The furthest a book has taken me: Eley Williams on ‘Exercises in Style’

The furthest a book has taken me: Eley Williams on ‘Exercises in Style’

The author of The Liar’s Dictionary got enagaged to her wife in Paris, just not the way she planned. Raymond Queneau’s book, which tells the same story 99 times, helped her see the romance in mislaid plans, misunderstandings and getting lost.

Eley Williams

Here's a short story, told briefly and without great swagger: I became engaged to a woman in a city.

Here's that same story, but expanded upon: the week before Christmas, I proposed to my now-wife in Paris.

Here's a third version which is longer, more complex and just as true: on a cold day, lost in the streets of Paris, three hours before I planned to ask her to marry me, my girlfriend proposed and I said yes. Her manner of proposal involved a certain amount of elaborate, secret forethought and required an engagement ring hidden inside a massive dictionary. My proposal was mere hours away; it was my day’s plan. I proposed to her later her, anyway – I had the ring.

But then, the story didn’t really change, not truly: I became engaged to a woman in a city.

My now-wife’s ring-dictionary was badly concealed in a huge bag, which meant that when we got lost, my girlfriend had to lug an obtrusive and entirely unwieldy suitcase through unfamiliar streets for a number of hours, hauling it up kerbsides and off-kilter across cobbled boulevards. I have little sense of direction, and had doubtless led the two of us down incorrect streets and on various overly-peripatetic detours all day. It is one thing to 'take the scenic route', but quite another to dawdle listlessly while schlepping about a heavy, secret dictionary. The whole thing was absurd. The story of the day she envisioned was surely less meandering. In the story of the day I envisioned, I was the one proposing.

The story didn’t really change, not truly: I became engaged to a woman in a city.

I am a person who is often lost. Sometimes this is involuntary, sparking a kind of uncertainty that is accompanied by much sighing and crumpling of maps as I scour a landscape for familiar landmarks. There is that other kind of lostness, however, which is more to do with exploration and allowing oneself to wander and drift, one that relishes disorientation and doubling-back, rather than feeling bereft that a sure path can never be found or even exists. And no book reveals and revels in the pleasure of being lost quite ­like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

Queneau’s book goes a bit like this: in the middle of the day, an anonymous narrator spots a young man on a packed Parisian bus. He is upbraiding an older passenger for barging into him, and the altercation only comes to an end when the younger man plonks himself down in an empty seat. Sometime later, the narrator passes the Gare St-Lazare and sees the same young man. He is being told by a friend that he ought to ensure another button is sewn onto his coat.

Not exactly the most interesting story about the famed City of Light, the City of Love, a place bristling with literary salons and cultural vivacity. You turn the page, and to your surprise you discover exactly the same story. But wait – no, not the same: there are differences in the way the story is being told. Now the story of the men on the bus is suffused with extra details and specificities.

Queneau narrates the same scenario 99 times, in 99 distinct styles. It is ingenious and ludicrous and completely virtuosic – a triumph of the art of the double-, triple-, multifarious take. In these vertiginous, ambitious, daft retellings, we experience the world askance and we see it forensically: this is a city, and people, and the very notion of storytelling exploded and reconstituted. What felt a fixed scene becomes kaleidoscopic, time becomes collapsible and indefinable, and the possibility of any single version of a story becomes a slippery, supple or completely barmy construct. Rife with parody, allusion, rhetorical chicanery, satire, chance, irreverence, the 'truth' of objectivity – in Queneau’s case, a Parisian street – plays over and over in front of our eyes until it slips into blissful oblivion.

Feeling lost often means having to confront one's limitations: how can I summon the energy to make sense of the world? Who am I to even try? But through reading Queneau, and experiencing his texts as a way of losing a static sense of self and of truth, I could see how constraints and limitations can act as conduits for playfulness and significance, for attentiveness and gaiety. For the generation of my own multifarious truths.

It allows me to play the same scene over in my mind – for example, my wife and her life-changing question, asked over a dictionary in the Parisian street – and with each new iteration find something new to cherish and delight in, to re-notice: we were lost, with heavy luggage; she proposed; I proposed. The story has endless permutations, but in all of them: I became engaged to a woman in a city.

Queneau's Exercises in Style permits reading as an act of noticing. It allows cliché and radical departure, silliness and strangeness, nonsense and familiarity all at once. If truth can be exploded into so many fragments, then getting lost or recalibrating a proposal plan is not a loss of truth but an opportunity to find new ways to read the world, and be read myself. And what better definition for romance can there be than that?

What did you think of this article? Let us know at

Illustration: Michelle Pereira for Penguin

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more