Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) was born in the French town of Le Havre and educated at the Sorbonne. He performed his military service in Morocco. An early association with the Surrealists ended in 1929, and after completing a scholarly study of literary madmen of the nineteenth century for which he was unable to find a publisher, Queneau turned to fiction, writing his first novel, Le Chiendent
(published as Witch Grass by NYRB Classics), in Greece in the summer of 1932. Influenced by James Joyce and Lewis Carroll, Queneau sought to reinvigorate French literature, grown feeble through formalism, with a strong dose of language as really spoken. He further encouraged innovation by founding, with the mathematician François Le Lionnais, the famous group OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), which investigated literary composition based on the application of strict formal or mathematical procedures (members of the group included Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Harry Mathews). Queneau’s many books, which typically blur the boundaries between fiction, poetry, and the essay, include Pierrot mon ami, The Sunday of Life, Zazie in the Metro
(made into a movie by Louis Malle), and Exercises in Style
; under the name of Sally Mara, he published We Always Treat Women Too Well,
a brilliant comic spoof on the excesses of smutty popular novels. Queneau was the editor of the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade
as well as a fine poet, whose lyric “Si tu t’imagines” was a hit for the celebrated postwar chanteuse Juliette Gréco.