28 October 2014

Raymond Queneau: Les Enfants du limon (1938)

Les Enfants du limonChildren of Clay in the translated version – is Raymond Queneau's fifth novel, which is a fictionalisation of a book considered to be unpublishable: 'Encyclopédie des sciences inexactes', on which Queneau had spent four years. The subject of the unpublished book (and the central subject of the published book) is 'fous littéraires', a term which has unfortunately often been translated as 'literary madmen', 'literary lunatics', and equally inaccurate expressions when 'outsider writers' would cover it far more politely, and far better.

Before this post runs away with itself though, perhaps a little backtracking is in order. In Les Enfants du limon Queneau – through Chambernac, but more of him later – mentions former works on fous littéraires/outsider writers which he consulted while researching his unpublished book: Charles Nodier's De quelques livres excentriques (Paris, 1835); Delepierre's Histoire littéraire des fous (London, 1860); Philomneste junior (aka G. Brunet)'s Les Fous littéraires; and Iv. [sic]Tcherpakoff (aka Auguste Ladrigue)'s Les Fous littéraires (Moscow, 1883).

Queneau restricts himself to nineteenth century fous littéraires/outsider writers: before that period misunderstandings could get in the way of definitions, and of course when he began writing the twentieth century wasn't even through its first third. But within the chosen century there are also limitations as to who should or shouldn't be placed in the category of fou littéraire/outsider writer, although the boundaries may change because this is after all a working copy (now within a novel, that is):

– by definition the person should be unknown (which of course automatically invalidates everyone if a list is published: i.e. there's a built-in paradox)

– the fou littéraire/outsider writer must have published something and so be to some extent in contact with the world outside his brain

– the published works must be saying something very strange indeed.

The question of how to establish the line between madness and plain eccentricity is also important here, but then more crucially so is the line between madness and sanity, and the reader can certainly be forgiven if he or she feels they are losing grip on reality, as indeed must have Queneau, who sifted through all these mathematical 'geniuses', messiahs without followers, idiots savants, prophets of apocalyptic doom and heavenly bliss, etc, for such a long time.

This then is a book within a book, the unpublished book within a loose story about the Limon-Chambernacs, a business family married to the impoverished aristocracy, where almost everyone is a little mad.

But it's Henri de Chambernac who is the main character, the retired schoolmaster who's now writing the book, and using the mysterious Purpulan as his secretary-cum-slave. Or is Purpulan just a facet of Chambernac's imagination, as Chambernac's passing on his book to the fictional Raymond Queneau – who makes a brief appearance at the end – is a facet of the narrator's imagination?

What are true are the names of the fous littéraires/outsider writers featured here, along with the sometimes detailed quotations from their works. But obviously what couldn't be mentioned is that the Belgian writer and bibliographer André Blavier (1922–2001) – who was near despair until he read and later met Queneau – actually succeeded in writing and publishing a huge book such as Queneau had intended to publish: Les Fous littéraires, which was published by Henri Veyrier in 1982 and revised and extended in Editions des Cendres in 2000. It is one of the oddest – and one of the most fascinating – reads anyone could ever wish for, as of course is Les Enfants du limon.

Links to my other Queneau post, my post on Blavier's book, and Queneau's grave:

Raymond Queneau: Exercices de style
André Blavier: Les Fous littéraires

Queneau's grave, Juvisy-sur-Orge


David Bingham said...

Sounds fascinating. The cheapest one available on Abe is £12.73 but they want an additional £18.77to ship it from the States (how thick is this damned book?). I found it on Amazon for just over £20 including postage from the States. Blavier sounds equally riveting but thankfully it has never been translated and I don't speak French otherwise I would have been unable to resist that either.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

That's robbery: for Blavier's tome that postal charge may be reasonable for shipping from the US, but my edition of Queneau's novel is about the size of a B-format paperback, with just 334 pages. But it's not even easy to find in France though, and although I found a single copy in Fnac (Les Halles branch) I made a point - just out of interest - of looking elsewhere and as far as I could see that was the only copy (published 2004) in Paris, including the many secondhand bookstores. New, it cost me 9.65 euros.

If you've not read my post on Albert Cossery, he may interest you too: his books are much more widely (and cheaply) available in translation. I've only read one (plus the biography) so far, although my partner has squirreled away three more of his books but won't let me look at them until Christmas!

David Bingham said...

Cossery sounded intriguing so i've just bought 'The Colour of Infamy.' It's very short.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

I don't think any of his books are over 200 pages: he wrote very, very slowly. And of course his god was Laziness. Frédéric Beigbeder – to me a much better critic than a novelist himself – rates this as his favourite Cossery. He says it took him fifteen years to write, although I'm sure he's exaggerating when he suggests that he systematically wrote a sentence a week!

Cossery could be pretty nasty too: in a video clip in which an interviewer questions him about his relatively short output over such a long life, he replies that people who write a book every year are 'imbeciles'.