Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 23, 2011

Witch Grass

witch grassby Raymond Queneau
translated by Barbara Wright

“…it just happens, every so often, that something very ordinary seems beautiful to me and I’d like it to be eternal. I’d like this bistro, and that dusty light bulb, and that dog dreaming on the marble, and even this night – to be eternal. And their essential quality is precisely that they aren’t.” ‘ p. 24

Was life a continual surprise, then? … The world was playing with him. There was a secret behind this fishing port, there was a mystery behind this cliff, behind that milestone, behind that cigarette butt.‘ p. 155

This book explores the layers of reality that surround us, the realities that the individual creates for himself and those that are created by others for him, and how all those realities careen like bumper cars through the labyrinth of life. It points out that those realities are in constant flux, constantly in danger of collapsing, constantly needing to be tended through the use of stories, abstract thinking, poetry, etc. Or at least that was a part of the book that rose to the surface and resonated with me, for as Barbara Wright said in her introduction, ‘Queneau has no verbalized message. … He has nothing to sell – but when the reader finishes a Queneau book, he has become enriched.‘ That’s exactly how I feel – enriched.

Witch Grass was delightful. It’s comic misadventure kept me gleefully entertained, and the way Queneau turned new plot developments into little mysteries for his reader to solve made the journey such fun. There was a serious side to it all too, a bit of tragedy, a bit of the humdrum of life and the petty plotting of humans. The characters were brilliant – utterly ordinary and yet fantastic, by turns likable and unlikable, and nearly always understandable even in their most evil moments. It was an excellent book, both amusing and insightful.

On a stylistic note, this is of course a novel from the pen of one of the founders of the Oulipo group. It is full of experimental stuff. Aside from odd lists (which reminded me of Perec), funny conversation construction, and occasional stream-of-consciousness narrative, each of the seven chapters has thirteen sections – for complicated mathematical reasons as well as “egocentric” ones. Queneau liked things to be highly structured, and said “A novel is a little like a sonnet, although it is much more complicated.” He was only personally rigid though, and hoped that his little rules and techniques weren’t too obvious. “It would be terrible if it were obvious.” I love how quirky he seems! His intent upon starting the novel was to write something in ‘spoken French’, getting it down on the page in a way that more closely resembled how it sounded coming out of the mouths of the people on the street. Wright managed to carry this over into her translation, and so the book is full of words spelled oddly. When you say them out loud though, they do sound like the familiar way we mangle our spoken words.

I am thrilled to have made Queneau’s acquaintance and I’m eager to enjoy his company, and his peculiar forms of innovative storytelling, again.


  1. Well I’m sold. I really want to read this. The phonetic spoken-word spellings are perhaps slightly intimidating for a non-native French speaker but I still think I’ll pick up a copy if I find one when I’m in France.

    Love that first quote you pulled.

    • I’ll be really curious to see what you think of it in the original French, as I can’t imagine how those French words will be spelled! That will be an exciting reading adventure.

  2. This is one of at least three Queneau titles I was really hoping to read at some point, Sarah, but until your snazzy post the one I knew the least about. How fascinating sounding–it’s now rising up in the rankings, ooh la la!

    • Haha, excellent! This is Queneau’s first novel, which is exciting to me since I imagine he only gets better – or more bizarre. Which is good too.

  3. I haven’t read this one but I recognize a lot from Zazie and even Exercices de style. It sounds like something that needs to go on my wish list this instant. I liked the spoken language in Zazie dans le métro a lot and they way he wrote it in a phonetical way. And You have to read some parts aloud to understand them , a bit like reading Créole for me. Must have been quite a challenge for the translator.

    • I was pleased that the phonetic way of spelling things didn’t end up being annoying – since it really did sound close to how people talk, it worked. And yes, kudos to Barbara Wright for pulling that off.

  4. […] pursuing. It is the richness of the details that I am seeing as a common thread between Perec, Queneau, and Calvino thus far. That, and startling bits of beauty amidst playful (even seemingly silly) […]

  5. […] and the last volume of The Cairo Trilogy by Mahfouz, I read: Witch Grass by Raymond Queneau (a favorite of the year), Charles de Lint’s Moonheart and Virginia Woolf’s Flush (odds and ended […]

  6. […] I remember seeing A Month in the Country at my parent’s house recently, but did I leave Witch Grass in Oregon?? Boo… And whatever happened to the Open Letter Press books that I was so excited […]

  7. Don’t know if you still tend this online space, but I’ve just come across your 2010 comments on Witch Grass. Not only thoughtful and helpful, but beautifully written as well. Thank you!

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