The Blue Flowers

Raymond Quenenau was one of the founders of the Oulipo (which he described as ”rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”), known in particular for Exercises in Style – an Oulipo handbook in itself – and Zazie in the Metro, which was swiftly filmed by Louis Malle. The Blue Flowers, published in 1965, arrived nearer the end of his career but was recently chosen by David Bellos as one of five great French novels for being in the “witty comic novel tradition.” Luckily, the 1967 translation by Barbara Wright – an outstanding job given the amount of word play in the novel – was reprinted by New Directions last year.

The novel contains two central characters: Cidrolin, an ex-convict who lives on a barge; and the Duke of Auge, an irascible nobleman prone to bouts of violence. When Cidrolin sleeps he dreams of the Duke, and when the Duke sleeps he dreams of Cidrolin. The changes between characters happen unannounced; here, for example, is the first:

“The Duke ate copiously, then he went to bed and slept with a very good appetite.
“He hadn’t finished his siesta when he was awoken by two nomads calling him from the top of the bank. Cidrolin answered them by signs…”

The novel is at pains to point out that dreams are rarely meaningful. Cidrolin tells his daughter:

“Some dreams seem to be made up of unimportant incidents, you wouldn’t remember things of that sort in your waking life, and yet they interest you when you catch them in the morning chaotically shoving themselves up against the door of your eyelids.”

Similarly, the Duke, when told by his chaplain that dreams come either from God or the Devil, replies:

“Most often, if I can judge from my own experience, dreams are only concerned with the petty incidents of everyday life.”

Despite his criminal past (which remains undisclosed), Cidrolin’s life is quiet and uneventful, largely consisting of drinking fennel water and repainting his gate, which seems to be frequently subjected to unpleasant graffiti, an activity he describes as “a gratuitous hobby”. His peace is rarely interrupted, and then only by passers-by seeking directions to a nearby campsite. The Duke, by dint of his social position and temper, has a far more eventful existence, which begins with his refusal to go on another Crusade with the King – “Doesn’t appeal to me much.” His attitude does not go down well with the general populace and he quickly encounters a series of angry mobs:

“Drawing his braquemard for the second time that day, Joachim d’Auge darted into the fray and slew two hundred and sixteen persons, men, women, children and others, of whom twenty-seven were licensed borgeis and twenty-six on the point of becoming so”

(A braquemard is a type of sword but also seems to be French slang for penis; borgeis is a town dweller, i.e. bourgeois – a brief indication of the constant word play). The novel is worth reading for the character of the Duke alone – a Hulked-out Brian Blessed – who perhaps reaches his peak in his defence of his “good old comrade in arms, the noble seigneur Gilles de Rais”:

“The fact he may have roasted a few brats is no reason to forget the services he has rendered to his country.”

As David Bellos points out, the Duke moves forward in time (though this is obvious from many clues, the fact it is 176 years each time is not something that I worked out!) which leads to some amusing moments such as when it is suddenly no longer “advisable to shout ‘long live the King’ on every possible occasion” in 1789. This movement through time is unsurprising as history is one of Queneau’s main concerns from the novel’s opening sentences:

“A few remnants of the past were still lying around here and there, rather messily.”

Though, as he has the Duke quickly admit: “…so much history, just for a few puns and a few anachronisms.” Though a knowledge of French history, and French, no doubt makes the novel more entertaining, it is often very funny by wit alone:

“The chaplain guessed that the Duke was proceeding to one rebellion. The herald guessed the same thing. The Duke guessed that the other two had guessed. The chaplain guessed that the Duke had guessed that he had guessed, but didn’t guess whether the herald had also guessed that the Duke has guessed that he’d guessed.”

Whether The Blue Flowers is, indeed, one of the great French novels may be debateable, but that it is intriguing and amusing from beginning to end there is no doubt.

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5 Responses to “The Blue Flowers”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Oh just started this strangely running late on club reads this time as ever I’ve this and rummelplatz and garden ashes as my three for 1965

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I would have liked to pick this one up, given more time and also if I had a copy (I’ve been trying to read from the stacks!) I love his wordplay and this sounds up to the standard of his other works which I’ve read!

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve only read Exercises in Style so I’m looking forward to reading some of his other novels. Thanks again for the 1965 Club – they are always great fun to take part in!

  3. The #1965Club is here! – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] 1st Reading’s Blog […]

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