From Hitting the Streets Translated by Rachel Galvin
Taxi drivers, street sweepers, a bouquiniste, unsuccessful prostitutes, a menaced bicycle-rider, noisy children, an old woman shunted aside in a crowd, and some disgruntled animals at the zoo populate the poems of Raymond Queneau’s Hitting the Streets. Unreeling like a series of clips recorded during a stroll through Paris, the book is wickedly funny, but it is also a bittersweet meditation on how ‘the river of forgetfulness carries away the city’. Queneau’s flâneur is a linguist with a penchant for the odd spoken phrase as well as a photojournalist with an eye for the telling gesture of the passer-by. Hitting the Streets, like much of Queneau’s writing, records French as it is actually spoken, or what he dubbed ‘néo-français’: ‘C’mon missus step on it we’re in a rush’.
Beloved for his smart-talking, filthy-mouthed, nine-yearold protagonist of Zazie in the Metro, Queneau is also known for his novel Odile, which skewers André Breton and other Surrealists; and a book of sonnets that has been called the longest book in the world, One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. In 1960 he founded the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a group of mathematicians and writers. It still meets regularly, making it the longest-running literary group in French history.
Hitting the Streets is Queneau’s love note to Paris – a Paris that is always in the process of becoming superannuated. Even as Queneau writes of contemporary issues (terrible traffic, the Vietnam War, the disappearance of public urinals) he remembers Paris of the beatnik era, World War II, and the turn of the century: ‘they fill the city all the dead / it’s tough not to trample them’. The volume is packed with arcane knowledge drawn from Queneau’s years of writing a daily newspaper column of Paris trivia called ‘Do You Know Paris?’ It features odes to odd street names and a ballad to a fine cheese from Saint Maure.
But the poems also describe the tricks of perspective that can occur when trekking through the urb – such as when one rounds a corner and finds a seascape instead of a cityscape, or discovers a street that resembles a ponderous bird. Hitting the Streets is a paean to Paris in which Queneau catalogues ‘for poposs posterity’ everything from ‘one Louvre museum one Place Saint-Sulpice / some chaperoned children at the flower market’ to ‘the banks of the Seine / one vert-galant / and some raccoons gallivanting’.
they fill the city all the dead
The river of forgetfulness carries away the city with its vacation departures and New Year’s Day stalls its tourist buses its springtime lily of the valley its July Fourteenths and its caramels the municipal water carts of its summer its winter snows its autumn rains that give its dust an electric odour its shopkeepers who buy or sell their shops the changing names of bistros the re-baptised streets the torn-down posters the river of forgetfulness whose mythological name one even misremembers the forgotten Lethe does not cease to flow it’s tough not to trample them in the time of hackney cabs and limos and locals it was anarchy you crossed the streets as you liked nowadays the dead the poor dead stop at red lights Camulogène crosses at the crosswalk the king stands in the window of the Louvre and Henri Beyle does not stop pacing up and down rue Neuve-
All Souls Generalised
This city is full of the dead they swarm at curves in the path at intersection crossings they congest the streets they do not stop pressing by and pressing again deceased laundresses they descend from roofs climb ladders slide through windows no one moves
In the shelter of the stairs skirts fly up in the air Passy platform close to the apple tree of the owner of an unoccupied apartment where, undressing, is a lady
PN Review 202 Rue Linné
The poor animals behind the bars of their enclosure hear all manner of jabber whether it’s in the Jardin des Plantes or the Vincennes zoo what balderdash they must give ear to the poor animals behind the bars of their enclosure deserve our pity for having to tolerate so much hooey but they go on grazing with composure the poor animals in their enclosure
The Cheese from Sainte-Maure
While on my way to Auteuil passing by rue des Belles-feuilles I glimpsed a purple cluster of fool choristers trumpeting the Loire Valley and its nutritious victuals to melodies pure and simple it was a real carnival but as it was Saturday people munched with impiety on buttered toast and bacon O what a pleasure to take in the wisely fooling choristers prattling to aficionados about Loire Valley fodder with regret I could not linger but left this tasty spectacle and continued on my way whistling a Spanish jingle
For years and many a twelve-month haven’t set foot on this street and I find once again the old verdigrisy grey-beard sobbing in his doorway the concierge and her broom the dreaming cat neither more nor less moth-eaten nothing and no one has moved only my body has crossed the road
The Fountains No Longer Sing
I am dying of ennui besighed the fountain the wind subsides it will soon darken the day wanes perhaps it will expire perhaps it will slither by with the waters of the Seine perhaps it will fall softly into slumber leaving only a trail of silence The birds are voiceless a shopkeeper closes the shutters of his shop someone walks by with freshly bought bread I am dying of ennui besighed the fountain
Rue Paul Verlaine
Sometimes I have a strange, penetrating vision of a street made of off-white and maternal tin on either side the walkway beats like a wing while the road bears all the weight of its being.
Into the pond, the pure lead sewers drip engulfing a mouth at an immortal gape hopscotch games are etched at either tip which the average applicant does not navigate
Below a titanium sky a lone roof on a wander slowly begins to travel above the structures where a creature prowls with my sister’s features
Calm with its hazy, imitation sicamour This road has the sulky amaranth glamour of coming to a close without losing its odour.
A street like any other in an indeterminate arrondissement maybe in the sixteenth suddenly right when you least expected it you see at the bottom of the cliff a port at the shore of the sea you may waver between Le Havre and Yport the waves sleep ships immobile but absent figure in this milky landscape you’d think it a tourist spot lightly sanded down then you continue on your way and you arrive by rue Férou at Place Saint-Sulpice
Raymond Queneau: from Hitting the Streets