Witch Grass (Paperback)

By Raymond Queneau, Barbara Wright (Introduction by)

New York Review of Books, 9781590170311, 328pp.

Publication Date: January 31, 2003



Seated in a Paris cafe, a man glimpses another man, a shadowy figure hurrying for the train: Who is he? he wonders, How does he live? And instantly the shadow comes to life, precipitating a series of comic run-ins among a range of disreputable and heartwarming characters living on the sleazy outskirts of the city of lights. Witch Grass (previously titled The Bark Tree) is a philosophical farce, an epic comedy, a mesmerizing book about the daily grind that is an enchantment itself.

About the Author

Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) was born in the French town of Le Havre and educated at the Sorbonne. He performed his military service in Morocco. An early association with the Surrealists ended in 1929, and after completing a scholarly study of literary madmen of the nineteenth century for which he was unable to find a publisher, Queneau turned to fiction, writing his first novel, Le Chiendent (published as Witch Grass by NYRB Classics), in Greece in the summer of 1932. Influenced by James Joyce and Lewis Carroll, Queneau sought to reinvigorate French literature, grown feeble through formalism, with a strong dose of language as really spoken. He further encouraged innovation by founding, with the mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, the famous group OULIPO (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), which investigated literary composition based on the application of strict formal or mathematical procedures (members of the group included Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Harry Mathews). Queneau's many books, which typically blur the boundaries between fiction, poetry, and the essay, include Pierrot mon ami, The Sunday of Life, Zazie in the Metro (made into a movie by Louis Malle), and Exercises in Style; under the name of Sally Mara, he published We Always Treat Women Too Well, a brilliant comic spoof on the excesses of smutty popular novels. Queneau was the editor of the Encyclopedie de la Pleiade as well as a fine poet, whose lyric "Si tu t'imagines" was a hit for the celebrated postwar chanteuse Juliette Greco. Barbara Wright is one of the premier English translators of modern French literature. In addition to Raymond Queneau, she has also translated such authors as Alfred Jarry, Nathalie Sarraute, Pierre Albert-Birot, and Patrick Modiano.