Exercises in Style (the English translation of Exercices de style, first published in 1947) contains 99 versions of the same anecdote, each written in a different style. The author, Raymond Queneau, was a co-founder of the Oulipo group (about which more in my next post), whose aims were to explore the full potential of literature by stressing form. The first exercise, entitled Notation (taken from the Alma Classics edition, with translations by Barbara Wright) is:
On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.
Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He's with a friend who's saying: "You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat." He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
The Narrative exercise, somewhat later in the book, is:
One day at about midday in the Parc Monceau district, on the back platform of a more-or-less full S bus (now No. 84), I observed a person with a very long neck who was wearing a soft felt hat which had a plaited cord round it instead of a ribbon. This individual suddenly addressed the man standing next to him, accusing him of purposely treading on his toes every time any passengers got on or off. However, he quickly abandoned the argument and threw himself onto a seat which had become vacant.
Two hours later I saw him in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare engaged in earnest conversation with a friend who was advising him to reduce the space between the lapels of his overcoat by getting a competent tailor to raise the top button.
So far, so fairly standard, but here are some other versions of the same story.
A few of us were travelling together. A young man, who didn't look very intelligent, spoke to the man next to him for a few moments, then he went and sat down. Two hours later I met him again; he was with a friend and was discussing clothing matters.
At the very heart of the day, tossed among the shoal of travelling sardines in a white-bellied beetle, a chicken with a long, featherless neck suddenly harangued one of their number, a peace-abiding one, and its parlance, moist with protest, was unleashed into the air. Then, attracted by an empty space, the fledgling made a dash towards it.
In a bleak, urban desert, I saw it again that selfsame day, drinking the cup of humiliation over a mere button.
Psst! H'm! Ah! Oh! Hem! Ah! Ha! Hey! Well! Oh! Pooh! Poof! Ow! Oo! Ouch! Hey! Eh! H'm! Pffft!
Well! Hey! Pooh! Oh! H'm! Right!
There are plenty of other 'exercises'. The one entitled Zoological begins:
In the dog days, while I was in a bird cage at feeding time, I noticed a young puppy with a neck like a giraffe who, ugly and venomous as a toad, wore yet a precious beaver upon his head.
Negativities begins: It was neither a boat nor an aeroplane, but a terrestrial means of transport. It was neither the morning nor the evening, but midday. It was neither a baby nor an old man, but a young man. It was neither a ribbon nor a string, but a plaited cord.
Anagrams starts: In het S sub in het hurs ruho a pach of tabou swinettyx,who dah a glon, hint cken and a tah mmitred with a droc instead of a borbin, had an urmagent with athrone gaspenser whom he uccased of stoljing him on sporeup.
Onomatopoeia starts: On the platform, pla pla pla, of a bus, chuff chuff chuff, which was an S (and singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest), it was about noon, ding dang dong, ding dang dong, a ridiculous ephebus, poof poof, who had one of those hats, pooh, suddenly turned (twirl twirl) on his neighbour angrily, grrh grrh, and said, hm hm: "You are purposely jostling me, Sir," ha ha.
Passive begins: Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which hat was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. A long neck was sported by the young gentleman.
Exclamations begins: Goodness! Twelve o'clock! Time for the bus! What a lot of people! Aren't we squashed! Bloody funny! That chap! What a face! And what a neck! Two-foot long! At least! And the cord! The cord! I hadn't seen it! The cord! That's the bloodiest funniest! Oh! The cord! Round his hat! A cord!
Polyptotes begins: I got onto a bus full of taxpayers who were giving some money to a taxpayer who had on his taxpayer's stomach a little box which allowed the other taxpayers to continue their taxpayers' journeys. I noticed in this bus a taxpayer with a long taxpayer's neck and whose taxpayer's head bore a taxpayer's soft hat encircled by a plait the like of which no taxpayer ever wore before.
Spoonerisms begins: One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus, I maw a san with a nery vong leck and whose cat was enhircled py a biece of straited pling.
And there are dozens of others.