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