Raymond Queneau: The Flight Of Icarus

Last year I enjoyed Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style, arguably his most famous book, although as narrative goes it was rather slight, being the same story told ninety-nine times in all manner of styles. The title, really, is a bit of a giveaway. As such it’s been in my mind to read some more Queneau, to experience him in control of a more substantial narrative, to see how his playful style is maintained over a longer story.

So then, to The Flight Of Icarus (1968), recently reissued by OneWorld Classics and, like most of Queneau’s work, translated by Barbara Wright, who sadly passed away earlier in the year. Prefacing the novel is a note by Wright discussing the task of translating Queneau – the perceived difficulties in a novel full of wordplay and obscure references, the joy of finding solutions, and how she finds herself to be on his wavelength. It’s just as well, for The Flight Of Icarus is a novel that needs someone on the same wavelength to do it justice.

Set in Paris during the mid-1890s and told in the form of a script, the general story involves a writer – Hubert Lubert – who has lost one of the characters – the eponymous Icarus – from his work in progress in a most unusual way:

HUBERT: […] Since I am a novelist, then, I write novels. And since I write novels, I deal with characters. And now one of them has vanished. Literally. A novel I had just begun, about ten pages, fifteen at the most, and in which I had placed the highest hopes, and now the principal character, whom I had barely begun to outline, disappears. As I obviously cannot continue without him, I have come to ask you to find him for me.

MORCOL: (dreamily) How extremely Pirandellian.

Morcol is a private detective hired to track down the escaped character and where the translator, in her notes, cites Queneau as “the master of the intentionally awful pun”, here she proves herself up to the task of rendering an awful pun in English, one that leads to crossed wires and humorous circumstances:

HUBERT: [..] Here – take these ten louis, and see that you find him. soon. I won’t be able to write a word until the mystery’s solved and Icarus comes back.

MORCOL: I acknowledge receipt of the ten louis; I’ll make a note of his name.

He writes “Dicky Ruscombe” in his notebook while Lubert hands him his card.

With Icarus “some ten or fifteen pages old” his life experience isn’t much, and the novel sees him grow as a character as he learns – about love, cars, and absinthe – while continuing to elude Morcol and his search for the elusive Dicky Ruscombe. This growth of character is playfully done, as Icarus rebels against the intentions of Hubert, he develops under the pen of Queneau, eventually fulfilling the intentions of both.

With the parodies going on in The Flight Of Icarus, it seems almost shameful not to have more than a passing knowledge of Pirandello’s work and the occasional nouveau roman so as to appreciate the full joke, but a passing knowledge, I feel, is enough to begin with and I have little doubt that returing to the novel after reading Six Characters In Search Of An Author or some Robbe-Grillet would throw up new laughs and foster a greater understanding of where Queneau is coming from.

The Flight Of Icarus is a hotpot of knowing anachronisms, crude punnery, and all out ridiculousness that, thanks to its script form, races along poking fun at literary styles on the way. If he’s not making jibes at traditional novels with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” then he’s looking to the future:

What a fate – that of a novelist without characters! Perhaps that is how it will be for all of us, one day. We won’t have any more characters. We will become authors in search of characters. The novel will perhaps not be dead, but it won’t have characters in it any more. Difficult to imagine, a novel without characters. But isn’t all progress, if progress exists, difficult to imagine?  […] Where will it come too rest? In literature the symbolists have already done away with the arithmetic of metre and the rigour of rhyme, they’ll be abolishing punctuation next.

While Hubert Lubert may have lost control of his characters, Queneau shows himself in control of his, something that leads to a satisfying conclusion for both writers.

June 16, 2009

8 responses to Raymond Queneau: The Flight Of Icarus

  1. steffee said:

    Wonderful review. I studied Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author this year at university, so have some (small amount of) understanding on metatheatre. Your excerpts are exactly like the Pirandello, but this sounds like it has more of a ‘story’, from your review. Definitely a must-read; it sounds great.

  2. Stewart said:

    I have Six Characters In Search Of An Author, bought in a unfulfilled intention to read a play per month. I think I came to it, bizarrely, throught the old Twilight Zone episode, Five Characters In Search Of An Exit. In the end the only play I managed to read was R.U.R. by Karel Capek.

  3. Biblibio said:

    “Exercises in Style” sounds a bit like a book of etudes… Meanwhile, the word “script” has me interested. Plus, what a strangely bizarre setting.

  4. Stewart said:

    I don’t think the setting – Paris, 1890s – is all that bizarre, and I think you may have meant premise. In that, yes, it is. Regarding the setting, however, it’s not as if Queneau gives a damn about getting facts right. He no doubt had to set the novel some time and with a mention of Pirandello and a character describing herself as a cruciverbalist – “No, you wouldn’t understand” – it’s obvious he won’t let accuracy get in the way of his story.

  5. steffee said:

    I think reading ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’ after reading anything else along a similar vein would lessen its impact, particularly given that nowadays, we’re used to messed-up plots, the use of wordplay and a variety of literary styles; whereas at the time of writing, it was seen as extraordinarily unique and imaginative (alongside more negative reactions from the critiques) of the playwright to incorporate such literary creations. So I’d imagine the same could be said of ‘The Flight Of Icarus’ as well.

    The great thing about plays like these is that they are better appreciated being read, rather than seen. Lorca’s ‘The Shoemakers Prodigious Wife’ and ‘The Love Of Don Perlimlin and Belisa in the Garden’ are along a similar kind of style.

    If you ever return to your intention of reading a play per month, Stewart, you should try Pirandello’s ‘Henry IV’.

  6. Tom C said:

    Completely new to me – but one I think I will have to search out – thanks for an excellent review

  7. Randy said:

    This sounds more interesting then the his Blue Flowers which I read recently (my first Queneau). I simply was not inclined to dig past its absurd plotlines and characters. Which is not normal for me. I LOVE the absurd (have read about every Ionesco play in translation). Blue Flowers WAS funny. I just kept getting the feeling that I was missing so much in translation.

  8. Stewart said:

    I’ll get round to more Queneau some day. Would love to read Zazie In The Metro next. As for losing something in translation, that may be so, but I always get the feeling that I’m also gaining from from the translation. I think getting the idea across is always more important than the little fiddly bits, such as puns and cultural references.

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8 responses to Raymond Queneau: The Flight Of Icarus

  1. steffee said:

    Wonderful review. I studied Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author this year at university, so have some (small amount of) understanding on metatheatre. Your excerpts are exactly like the Pirandello, but this sounds like it has more of a ‘story’, from your review. Definitely a must-read; it sounds great.

  2. Stewart said:

    I have Six Characters In Search Of An Author, bought in a unfulfilled intention to read a play per month. I think I came to it, bizarrely, throught the old Twilight Zone episode, Five Characters In Search Of An Exit. In the end the only play I managed to read was R.U.R. by Karel Capek.

  3. Biblibio said:

    “Exercises in Style” sounds a bit like a book of etudes… Meanwhile, the word “script” has me interested. Plus, what a strangely bizarre setting.

  4. Stewart said:

    I don’t think the setting – Paris, 1890s – is all that bizarre, and I think you may have meant premise. In that, yes, it is. Regarding the setting, however, it’s not as if Queneau gives a damn about getting facts right. He no doubt had to set the novel some time and with a mention of Pirandello and a character describing herself as a cruciverbalist – “No, you wouldn’t understand” – it’s obvious he won’t let accuracy get in the way of his story.

  5. steffee said:

    I think reading ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’ after reading anything else along a similar vein would lessen its impact, particularly given that nowadays, we’re used to messed-up plots, the use of wordplay and a variety of literary styles; whereas at the time of writing, it was seen as extraordinarily unique and imaginative (alongside more negative reactions from the critiques) of the playwright to incorporate such literary creations. So I’d imagine the same could be said of ‘The Flight Of Icarus’ as well.

    The great thing about plays like these is that they are better appreciated being read, rather than seen. Lorca’s ‘The Shoemakers Prodigious Wife’ and ‘The Love Of Don Perlimlin and Belisa in the Garden’ are along a similar kind of style.

    If you ever return to your intention of reading a play per month, Stewart, you should try Pirandello’s ‘Henry IV’.

  6. Tom C said:

    Completely new to me – but one I think I will have to search out – thanks for an excellent review

  7. Randy said:

    This sounds more interesting then the his Blue Flowers which I read recently (my first Queneau). I simply was not inclined to dig past its absurd plotlines and characters. Which is not normal for me. I LOVE the absurd (have read about every Ionesco play in translation). Blue Flowers WAS funny. I just kept getting the feeling that I was missing so much in translation.

  8. Stewart said:

    I’ll get round to more Queneau some day. Would love to read Zazie In The Metro next. As for losing something in translation, that may be so, but I always get the feeling that I’m also gaining from from the translation. I think getting the idea across is always more important than the little fiddly bits, such as puns and cultural references.

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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