Recently, while reading Raymond Queneau’s ‘Pierrot Mon Ami’, I came across a mention of the city of Tataouine, Tunisia. Naturally, for those of us who have a great fondness for lasers and a high level of social awkwardness, this name cannot help but lead us immediately to thoughts of Star Wars. Tatooine is, of course, Luke Skywalker’s home planet.
My first though was to make sure that Queneau wasn’t borrowing the town’s name from the film. He wasn’t. ‘Pierrot’ was written some decades before Star Wars was shot. A bit of research confirmed that Tataouine (also spelled Tatooine) is in fact a city in Tunisia. Not only that, George Lucas actually filmed parts of the original Star Wars on location in Tunisia and liked the name Tatooine so much that he wound up using it for the film.
And so, in thanks for this bit of knowledge, I am proposing the category of Official Honorary Ghost Island Corpses. The first of these will be, naturally, Mr. Queneau
Announcement of Status:
Raymond Queneau is known for many things. His most popular work, ‘Zazie and the Metro’, was also in many ways his least characteristic. It’s quite good, but it is not the reason we honor him today as Ghost Island’s First Official Honorary Ghost Island Corpse.
We will leave Zazie’s charms aside; that is we will look past popularity and towards reverence. Without doubt, Queneau is most revered for his role in the founding of the OuLiPo group and, in conjuntion with this, his book ‘100,000 Billion Poems’, which constituted the first instance of what has been called ‘combinatoric literature’. In this work, Queneau wrote a series of 10 sonnets in which each first line could work with each second and third and fourth etc. so that eventually these 10 sonnets contain within them 10^14, or 100,000 billion poems. It is quite literally impossible to read all of these poems even if one were to dedicate his life to the task. In fact, it has been conjectured that with this single book, Queneau more than doubled the amount of written material in the world. It is in many ways a physical embodiment of a Borges story, and like Borges’ work, the power comes as much from the concept as from the content of the work.
Besides these feats, Queneau was also a fantastic novelist, an accomplished amateur mathematician who delivered papers at serious mathematical conferences, and a key literary theoretician who championed a kind of materialist language and form conscious writing against the pure functioning of ideological structures evidenced in practices like Surrealism’s ‘automatic writing’ as well as against aleatoric systems of composition. He believed deeply in recognizing the structures within which a person is working and acting voluntarily to define and play within and against those structures. This thought is in many ways the basis of the the OuLiPo group and sees its genesis in ‘Odile’, Queneau’s semi-autobiographical novel about his involvement with the Surrealists. Odile is also one of the most beautiful short novels I have read in a long time.
And so it is with a tremendous pleasure and debt that we here today bury a simulacrum of dead Mr. Queneau on southern side of our highest mountain. His body, virtual as it is, will decompose and become one with our soil and from it will sprout a very odd tasting fruit and several types of iridescent vegetables.
(Aside: My own feeling is that aleatoric methods, when chosen and understood as such, can themselves work well as a sort of voluntary constraint and thereby retain value as a practice.)
I am also very much enjoying ‘Pierrot Mon Ami’