A little bit of Seinfeld, a little bit of Goddard inheres in Witch Grass. At the beginning of this difficult-to-classify work, a man named Etienne is being observed by a man named Le Grande. At Le Grande observes, he grows from “a silhouette” to one who “is gently expanding” to “the being of minimal reality,” “curious shape,” and “lesser consistency” to, eventually, “three dimensions.”
Yet, at times it seems like Queneau isn’t only interrogating the idea of how Le Grande knows Etienne, but also how readers know characters. Queneau often puts us in the position of Etienne’s observer, referring to him as “the being of” such-and-such, even when Le Grande is nowhere to be found. Queneau is purposely placing us in Le Grande’s shoes, effectively saying “you don’t know Etienne any better than his observer does.”
What’s Queneau up to with this? In her introduction, translator Barbara Wright says that Witch Grass was Queneau’s attempt to translate Descartes’s Discourse on Method into “the language of the ordinary man.” It’s not difficult to see Descartes’s famous conclusion “I think, therefore I am” in Etienne’s growth from a silhouette into a three-dimensional person as Le Grande—or we—comes to know him better and better.
In a similar way, as one reads more and more of Witch Grass the book grows more and more complex, until, at the end, it feels far more dense than its 300 pages would suggest. Witch Grass was Raymond Queneau’s first novel, and what a debut. The sentences are uniformly beautiful, the prose uncommonly assured, and the whole work feels like a tightly pieced whole. The book concerns itself with half a dozen Parisians tracing out strange, self-defeating plotlines not unlike those of Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine. Yet, stylistically, it recalls the feel of the best of the French New Wave. The ’90s and the ’60s, but Queneau wrote this in the ’30s.
Rewriting the Discourse in a popular vernacular is far from the only ahead-of-its-time device in this book. Another can be seen in Queneau’s frequent, casual cuts into metafiction. It’s not showy, as though he really wants to really put the concept through its paces like Paul Auster might, but rather it feels like the work of a writer enraptured with his discovery that fiction is a construct, and eager to reveal it to his readers:
The observer, dying of hunger, sat down at a marble table ingrained with filth, on which had negligently been laid a spoon, a fork, a glass, a knife, a salt shaker, let me just think whether I haven’t forgotten something, a knife, a salt shaker, a spoon, a fork, a glass, oh yes!—and an unchipped plate. In spite of the hour . . .
And still, more evidence that with Witch Grass Queneau was ahead of his time: In the details that Queneau uses to animate his Paris, the book feels strangely observant of contemporary concerns. Queneau’s references as to the drudgery of office work still feel fresh (“he suddenly had a vision of a civilization of down-at-the-heel-shoes, a culture of worn-away soles[/souls] . . . in the process of being reduced to the remarkably minimal thickness of the paper tablecloths in restaurants for the hard up), but even more impressive are his overtures to feminism. Here he is on the so-called second shift:
The assistant manager was always maneuvering her into a dark corner, and so was the manager. No sooner had she got away from their hands than she became exposed to those of the metro. And no sooner had she finished work there than she began all over again here [at home].
This, written in 1932. And here is Queneau again, exposing the subtle prejudices in language: “The noodles are brought. Are brought—by the wife, of course.” (Italics in the original.)
Yet Queneau’s prose isn’t always this intellectual. At other times, Witch Grass is just plain delightfully absurd, as in this description of a wedding car:
It won’t be much longer now; the car transporting it cleaves the air; its bodywork is trembling with impatience; like unto a high-spirited steed bearing on its back the chief of police who is afraid of arriving at night school when the poetry class is over, so the powerful quadricycle carries the joyous wedding party toward its destiny, eating up the kilometers and shitting dust, roaring like a lion and snoring like a sleeper with a cold. It tells, one by one, the beads of the intermediary villages, it jumps the ditches, the gutters and gullies; bicyclists cannot make it flinch, hens are flattened by its unpuncturable tires, fascinated corners allow themselves to be cut; it ravages the countryside and subjugates the towns, the intelligent and the imbecile admire it alike.
That description goes on for another page, by the way. One may wonder what’s the point of spending almost two pages on the description of the wedding car, but when the writing’s this fresh, why not?
From these examples, you might get the impression that Witch Grass is all fun and games, but this isn’t the case: Queneau is laudably successful in changing key on a dime, turning from slapstick, playful prose to deep feeling and thoughtful sentiments. That wedding, for example, ends with the inexplicable death of the bride. It may not be a scene that quite aspires to poignancy, but it is nonetheless solemn, attaining a Beckettian absurdity:
“Members of the wedding party[," says the bride, "]what the hell are you doing here?”
“We’re listening to you,” they replied in chorus.
“And me, what the hell am I doing?”
“You’re talking,” they replied once again.
“And what am I saying?”
“You’re saying rather vague things,” they replied, still in unison.
So what’s this all about? Witch Grass may be many things, but it is primarily the story of people looking for things that they don’t get. That dead bride was marrying a man for money so that she could escape her life, but the man in question doesn’t actually have any money. Etienne is a man who discovers that he wants something out of the world, and then discovers that he’s not going to get it: “The universe was squeezed like a lemon, and no longer seemed to him to be anything other than a despicable , unattractive piece of peel, like an infinitely thin skin to which he couldn’t (and didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to) adhere.” And a bit later, an unnamed narrator states:
They still look the same, these men, they remain upright, they walk, but they are sick unto death and their secret is eating them away, eating them to death. Spiders’ teeth are not so long as a torment that cannot be avowed.
The Discourse was a book all about overcoming doubt, but the characters in Witch Grass have the exact opposite problem. They have an excess of belief, an excess that lets them trick themselves into believing all sorts of things that they’d be better of if they doubted. Yet the aim of both books is the same: finding that one thing that’s real. Is it found in the world that’s anterior to humanity, or in the world that humanity makes?
“I’m inventing them as I go along. I talk, and it means something. For me, at least; I suppose so, at least. Does what I say mean anything to you?
Pierre nodded his head several times; he meant by this: yes.
“And things that are natural, and consequently don’t have any meaning, would you attribute one to them?”
“I haven’t thought about that yet. But why consequently?”
No doubt. Do you think that birds and stones and starts and shellfish and clouds have a meaning? That they were manufactured for some purpose?”
When you break Witch Grass down to a sentence—People try to bring meaning to their lives—it sounds like so many other books, but I’ve never seen a novelist riff on this subject in any way resembling Queneau’s. For almost 300 pages Queneau’s characters twist out their irresistible machinations as they seek out meaning, and then in the book’s last 30 pages Queneau goes in a completely different direction altogether. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone wanting to read this book, but, needless to say, it’s a fine commentary and a fitting ending for a book that’s asking the world to be a little more credible.
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