Zazie in the Metro (Zazie dans le Métro)

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Read 10/11/2015-11/11/2015

Rating: 4 stars

Continuing my French interlude, while we were in Paris we dropped into Shakespeare and Company. I wanted to visit this iconic bookshop that specialises in English language publications and sits almost at the centre of Paris because of Mrs Hemingway. Hemingway had a habit of taking his conquests for the approval of its owner, Sylvia Beach. I didn’t realise, though, that the shop at Kilometre Zéro, is a different shop. Beach’s original Shakespeare & Co, haunt of Hemingway, Eliot, Pound and Joyce, was at Rue de l’Odéon. The shop we visited opened in 1951 and got its current name in 1964. A different Sylvia runs it.

It’s still a wonderful shop. I could have spent hours in there, but it’s so tiny and so busy that I decided not to linger. I was searching for a copy of Claudine in Paris by Colette, but they were out of stock. Instead, I picked up Zazie in the Metro.

Raymond Queneau’s book about a young girl who visits Paris and wreaks havoc in her uncle’s already eccentric life is a hoot of a book. Surreal like Flann O’Brien is surreal. The word play is fun and gives the prose its rhythm.

Zazie is a feisty potty-mouth who stirs up the weekend of her uncle and his friends. On her account they encounter all kinds of rum characters, and largely take it in their stride. I wish my French was better, so that I could read Zazie in the Metro in its original language. I imagine that the original is even funnier than the translation – there must be wordplay that doesn’t translate from French into English. I loved it. Everyone in it is beautifully realised.

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3 thoughts on “Zazie in the Metro (Zazie dans le Métro)

  1. Yes, a major part, if not the essential of the pleasure that I felt when I read this book came from the language . It was rather revolutionary by that time, this mixture of totally low classes colloquialism and slang with a sometimes highly literary style . And Queneau didn’t respect any icon of the language . The first word, I still remember it, is ” Doukipudonktan ?”. The refined hero is in the métro and people stink .
    “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant” is the correct spelling, although the syntax isn’t . The question is how come, where does it come from, ( hence “d’où”) they stink so much . When we speak we say “i” for “ils”, “d’où viens-tu ?” in colloquial French can become “d’où que tu viens ?”, “que” becomes “k” and so on .
    It seems a total waste to read Zazie in a translation and miss the main source of pleasure, sorry .

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    1. Not a total waste. A total waste would have been to read it in translation and not have enjoyed it or understood what Queneau was trying to achieve. As it is, with my complete lack of colloquial French, reading it in the original language would be impossible for me. But thanks for explaining what a joy it is for someone for whom French is their first language. It’s good to know that my instinct was right. Queneau must have been as game-changing in French literature as Joyce or Faulkner were for the English language literary tradition.

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  2. Louis-Ferdinand Céline had started before . This politically rotten guy was a brilliant writer and, as far as i know, the first to publish literature including low French . But his books are not funny like Zazie .
    Congratulations for your.adventurous mind . Very few are the Anglophones who know Zazie .

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