I categorise Exercises in Style as a short story collection, though it defies classification. It is the retelling, ninety-nine times, each in a different style, of a seemingly unremarkable observation the narrator makes of a man seen first on a crowded bus and then, later, in front of Gare St-Lazare. I have long been fascinated by attempts at exhausting place through an ultimately unattainable total description, and this is a key textbook of that project.
First published in French as Exercises de Style in 1947 by Editions Gallimard; widely translated
Once upon a time there were three little peas knocking about on the highways. When evening came, they quickly fell asleep, tired and weary.
if you want to know the rest, go to 5
if not, go to 21
When I was younger we saved tokens from Weetabix boxes to send off in exchange for Choose Your Own Adventure books. They were a real treat. I don’t remember the actual stories, although I do remember thinking it was like reading a different book each time, albeit an overtly familiar one that lead to increasingly predictable conclusions. But what I mostly think about (aside from the excessive Weetabix consumption and a kind of anti-nostalgia for the mid-80s) is the excitement of getting a new book in the post. A brand-new book, with new book smell, pristine pages, and an unbroken spine.
Most of the other books we read were from the library or from church jumble sales and charity shops. The library was a source of limitless treasure. The haphazard breadth of jumble sale and charity shop books ensured I read a wide of range of everything in no particular order, from atlases at the non-fiction end of the shelf, to Georgette Heyer Regency romances at the other. I remember on one particular occasion taking my younger brother to buy a book. We must’ve been about 12 and 10. I was responsible for looking after the two 50 pence pieces (one each) we were given as pocket money. I probably looked at the Mills & Boons but chose an Oxford or Wordsworth Classic. My brother bought a stiff hardback with a shiny dust cover by someone we had never heard of. He didn’t plan to read it. He wanted to stick the pages together then hollow it out to create a secret compartment, like the villain in From Russian With Love who smuggles a handgun inside a copy of War and Peace. (My brother was a massive James Bond fan.) The ladies behind the counter of the RSPCA shop seemed a little flustered when we went to pay. But they sold us the books and we took them home to our parents, who thought Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller was probably not the most appropriate book for a ten-year-old.
Apparently written in 1967, but first published, as ‘Conte à votre façon’, in Contes et Propos, Gallimard, 1981, published in English translation as Stories and Remarks, University of Nebraska Press, 2000