Friday, 20 May 2016

Book Review: The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Sometimes dream and reality can be quite difficult to distinguish one from another, and as a matter of fact, ancient cultures often didn’t as we do today. The idea that life is nothing but a dream is rather old too. Philosophers have been discussing the matter for many centuries… and writers too have been attracted to it as proves literary history. The 1965 novel The Blue Flowers by French author Raymond Queneau is a particularly clear and important example for it, one with a decidedly surrealistic touch. In it not only present and past but also dream and reality merge in a way that makes it impossible to tell which is which. There is Cidrolin who lives in Paris in 1964 and there is the Duke of Auge who starts his journey through French history in 1264 leaping towards the present in steps of exactly 175 years. Their weird dreams link them through time and eventually bring them together.

Raymond Queneau was born in Le Havre, France, in February 1903. He graduated from Sorbonne University in Philosophy and Psychology although he had a life-long passion not just for literature but also for mathematics. For a few years he was close to the circle of French Surrealists, but turned his back on them still before he made his debut as a writer in 1933 publishing the novel Witch Grass (Le Chiendent) which was followed by The Last Days (Les derniers jours: 1936), Odile (1937), and Children of Clay (Les enfants du Limon: 1938). As from 1938 he worked for the renowned French publishing house Gallimard and continued to write prolifically. Many of his novels have been translated into English like for instance The Sunday of Life (Le dimanche de la vie: 1952), Zazie in the Metro (Zazie dans le metro: 1959), The Blue Flowers (Les fleurs bleues: 1965), and The Flight of Icarus (Le vol d'Icare: 1968). However, the author remains best remembered today for showing different ways to tell the very same story in his Exercises in Style (Exercices de style: 1947). Raymond Queneau died in Paris, France, in October 1976.
“You know the famous Chinese apologue: Chuang-Tzu dreams he is a butterfly, but is it not rather the butterfly that dreams he is Chuang-Tzu? Likewise in this novel, is it the Duke of Auge who dreams he is Cidrolin or Cidrolin who dreams he is the Duke of Auge?”
On 25 September 1264 the brutish Duke of Auge sets out on his first trip to Paris on roads soiled with The Blue Flowers from the title that cover the grounds around his castle in Normandy. On the way he first dreams of a man called Cidrolin and his youngest daughter who live on a barge moored on the bank of the Seine near a camping site in Paris and who are surrounded by all kinds of strange things like motor cars. At his arrival in Paris the duke refuses to follow the call of the Pope and King Louis IX, who is to become Saint Louis, to join him on another crusade. This is considered treason and the duke has to leave Paris in a hurry, but not before a hot bath and a nap. In his dreams he travels to modern-day Paris again where he sees Cidrolin checking his fence for nasty graffiti to repaint it if necessary and having dinner with his three daughters and two sons-in-law. Cidrolin too loves napping, especially after meals and a glass (or rather more) of fennel-essence, and plunges into French history dreaming of the Duke of Auge and his small adventures. Thus he passes on to 1439 when the duke heads for Paris again, this time with his newly acquired modern gadgets, i.e. cannons to plead for his friend Gilles de Ray with King Charles VII. And again the duke soon falls asleep to find Cidrolin on his barge watching passers-by on their way to the camping site and giving them directions. Also in the following, the stories surrounding Cidrolin and the Duke of Auge continue to alternate – embracing and mirroring each other in the present and the past of 1614 and 1789 respectively as is typical of dreams until they finally merge into one set in 1964.

There can be no doubt that The Blue Flowers is an experimental novel influenced by the surrealists with whom the author mixed for a while in his youth although the title makes think of the unfinished German novel Henry of Ofterdingen by Novalis from 1800. It plays in a humorous way with the concepts of dream and reality, but it also raises essential questions regarding “universal history in general” and “general history in particular” linking them with the news of today that are the history of tomorrow. It also explores the matter of an universal language evoking Babel from the Old Testament. The first Babel appears already in the opening of the novel, namely when the Duke of Auge watches from the keep of his castle the members of different nations, who came to the place between Roman times and the great waves of migration in Europe, camping peacefully side by side. Raymond Queneau even makes the duke refer to them as “remnants of the past” and “rejects refusing to disintegrate”. The second Babel of the novel is the camping site near Cidralon’s barge where people from all corners of the world come together in peace. The author goes so far as to scatter over the entire novel sentences that are a (perfectly understandable) mix of words originating from different languages making the barge a kind of ark for words or languages instead of animals. In fact, he doesn’t even leave out the great deluge. Critics praised the English translation of Barbara Wright because it is very close to the spirit of the French original with its many word plays, anachronisms and alternative spelling of words, but of course I can’t judge this because I read the novel in French.

Admittedly, The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau has been a difficult and confusing read of the kind that probably requires more than only one go to fully appreciate it. Despite all, I enjoyed the book considerably and will surely read it again to further explore its philosophical and linguistic dimensions. The author said that it was his favourite novel and I can understand why. I gladly take the opportunity to recommend it without reservation.

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