Posts Tagged ‘zazie at the metro


Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau

Zazie in the MetroZazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau (translated by Barbara Wright)

Sometimes, I’ll call a book or story cinematic. Normally, I mean it as a way to say the writing is particularly visual, like the words immediately lend themselves to being seen. For example, when I think of Casey Plett’s story “Not Bleak” (review coming soon, I swear!), I can picture the wide-open fields of the Canadian prairies and the small Mennonite community, not to mention Zeke withdrawing into herself as they cross the border.

But here’s something else that seems cinematic, in a different sense of the word. Zazie at the Metro is cinematic in a Buster Keaton sense; it’s essentially the story of a young girl visiting her uncle in the city and wanting to ride the subway. But it goes off the rails in a series of increasingly madcap adventures, witty wordplay and punning, and alcohol. As written, the book practically is a screenplay; small wonder it was made into a film only a short while later.

As noted, it’s about a young kid visiting her uncle. That’s Zazie, visiting Paris to see her uncle Gabriel. She doesn’t like him, or anybody else, and is fixated on riding the Metro. Which is closed up because of a strike. Instead, Zazie starts amusing herself, stealing, lying and running amok through Paris. She – with Gabriel, his friend Charles and a handful of accomplices in tow – get mixed up in police conspiracies, different varieties of kidnapping and a drag nightclub.

It sounds simple enough, right? And it’s a wild story, the kind that gets crazier as it goes on, kind of like one of those old Keaton or Harold Lloyd flicks, where the hero ends up chased through town by thousands of people or climbs a skyscraper with their bare hands. The fun is in the telling, not in the realism.

Which gets me to my favourite thing about this book: the telling. During a life as a public intellectual, Queneau was known as something of a lingual jokester. One of his books is Exercises in Style, where a simple story is told in different forms, over and over, with Queneau parodying everything and anything. This is similar.

Throughout, he writes characters as a collection of clichés and accents, their words running together and slipping into puns. Zazie goes from childlike innocence to asking existential questions in a moment, characters emptily rely with “(gesture)” or “(sigh)”, and Queneau reaches for the wordiest of saying things: “the cameras crepitated,” and tourists talk with “a great berlitzscoulian effort.”

Or, for example, here’s a small taste of Queneau’s prose:

“Gabriel’s admirers had already installed him comfortably and, equipped with adequate apparatuses, were measuring the weight of the light in order to take his portrait with silhouette effect…” (pg 76)

The Penguin Classics edition is nice, coming with a decent introduction by Gilbert Adair, who sets the stage for the book: he sketches out Queneau’s biography, explains the reactions to this little book and draws a comparison between it and French New Wave, particularly to the films of Godard.

The translation by Barbara Wright is good, too. Between all the puns and linguistic wordplay, I imagine the text was a pain to translate. Although I found it a tad British at times – the police arrive in a black maria, for example – I can’t really speak to that being something she added or if it’s more a reflection of a particularly French synonym that defies translation. It certainly makes me want to polish up my abysmal French skills, anyway.

All in all, a wild, silly and highly enjoyable ride. If you’re the kind of person who likes re-reading stuff, there’s plenty of wordplay and such to go back and chew on; if you’re more into reading comic adventures, there’s a lot of that too. It’s probably a tad too clever for some people – I can imagine some saying it strays too far from reality for their tastes – but still, I’d recommend it unreservedly.

Rating: 8/10