A Conversation with Raymond Queneau By Georges Charbonnier

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1997, Vol. 17.3

GEORGES CHARBONNIER: Raymond Queneau, you said to me one day that two great currents exist in literature and that basically one could, if I understood you correctly, link most novels either to the “Iliad” or to the “Odyssey.”

RAYMOND QUENEAU: I think that those are in fact the two poles of Western novelistic activity since its creation, that is to say since Homer, and that one can easily classify all works of fiction either as descendants of the “Iliad” or of the “Odyssey.” I had the pleasure of hearing this idea of the Occidental novel as a continuation of the Iliad summarized recently by Butor during a conference [25 July 1961]. He said excellent things in this regard, but he didn’t speak about the Odyssey, and it seems to me that the Odyssey represents the other pole of Western literature.

GC: When would you say there’s an Iliad, and when would you say there’s an Odyssey?

RQ: First of all, these two works have one thing in common: one finds in them nearly all the techniques of the novel. It doesn’t seem to me that anyone has discovered much that’s new since then.

The “Iliad” is already an extremely erudite work, with a very well-defined subject; it is, as you know, the story of Achilles’ anger, that is, something very specific, placed in a very vast historical and mythological context. One incident projects in a way a glimmer of light on the historical world which surrounds it and vice versa, but it is the incident which makes the story; the rest contributes only to the “suspense” and to the development of the story.

Many novelists likewise take well-defined, precise characters, whose stories are sometimes of mediocre interest, and place them in an important historical context, which remains secondary in spite of everything.

“The Charterhouse of Parma” and “War and Peace” are novels of the Iliad genre, not because they tell of battles, like Homer (that counts, too), but because the important things are the characters plunged into history and the conflict between characters and history; for example, the work of Proust is also an Iliad. The battles take place in drawing rooms, but they are still battles, and the nucleus is the narrator’s personality and the people who interest him.

Moreover, there is the “Odyssey.” The “Odyssey” is demonstrably much more personal; it is the story of someone who, in the course of diverse experiences, acquires a personality or, if you will, affirms and recovers his personality, like Ulysses, who finds himself unchanged, aside from his “experience,” at the end of his odyssey.

So there the examples are extremely numerous: “Don Quixote,” “Moby Dick,” “Ulysses,” naturally, but also a book like “Bouvard and Pecuchet,” for example, which is well-situated in this line of descent. The story of “Bouvard and Pecuchet” is an Odyssey through the sciences, the letters, and the arts. Bouvard and Pecuchet as well find themselves as they were at the beginning of the novel since the book’s conclusion is that they start to copy again, just as Ulysses returns to be the king of his little island.
Rabelais also, certainly Rabelais is an Odyssey; “The Red and the Black” is an Odyssey, whereas “The Charterhouse of Parma” seems to me to be an Iliad. And in the “Odyssey” there are, as much as in the “Iliad,” technical refinements which are extremely remarkable, and I’m surprised they aren’t mentioned more often. For example, when Ulysses hears his own story sung by an epic poet and then he reveals his identity and the poet wants to continue singing and Ulysses isn’t interested any longer; that’s very astonishing, modern, shall we say, because it’s really a novel within a novel. To have one’s own story told by a third party who doesn’t know that the character in question is himself the hero of the story being told, that’s a technical refinement which could date from the twentieth century. It’s true that one finds this sophistication also in “Don Quixote.”

GC: “Jacques le fataliste”?

RQ: “Jacques le fataliste,” that’s also an Odyssey. I wonder if there aren’t more Odysseys than Iliads among the great novels.

GC: That’s what I was going to ask you; are there not more Odysseys than Iliads?

RQ: Zola’s work is an Iliad. There again is an example of a story centered on characters who are sometimes not even very interesting; and with a great tableau, a great historical ferment in the background.

GC: How can we classify these memoirs which touch so closely on the novel, like “The Confessions” of Rousseau, for example?

RQ: Ah! All confessions are Odysseys. “Wilhelm Meister” is an Odyssey; all autobiographical tales are Odysseys; all lives are Odysseys.

GC: So that we find ourselves in the presence of very few Iliads when all is said and done.

RQ: Yes, there are in fact very few, but I can come up with some, even so. Perhaps Sagan is linked to the “Iliad.”

GC: But then is literature devoted to these two currents: to compose an Iliad or to compose an Odyssey?

RQ: Until the beginning of the twentieth century, it is easy to classify all fictional works under one or the other rubric. But perhaps the total awareness of this dependence with respect to Homer and the Greek epic, achieved by Joyce in “Ulysses,” perhaps that dissipated this sort of ascendancy of Homer over all Occidental literature. Perhaps since then, in fact, we have gotten a little away from this double aspect of either putting the man, the character, back into historical events or of making a historical event of his very life.

One can say that fiction has consisted either of placing imaginary characters in a true story, which is the “Iliad,” or of presenting the story of an individual as having a general historical value, which is the “Odyssey.” But after the magical act accomplished by Joyce with “Ulysses,” perhaps we are getting away from it. It seems to me that an author who has determined very new domains in literature is Gertrude Stein and “The Making of Americans” is doubtless very meaningful in this regard, because there, there is an attempt to suppress all history. It is the history of the making of the Americans. It is a very great Iliad because it concerns the creation of a nation. It is a very great Odyssey because it concerns the Odyssey, which is the story of Americans up to the point where they are well-established and even so it is detached from the historical side in a sort of present that Gertrude Stein called the “timeless present,” in a sort of formal immobility which causes peoples’ lives—one can’t say that it is exemplary, because the lives of Bouvard and Pecuchet, the life of Don Quixote are exemplary—peoples’ lives to be at the same time concrete and ideal. It’s a kind of transformation of the individual to a type, a little in the sense of the Platonic ideal, and one which remains even so extremely concrete. Banality is elevated to the rank of a metaphysical value. It is a response to the question “Is there an ‘idea’ of each individual?”

GC: In all the attempts at the contemporary novel, do you see a will to situate oneself with respect to what you have just defined?

RQ: I didn’t quite grasp. . .

GC: Does the recent novel try to get away from both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”? Or is it that on the contrary it belongs deliberately to one of these currents?

RQ: Well, I’ll admit that I didn’t quite grasp the final meaning, the conclusion of Butor’s conference, but it seemed to me that he was more interested in the Iliad aspect of literature and that he spoke of it seeing himself in this same line of descent, even if he opposed it on certain points. He expressed himself more in terms of “society” than of “history,” but all societies are historical; there have been only rare moments in history where individual histories were able to run their course without wars or revolutions. It was perhaps not until the nineteenth century, in the English novel, that we find people who are likely to spend a whole lifetime without being hit by bombs, who have a tranquil life in which history does not intervene. But, aside from this period, there have always been many things happening externally, and peoples’ private lives are always thrown into disorder. The “Iliad” is the private lives of people thrown into disorder by history.

GC: So there would be nothing but Odysseys in the English novel of the nineteenth century?

RQ: I’m forced to admit that. There is a great novel likewise written at a time when history seemed to be immobilized, during the first century of the Roman Empire; I’m talking about the “Satyricon” of Petronius. It is an Odyssey obviously because people come and go, they are dragged from incident to incident, but one can say also that it is, potentially, the Odyssey of the Roman Empire itself. Outside of those who were busy with palace intrigue, the people, the “little people” above all, those of whom Petronius spoke, probably thought that it would always be that way, but one sees that he himself must not have considered this state of things as so long-lasting.

There were others who were not of this opinion either—those were the Christians, but that’s another story!

One could wonder, moreover, if Petronius made allusion to Christianity in the “Satyricon.” It’s a controversial question. The episode of the Matron of Ephesus and, in the last chapters, the story of the cadaver that the heirs have to consume anthropophagically seem really to me to be anti Christian parodies.

GC: In a general way, would the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” correspond to two realizations, two ways of apprehending things, two ways of conceiving them?

RQ: Yes. In one we think of giving importance to history, but it is the individual who is interesting, and in the other the individual is interesting and we want to give him a historical importance. In fact, it’s the same point of view, that is to say the novelist’s point of view, the creator of fiction’s point of view. It is the character who interests him. Sometimes he wants to convince the reader that the story he is telling is as interesting as universal history, and sometimes he thinks that he will render this story interesting by slipping it into universal history. The story of Achilles could take place anywhere; that the all-powerful lord comes to take his favorite slave from him, it could happen in a completely different historical context from the Trojan War. It is obviously only the author’s genius which persuades the reader that the story cannot be otherwise, that it must be accepted that way.

GC: Would the truth be a synthesis of these two?

RQ: Either a synthesis or a way out.

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