Zazie in the Metro, Raymond Queneau, Librairie Gallimard, Paris, 1959; Penguin Classics translated by Barbara Wright, 1960, 157 pp
It's hard to remember a time when I couldn't just go to Google and look up anything I wanted to know. But back in 2007, I was planning a trip to Paris and though I am sure I was using Google as a search engine by then, my searching skills were not up to creating a reading list of contemporary novels set in Paris. I had recently begun reading The Millions, a literary blog I still check daily. They have a feature called "Ask A Book Question," so I did!
The first recommendation I got in the answer was Zazie in the Metro. As it turned out, I only read one book set in Paris before I went (Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood), but one day during my stay I braved the Metro by myself and made it to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore where I found and bought Zazie in the Metro. I got the store's rubber stamp logo on the front page and a cool bookmark that I use to this day.
But I did not read the book. It was originally published in France in 1959, so got slotted into My Big Fat Reading Project lists. Currently I am two-thirds of the way through my 1959 reading list and finally have read Zazie.
It's all good because had I read it five years ago, I doubt that I'd have known what I was reading. Now I have learned about Raymond Queneau, since he was an executive at Gallimard, the leading French publisher, and a friend to Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Queneau was also the founder of OULIPO (a group of experimental writers) about which I know only a tiny bit, but at least I have some idea of what they do.
So in the wondrous way that reading takes me through ideas and characters and places, I arrived on the first page of Zazie in the Metro to read the first word: "Howcanaystinksotho." The book is a tongue-in-cheek, play-on-words romp through Paris and the French slang of the 1950s, intrepidly translated into English by Barbara Wright. Thus those of us whose French is slight can enjoy the fun.
Zazie's single mom has dropped her off for a weekend. Mom spends the time with a boyfriend while Zazie falls in with her female-impersonator of an uncle. She never gets to ride the Metro though it is her heart's desire, because the transportation workers are on strike. Being on the cusp of her teenage years, having zero manners and even less fear of anything, she does manage to score a pair of jeans while hanging around with all sorts of quirky and somewhat unsavory characters.
Even so, it took me a good half of the book to get my bearings. By the end I was laughing at the humor, getting some of the word play, and had sorted out the characters, one of whom is a hilarious parrot.
Queneau was a serious intellectual who had already written twelve novels, but like Nabokov and his prepubescent heroine Lolita, Zazie brought him to mainstream readers. The novel was even made as a movie in 1960.
Spoof and satire are not my usual reading preference but I was entertained. I saw Paris from yet another perspective. Now I must figure out my next trip to Paris.
(Zazie in the Metro is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Find it at your nearest indie bookstore by clicking on the link beneath the cover image.)