Heather's Reviews > Witch Grass

Witch Grass by Raymond Queneau
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Nov 07, 10

bookshelves: fiction, literature-in-translation
Read from November 02 to 07, 2010 — I own a copy

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).
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