By Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright
Publication Date: 9/26/23
Pierrot Mon Ami, considered by many to be one of Raymond Queneau’s finest achievements, is a quirky coming-of-age novel concerning a young man’s initiation into a world filled with deceit, fraud, and manipulation. From his short-lived job at a Paris amusement park where he helps to raise women’s skirts to the delight of an unruly audience, to his frustrated and unsuccessful love of Yvonne, to his failed assignment to care for the tomb of the shadowy Prince Luigi of Poldevia, Pierrot stumbles about, nearly immune to the effects of duplicity.
This “innocent” implies how his story, at almost every turn, undermines, upsets, and plays upon our expectations, leaving us with more questions than answers, and doing so in a gloriously skewed style (admirably re-created by Barbara Wright, Queneau’s principle translator).
Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) is acknowledged as one of the most influential of modern French writers, having helped determine the shape of twentieth-century French literature, especially in his role with the Oulipo, a group of authors that includes Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Harry Mathews, among others.
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.
“We always feel good reading a Queneau novel; he is the least depressing of the moderns, the least heavy, with something Mozartian about the easy, self-pleasing flow of his absurd plots.”—John Updike, New Yorker
“Raymond Queneau’s books are ambiguous fairylands in which scenes of everyday life are mingled with a melancholy that is ageless. Though they are not without bitterness, their author seems always to set his face against conclusions, and to be moved by a kind of horror of seriousness. ‘Foolishness,’ according to Flaubert, ‘consists of wanting to reach a conclusion.’ One can imagine those words as the epigraph to Queneau’s Pierrot Mon Ami."—Albert Camus
“TAKE YOUR SPECS OFF THEN,” said Tortose to Pierrot, “take your specs off then if you want to look the part.”
Pierrot obeyed and put them carefully away in their case. He could still see about five meters in front of him, but the barrel and the spectators’ seats were shrouded in fog.
“Well then you see,” Tortose—Monsieur Tortose—went on, “you grab them when they get up to the cakewalk, you grab them by the wrists, you hold ’em tight, and then you plunk them down over the blowhole. How long you leave them there, that’s a matter of tact, there’s special cases, you just have to learn. Right. We’ll have a tryout, I’ll be the woman, there you go, I come in from here, when I get to the cakewalk I naturally hesitate, you grab me by the wrists, that’s it, and then you lug me along, that’s right, and you plunk me down over the blowhole, very good. Got it?”
“Got it, Monsieur Tortose.”
“Go down out now then with Petit-Pouce and Paradis and wait for the suckers. Understood?”
“Understood, Monsieur Tortose.”
Pierrot put his glasses on again and went to join Petit-Pouce and Paradis, who were smoking in silence. It was still light, but already crepuscularly so; the thermometer registered a nice little average temperature which made you want to enjoy the fine weather without talking. People were mooching around in the alleyways but the crowd wasn’t compact enough to be much fun. Only the bumper cars were beginning to ram each other on Perdrix’s Dodgem Track. The other rides were still deserted, but their organs were booming and their nostalgic music certainly contributed to the evolution of the inner life of the employees of the Palace of Fun. At her cash desk, Madame Tortose was knitting.
Couples and groups and, more rarely, individuals, passed up and down, still in a state of dissemination, still not agglomerated into crowds, laughing in moderation. Petit-Pouce, who had finished his cigarette, stubbed its embers against his heel and with his thumb and forefinger ejected the butt to an appreciable distance.
“Well, chummy,” he said to Pierrot, “d’you think you’re going to like grafting with us?”
“It’s not too tiring for the moment.”
“Yes, but you just wait until midnight.”
Paradis, turning to Pierrot, said to Petit-Pouce:
“He’s the one that clocked up sixty-seven thousand on a Coney Island.”
Of all the one-franc pinball games, Coney Island requires the most skill. You have to score twenty thousand to be entitled to a free game, and those who achieve this are rare. Pierrot, though, generally scored forty thousand, and once, even, in Paradis’s presence, sixty-seven thousand, which had been the origin of their relationship.
“It has happened,” said Pierrot modestly.
“We’ll have a go together,” said Petit-Pouce, “because I sometimes give it a whirl too.”
“Oh, you’re no match for him,” said Paradis, who had a high opinion of Pierrot without, however, extending his admiration beyond the domain of one-franc pinball games at which, it is true, Pierrot excelled. And in any case, as this friendship was only a week old, he hadn’t yet either had the time or taken the trouble to interest himself in the other aspects of the personality of his new pal.
There was now a solitary customer in the Squirrel’s Treadmill, putting his all into describing the circumference of his cage at three francs for a quarter-of-an-hour. The Alpinic Railway was practicing rumbling with its still-empty cars. But the merry-go-rounds were still not revolving, the Palais de Danse was deserted, and the clairvoyants weren’t seeing anything coming.
“There’s not a lot of people yet,” said Pierrot, trying to find a neutral subject, because he didn’t want Paradis’s eulogies to get him, Pierrot, in bad with him, Petit-Pouce, so that the sight of him, Pierrot, finally made him, Petit-Pouce, sick, but sick! In any case, Pierrot, who had had a hard childhood, a painful adolescence and a difficult youth (which was not yet over), and who therefore knew the way of the world, Pierrot was now sure of one thing: sooner or later sparks would certainly fly between him and Petit-Pouce, unless it was with Paradis, who can tell?
“We’ll have a go,” Petit-Pouce repeated; he didn’t allow himself to be sidetracked, because he liked competition.
He would have carried on arguing the toss in this direction (that of one-franc pinball games) had not two little skirts, arm in arm and on the lookout for gallants, passed by under his nose.
“The one on the right’s a good-looker,” he said authoritatively. “A nice bit of stuff.”
“Well now, Ladies,” Paradis shouted, “aren’t you going to treat yourselves to a bit of fun?”
“Walk in, Ladies,” Petit-Pouce yelled, “walk in!”
They did an about-turn and passed the Palace again, as near to it as they could get.
“Well now, Ladies,” said Petit-Pouce, “don’t you like the look of our joint? Ah! the fun that goes on there.”
“Oh, I know,” said one.
“And anyway, there’s not a cat there,” said the other.
“That’s just it,” cried Paradis, “we were just waiting for yours.”
“Haven’t done yourself an injury, have you?” they asked, “because to think that one up all by yourself, have to make an effort, and that can be dangerous.”
“Ha ha, they’re one up on you,” said Petit-Pouce.
They began to laugh, all five of them, every last one of them. Seeing and hearing this, some of the passersby began to take an interest in the Palace of Fun. Madame Tortose, sensing that the harvest was ready to be reaped, put down her knitting and got out the tickets. With the two little skirts as bait, the philosophers would soon be turning up, that was for sure, and the poor fish would go hog-wild to get a seat that would give them a good view of the rest. A line formed, consisting of those errand boys, clerks and school kids prepared to lay out twenty sous to see a bit of thigh.
“How about a go for free?” Petit-Pouce suggested.
That would warm up the audience, that’d encourage the philosophers, and once it had got going, the evening would simply have to carry on from performance to performance until round about midnight, with some nice takings at the end of the day for Signor Tortose, and sweat- drenched shirts for the three athletes. But the two kids, no fools, considered that a go for free would be a gift—on their part.
“Thanks a lot,” said one, “you’d have to pay us to get us into a thing like that.”
“Roll up, roll up, the show’s starting!” Petit-Pouce yelled at the rubbernecks.
“And you, get to work,” said Paradis to Pierrot, who hastened to obey.
And they ditched the chicks.