Raymond Queneau Zazie in the Metro (1959; English tr. Barbara Wright, 1960)
There was about a twenty year gap between my becoming aware of Zazie in the Metro and my actually summoning up the courage to read it.
O why o why o why did I wait? Well, my first meeting with Zazie was in a French lesson at university where a chunk was presented to see if we could make anything of it. [Answer: no.] And then - jump a few years - and I directly blame Roland Barthes for my further neglect of Zazie, thanks to his essay 'Zazie and Literature' (1959; republished in Critical Essays, 1972 [Google books link]). Zazie didn't sound much fun; indeed, Zazie sounded like hard work. But I was wrong (not unusual!) for Zazie is absolutely brilliant. (Um, at least in English.)
The translator of anything by Raymond Queneau deserves whatever is the translator's equivalent of an Oscar combined with the Nobel Prize. This is the opening line:
Doukipudonktan, se demanda Gabriel excédé.(Howcanaystinksotho, wondered Gabriel, exasperated.)
The language of Zazie is filled with colloquialisms, elided strings of French words (the first word above is, thank you Wikipedia, meant to be D'où qu'il pue donc tant?) and dialectic in-jokes and, I won't lie, it is sometimes hard work to sort it out until you get into the swing and start talking like that yourself (OK, not quite...). It is well worth the effort: the book is hysterically funny and it is a wonderful celebration of Paris.
The young teenaged (anti-)heroine, Zazie, is sent to Paris to stay with her uncle Gabriel while her mother has some R&R with a lover. Gabriel's only wish is that having Zazie to stay does not interfere with his job as a cross-dressing nightclub performer (and that she does not get raped). Zazie is a foul-mouthed and far from naïve country-girl and her only wish is to travel on the métro; which is on strike. She escapes her uncle's apartment and so a whirlwind of bad language and behaviour is set loose on the inhabitants of the city as Zazie sets out to achieve her secondary ambitions of owning a pair of blue jeans ("blewgenes") and drinking Coca-Cola ("cacocalo"). There are run-ins with fake policemen, sleezy gents in raincoats, busloads of tourists, a flea-market, Gabriel's taxi-driving brother-in-law (who seeks love in the lonelihearts columns), and many unforgettable minor characters, until the grand and bloody finale with its deus ex machina surprise twist.
Zazie is an astonishing journey through a Paris where all of the landmarks take on a blurred sense of our disbelief in their very existence: are we really passing the Panthéon? We become discombobulated by the frenzy of inversions of our expectations - those of geography, architecture and the correct behaviour of young girls, elderly widows, taxi-drivers, gentle wives and proper uncles.
'How about that!' he roars, 'look!! the Panthéon!!!''The things you hear,' says Charles without turning around.He was driving slowly so that the child could see the sights and improve her mind into the bargain.'Maybe it isn't the Panthéon?' asks Gabriel.There's something crafty about his question.'No,' says Charles forcefully. 'No, no and no, it isn't the Panthéon.''Well what would it be then in your opinion?'The craftiness of his tone becomes almost insulting to his interlocutor who, moreover, hastens to admit defeat.'I don't really know,' says Charles.'There. You see.''But it isn't the Panthéon.'...'And that,' he exclaims, 'that's . . .But he's cut short by a eurequation from his brother-in-law.'I've got it,' roars the latter. 'The thing we've just seen, twasn't the Panthéon, course it wasn't, it was the Gare de Lyon.''Maybe,' says Gabriel casually, 'but it's past history now...'
Zazie is unexpected and brilliant and farcical and sexy - and a must-read for lovers of Paris. Oh, and it's only really novella-sized.
If you liked this... and can deal with more Queneau, I'm picking my way very slowly through his Exercises in Style in which he retells the same paragraph of narrative in umpteen different ways (e.g. Dog Latin, or in the persona of a woman; in the English translation there's even Cockney). There's an excellent review by Jenny at shelf love. Incidentally, Zazie - written on the cusp of the nouvelle vague movement - was made into a film in 1960; the heroine is cast as a much younger girl (she is firmly teenaged in the book).