Exercises in Style
Have you ever heard a story told so many times that suddenly it gets really old and boring? In his book, Exercises in Style, French novelist, Raymond Queneau, tells a short tale 99 times – only in this case, he writes it in 99 different ways.
The narrator tells of a young man with a long, skinny neck and a goofy hat who rides in the same bus he’s in; he then watches as this character accuses another passenger of stepping on his feet and afterwards, takes a vacant seat. Later, in a park, he sees the same young man with a friend advising him to arrange the buttons on his overcoat. This is basically it – the whole account. If you think about it, the story per se doesn’t make any sense at all; however, the author’s purpose in this book is not to tell a long narrative but to explore the extent of literary styles. From notation, litotes, prognostication, animism, to mathematical, interjection, apostrophe styles, Queneau made a tale 99 times more interesting than it should have been!
It is rather amusing to think how painstaking the construction of this book might have been, seeing that only one writer created nearly a hundred ways of telling a single story. I mean how much repetitive can you get? There’s that and then there’s what’s actually written –
“In an S bus (which is not to be confused with a trespass), I saw (not an eyesore) a chap (not a Bath one) . . ..”
“In the center of the day, tossed among the shoal of traveling sardines in a coleopter with a big white carapace, a chicken . . ..”
“Psst! h’m! ah! oh! hem! ah! ha! . . .”
All three passages – in distinctio, metaphor, and interjection – mean the same thing, along with several other odd ones. Had I not known the original script, I never would’ve guessed what the author was trying to say. It’s witty and especially funny from each of its own unique style; it’s as if it’s a new story every time. Even though you already know what’s going to happen, you’re not really sure how it’s going to be told which makes it stirring and ‘different’.
As Queneau delves into the wide-range possibilities of literature, I saw my chance to further develop my creativity and writing capabilities – his practice on the different styles inspired me to start one of my own. I find it rather enjoyable and exciting, I can never know what styles I can conjure up by myself and what results I’m going to get. This book’s definitely classic, so to speak.
A deeper reflection into the work would bring out the insight that there are a thousand interpretations to a single reality and that reality is not really what it is. Reality is how we express it and how we interpret reality. A single event can be interpreted with laughter by one and with tears by another. Depending on your point of view and what specific focus you choose, you can interpret a single event differently. Life is like a room full of painters trying to express in their work their admiration for a single woman model. Although everyone of them is trying to paint the same subject, their emotional and mental states, their artistic styles, and their prowess and a many other factors intervene so that each piece of art will show a different picture.
“Exercises in Style” is just as the title implies: written exercises constructed in many ways – in different stereotypes, in different perspectives, in different genres, in cross-examination, and in queer structures too. It’s ridiculously good, you’d want to mark it its own territory on your bookshelf!