New York Review Books Reading Week, November 7-13, 2010

When I saw Carol’s post about NYRB Reading Week, hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons, I thought it might be a good time to read Witch Grass, which is a New York Review Book that also happens to be on my languishing TBR Challenge list. The price-sticker on the back of my copy of this book says I bought it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which led me to guess that it was probably purchased during the summer of 2003, when I was living in Cambridge, MA, and interning at Circlet Press. Which means that I’d owned this book for a good seven years without having read it. I opened it and found a small piece of paper with the following notes in bright turquoise marker: “train whistle” and “conductor” and “Haskell quote.” The other side, written in red pen and inspired by Megan’s sense/object-focused list-project that she was doing at the time says: “one perfect peach (juice dripping down my palms), two pigeons in the lobby of the train station, green and purple fields seen from train windows, hideous hotel lobby art, flags rippling in the breeze, the gleam of teak in sunlight, perfectly coiled rope on the docks, fold-down wooden table, familiar blue sleeping bag.” All of which plus my trusty book list tells me it was August 2003, I was reading (and loving) I Am Not Jackson Pollock, and I was spending the weekend on my dad’s sailboat. I’m not sure about the hotel lobby, though my guess is that my dad took me out to brunch at the hotel just off the highway by his office. But enough about twenty-one-year-old me. On to Witch Grass.

It starts with the evening rush hour, the usual stream of people heading from banks and offices to the train; among them is an observer, a person who doesn’t work, but who sits at a café at this time of the day, to watch. The people are all the same to the observer, each a silhouette in a sea of silhouettes, but then one becomes familiar over the course of several days. We see the silhouette, the man, go home; we see his wife, his stepson, his cat, the unfinished house they live in, out in the suburbs (the money ran out). The observer follows the man one day; another man, by chance, follows his wife. It’s strange and unsettling but also funny, a series of chance encounters and crossing of paths. And I like the style of Queneau’s writing, the unexpected images and turns of phrase, like the moment when, right at the start of the book, the observer opens his eyes “just as the silhouette was being pocketed by the metro, and disappearing” (5). Or this: “Saturnin taught Etienne how to work the elevator, and the two latter immediately took flight toward the upper floors of the uninhabited apartment house” (106).

I like, too, the everyday-ness of the start of the book: routines and their disruption, the daily commute and those days when everyone on the train seems to be getting on one another’s nerves more than usual, people eavesdropping, people staring, people lost in thought. “Such is life, such is life, such is life,” our original silhouette, whose name turns out to be Etienne Marcel, repeats to himself one day, and of course it’s apt (36). There are moments of humor and absurdity: a woman who, having seen an accident from a table in a certain café, keeps going back in hopes of seeing another one. There are moments, too, of offhand cruelty, of cold-heartedness, things that rather made me squirm.

As the book goes on, Etienne has a philosophical awakening/crisis: he feels he’s never existed before (though he’s never been aware of it) but now, suddenly, he does; this matches with the sense that the observer (whose name is Pierre Le Grand), has, the sense that Etienne is filling out, becoming three-dimensional. And as the book goes on, Etienne keeps on thinking, which is new for him. The philosophical parts of the book (including some metafictional moments) are pretty great and pretty hilarious, like Etienne going off about how he doesn’t know anything, how you can’t know anything, how he doesn’t even know who he himself is, how he can’t even say if the verb “to be” has any meaning at all. To which Pierre, deadpan, replies: “You’ve made great progress in metaphysics” (156). Meanwhile, things keep on getting weirder and funnier, though with bits of sadness, too, but mostly humor: everyone meddling and manipulating and misjudging one another, with intrigues and double-dealings and wild goose chases centered around, among other things, an old junk dealer who lives in a shack by the railway. I think that Barbara Wright, in her introduction to this novel, sums it up better than I could: “How it is—that is what Queneau, in his own way, is always describing. How life is” (xii).

8 Responses to “Witch Grass by Raymond Queneau
Translated and with an Introduction by Barbara Wright
New York Review Books, 2003
(Originally published in French by Librairie Gallimard, 1933)”

  1. Mrs.B. Says:

    Interesting review. How wonderful to pick up a book off your shelf after 7 years and enjoy it. Thanks for joining NYRB week. I hope you’ll have more reviews to come.

  2. Emily Says:

    I clicked over to your blog from the NYRB Week site, and love the Liz Phair reference!

    Also, I’ve been curious about Queneau’s other work ever since reading (a translation of) his famous Exercises in Style, and you make this sound almost equally interesting. I’m intrigued by the idea of the parallel self-discovery and discovery by a narrator that Etienne experiences. Anyway, thanks so much for the great post!

  3. Soliony Says:

    I have to say that I was a bit disappointed when you switched from your reminiscences to the review proper. The peach and the blue sleeping bag had me hooked. Then I realized that your memoir was an integral part of the review – the perfect lead in to a consideration of Queneau’s novel about “everyday-ness”. Brilliant! The quote at the end of your review perfectly captures the review itself: ““How it is—that is what [Letters and Sodas], in her own way, is always describing. How life is”. I can hear Queneau applauding your interpenetration of life, art and blog.

  4. Heather Says:

    Mrs. B, thanks for stopping by.

    Emily, thanks – and yay Liz Phair! I haven’t read anything else by Queneau, but after reading Witch Grass, I definitely want to get my hands on translations of more of his work. It’s funny, because for a little while I though I wasn’t much going to like this book, but it ended up completely winning me over.

    Soliony, thanks very much – you’re giving me credit for more forethought than I think I had, but I’m glad you liked this post.

  5. Myra from GatheringBooks Says:

    I like how your review contains glimpses of what you find in the book rather than the usual synopsis and character sketches – with a dash of early recollections on the side (which I have to agree with Soliony above is riveting) – the one thing that led me to your site (from the NYRB Reading Week Summary post) is the title of the book you reviewed – Witch Grass. Why witch grass, I wonder?

  6. fantaghiro23 Says:

    Thank you for joining the reading week! Your mention of chance encounters, philosophy, and metafiction have gotten me interested in this book. And yes, I know the feeling of leaving a book to languish in the TBR. So glad you finally got to read this!

  7. Heather Says:

    Myra, thank you. The title of this book in the original French is “Le Chiendent.” An earlier edition had that translated as “The Bark Tree,” and this one calls it “Witch Grass.” I’m not quite sure what the different titles connote. I looked up chiendent/witch grass and it’s a weed that grows in “open disturbed sites,” which makes me think it might be found alongside suburban train tracks—one of the key locations of the book. Plus weeds appear all of a sudden and grow like crazy, which makes me think of Etienne’s sudden self-awareness/growth as a character.

  8. Heather Says:

    Honey, thanks for stopping by, and thanks again for hosting this week! And yes, Witch Grass is definitely worth checking out.

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