different than sticking a flag in the soil and claiming territory … maybe we’re leaving breadcrumbs for someone else to find their way back here. It’s an attempt to communicate forward in time—it’s an attempt to communicate outward.”
- Plenty of books exist. But just as many, if not more, have never existed. And it’s these that Samantha Hunt has on her mind: “I have spent many pleasant nights imagining ghost books, those phantom texts of possibility and wonder. Their unprintable Dewey Decimal classifications divide them into (at the very least) three basic categories: books that can only be read once, books that cannot be read in one lifetime, and the largest, aforementioned group, books that don’t exist … Among the books that cannot be read in one lifetime there is Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliard de poèmes … It is the poetic response to the mathematical function 1014 … It would take more than a million centuries to finish reading this thin, thin book of poems.”
- Remember all the dumb shit you wrote about T. S. Eliot in college? Imagine if it were published decades later, when you were President of the United States of America. A letter from the twenty-two-year-old Barack Obama to his then-girlfriend sheds light not just on his exegesis of “The Waste Land” but on his worrisome tendency toward fatalism: “Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats,” Obama wrote. “However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time … Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this.”
- Today in toothpicks: they’re still out there in abundance, sometimes soaked in tea-tree oil, and you chew on them at your own peril, as Ryan Bradley learned: “There is but a small window in which it is okay to have a pick in your mouth, and that is for approximately ten minutes post-meal, when it’s necessary to needle stuff out of your teeth. Unless you are Steve McQueen—not the director, but the actor, who is dead—if you walk around with a toothpick in your mouth trying to look cool, you look, instead, like a prick … I put a pick in my mouth, allowing it to soften, then bit down enough to release a burst of tea-tree oil, and thought of the bacterial apocalypse I had unleashed. It was satisfying. I lingered at a stoplight, chewing slowly, murdering millions of mouth bacteria while the light went green and the driver behind me began leaning on the wheel and only then, with the drone of the long honk behind me, did I begin to speed up.”
- In 1942, Shostakovich completed his seventh symphony, which made its debut in Leningrad even though the city was under siege by the Germans and many of its citizens were starving. The moment is the subject of a new documentary, Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler: “One of the interviewees recalls her eighteenth birthday in January 1942, when she put her grandfather’s body on a sledge and took it away. She remembers seeing a Christmas tree with what looked like parcels under it and then realizing they were dead children. Her voice sounds incredibly young when she talks about the performance in the Philharmonic Hall, which looked just the same as ever, and the sense of elation everyone felt as they listened to Shostakovich’s music.”
In 1947, the French writer Raymond Queneau wrote Exercises in Style, a collection of ninety-nine retellings of the same story, each in a different style. The plot: the narrator gets on a bus, witnesses a fight between two passengers, and then encounters one of the passengers two hours later at the train station having a discussion about altering his overcoat. The premise references a treatise by Desiderius Erasmus, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style.
The new edition includes twenty-five exercises making their English translation debut. Queneau wrote many exercises during his lifetime. He swapped old ones for new ones when a new edition of Exercises in Style was published by Gallimard in 1973; others were published in magazines but never included in any edition of the book. And others still were simply never published at all. “Definitional” was originally included in the first French edition of Exercises in Style, only to be removed in the later edition.
To celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, New Directions is relaunching this classic text as an expanded edition. In addition to exercises by Queneau making their English-language debut, this edition also includes new exercises penned by contemporary authors. The following, in the spirit of Queneau, is by Lynne Tillman.
At dinner with so-called intelligent people, during our discussion of the Marquis de Sade, I recognized a common lunacy: the fairy tale of absolute and complete freedom. People don’t know what to do with the freedom they have, I announced, and trounced off, as if insulted. Today, I took a bus, a random bus, no particular number, a white and blue bus, or pale green. No matter, it was a bus, and I took it. First I stood in line, with everyone else, a citizen of a city standing peacefully, waiting for public transport, a condition of urban life. I heard two men, no particular men, or maybe very particular men, but not to me. I took the bus, anyway. The men were discussing their office, where they seemed mad about a woman, and I listened because I could. They described her in broad terms: “She’s got big tits…. OMG, that ass. Shit!” I entered the bus, paid my fare, the driver said nothing, and unencumbered, except by my hopes and dreams and desires, I walked to the back of the bus, my eyes roving, checking for free seats, and there were good reasons why I kept moving, and took the seat I chose, but these are insignificant reasons except to me. I found a seat all to myself, sat down, exhaling freely, and happily, because I celebrate public buses, especially when I have my own seat next to a window, but then the two men, still exclaiming about the woman’s ass and tits, took the seats behind me. Now I felt hindered also by their bulk and hulk, as well as their boisterous voices, bellows about asses and tits, and if I hadn’t known myself as myself, if I didn’t understand the invisible boundaries in which I existed, with my freedom, I would have assaulted the men. I was bigger than both, and freer, and a black belt in karate. Before I had the chance to pummel one or both, because I was at liberty to do what I wanted, even if it meant imprisonment for a day or two, the two men stopped their bellows, and instead turned to watch two other male passengers nearly come to blows, one jostling the other for a seat. Now the three of us, the tits and ass men and myself, alarmed by this altercation, became a community of sorts. Suddenly I heard a rip, certainly a rent of some kind, which made a decided sound in the air. The man, who had jostled the first for a seat, now watched by the newly formed society of the three of us, took that prized seat. Oh, I thought, oh, and wondered what my two companions thought. It was a strange day, and one has such strange freedoms; for I could have ridden that bus the entire day—until it ended its journeys, or until the bus driver informed me that I had to get off. Any number of possibilities presented themselves to me, I could even have fought him to remain! But thinking it over, I watched all the people I had known, in a sense, on the bus, as they removed themselves from it. I was alone again with my thoughts, not bothered by anything, and, when the bus stopped near a park, one I had never visited, I leaped off violently. Again, the driver said nothing, but now I took his silence to mean assent and even understanding, and walked toward the park and into it through its wide gates, and sat down, this time at a café, where I discovered that the man who had been jostled on the bus, earlier in the day, was being advised by another to patch his overcoat, a dark brown parka, the same one he had worn on the bus. A piece of fabric hung on its hem. It may have come down during the altercation. Now I thought, he’s having an alteration, and wondered if this linguistic association occurred to him as well. Here we are, I remember thinking, in a great chain of being, and he could think whatever he wanted. I pretended not to notice him, naturally.
© 2013 by New Directions.
Lynne Tillman is the author of several novels and short story collections, most recently Someday This Will Be Funny.