Wednesday, 27 April 2011


Below is a little play-within-a-play extract from Raymond Queneau's wildly creative 1932 re-imagining of Descartes Pensees as a novel (in this book instead coming to the repeated conclusion "I think, therefore I get myslef into a load of crap and a world of mirages"... think Burn After Reading), set in the petit-bourgeois Paris suburbs, "Witch Grass" was his literary debut, the version of which quoted here being currently published by New York Review Books Classics, was translated by Barbara Wright, and is available to buy here on Amazon. See here for an earlier post on Queneau and Perec.


"Marcheville, some thirty miles from Torny, the industrial centre, is more like a large village than a small town; a peasant population, a few bourgeois, among whom are the lawyer and his dog. The lawyer’s dog is a white poodle, answering to the name of Jupiter. Jupiter is highly intelligent; if his master had had the time, he would have taught him arithmetic, perhaps even the elements of formal logic, fallacies and all. But his various pursuits have obliged him to neglect Jupiter’s schooling, and he only knows how to say woof woof from time to time and sit on his behind to get a lump of sugar. However, though there may be some doubt as to the extent of his learning, there can be nothing but admiration for the care he takes of his person. Shorn like a lion, he swaggers about within a radius of fifteen yards of the notarial house. At any greater distance, enormous beasts, jealous of his elegance, menace him with their vulgar, ill-bred fangs.
On this particular morning, Jupiter’s habits are upset; so are those of the lawyer and his family. Everyone is restless, and dressed in black. Forsaken, Jupiter goes to sleep in the hall. A person with a small suitcase in his hand comes in; woof woof, says the poodle intelligently; the lawyer, who has lost his collar stud, comes down in his shirt-sleeves. Good morning, good morning, he seems to be saying; Jupiter shows his approval with his tail and gets a smack on the thigh for his pains. Then another meussieu arrives, a very tall, very fat one. The greetings start all over again; Jupiter wants to take part in the palaver, but the tall-an-fat person treads on his toe nails. Owch, owch, says Jupiter, and goes and hides under a chair. The meussieus talk with restraint and compunction, like the day of the little boy’s first communion. Eulalie brings some coffee. Maybe there’s a chance of a lump of sugar. Jupiter sits up and begs, but he realises from the uninterested looks of the meussieus that he’s put his foot in it. This isn’t the moment for playing the fool. He goes over to the door to get some air; so far and no farther, because Caesar, the Butcher’s dog, is watching for him out of the corner of his eye.

The meussieus start walking. He follows at their soles. Caesar is close behind. They get to a house that Jupiter knows well; it belongs to an old lady who’s generous with her sugar. The old lady isn’t there; there’s a meussieu dressed up as a widow, it’s true, but that’s not the same thing. The meussieu in petticoats starts singing, accompanied by two little boys dressed up as girls whom Jupiter recognises only too well as being the bullies who, last Sunday, tied a corned beef tin onto his stump of a tail. Then they take a great big packing case out into the street; he goes and has a sniff to see what it is; it smells of the old lady. A kick in the rib teaches him to respect the dead.

With the big packing case being towed in front, and the crowd following behind, the ensemble makes its way toward a garden surrounded by walls and planted with huge great stones sticking up at right angles. Jupiter runs up and down and is amazed that his master, who’s usually in such a hurry, doesn’t try and get in front of the big box; he’s walking slowly, leading the way, with the young man with the suitcase and the tall, fat meussieu.

At the entrance to the garden, Jupiter’s heart misses a beat; he’s just noticed Caesar waiting for him, with an ominous look. So it’s advisable not to stray too far from the blackened bipeds. Everyone has come to a standstill around a hole. In the middle of the gathering, the man-woman mutters a menacing song; the bullies wave steaming teapots. Two professional drunks lower the box into the bottom of the hole. Then the guests toss in drops of water. Jupiter is losing interest, and he wanders off and goes scrounging from grave to grave; but, just behind that of Madam Pain, that most worthy lady whokept her idiot daughter in seclusion for fifteen years, he finds himself muzzle-to-ass with Caesar. This encounter gives him wings; he gallops, he flees, he decamps; he jumps onto a mound of loose soil, near his master; the soil is loose, as we said, it crumbles, and Jupiter tumbles, in a cloud of humus and compost, onto the grandmother’s coffin. Some people burst out laughing; other’s exclaim: How shocking! And a few murmur: Putrefaction! The lawyer let out a kind of strident shout, his personal roar of laughter, and then recovered his dignity. But he wasn’t going to forgive Jupiter.

That evening, the young man said to the poodle, as he handed him a lump of sugar:
“Will they put a chin-strap on you when they bury you?”
“Woof woof,” says the other, who hasn’t understood a word.

The next day Jupiter is hanging at the end of a rope, because he has assailed the dignity of the dead and of the living.


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