Zazie in the metro – R. Queneau

Zazie dans le metro

Queneau R. (1959), Zazie dans le métro, Paris: Gallimard

Raymond Queneau was born in Le Havre, in 1903, studied French literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne and performed military service in Algeria and Morocco (1925-1927), where he first closely observed the use of French argot. He visited Greece in 1932 and was amazed by the Greek language question: the language spoken by the Greek people (Demotic Greek or dimotiki) was different from the one used in written speech (Kathareuousa), with the latter being conceived as a cultivated imitation of Ancient Greek.

In 1933, soon after his trip to Greece, Queneau publishes his first novel entitled “Le Chiendent” (meaning The Couch Grass), for which he’s awarded with the Prix des Deux-Magots. Since then, he focuses on the establishment of neo-French, a linguistic conception in which written speech follows the same syntactic structures as oral speech does, while words are phonetically transcribed and not historically spelled. He publishes quite a few more novels but gains some popularity in 1942 with his novel “Pierrot mon ami” and becomes widely known in 1959, with “Zazie dans le métro”, a burlesque parody of coming-of-age novels and detective fiction.

Zazie is visiting her uncle, Gabriel, who’s living with his wife in Paris. More than anything she wants to take the métro but, unfortunately, ticket collectors are on strike. So, what else is there to do, than flee from her uncle’s house to discover the city all by herself? And if the outside world is full of surprising situations, you can’t even imagine what will happen as soon as she returns home!

Zazie’s innumerable questions and the unexpected troubles that she gets herself (but also her uncle and his friends) into, create a hilarious atmosphere. In terms of language, the original is quite a demanding read for non-native speakers, due to the usage of many slang words and the phonetic transcription of both French and foreign words. For example, the novel’s first word, “Doukipudonktan” is a phonetic transcription of the phrase “D’où qu’il pue donc tant”, which means “From where does he stink so much?”.

Since the Greek translation is no longer available for purchase, I would like to read the English one, in order to study the translator’s linguistic choices. Louis Malle took care of those of you who are not interested in reading Zazie’s adventures, and adapted the novel into a film, of which you’ll learn more about very soon!


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