Zazie dans le Métro by Raymond Queneau

Blame Joe Meno. I was going through a period of obsession with his work because I enjoyed The Boy Detective Fails so much. This happens when I find someone new whose work sparks something, a need for more. Hairstyles of the Damned came next. I read that in a few days, turning the pages until my eyes ached. This sort of creative infatuation ensured I wanted to hear what Joe had to say about his work. I searched all the interviews I could, finding out about his writing. In one interview, when asked his favourite book, Joe Meno mentioned one specific title: Zazie dans le Métro.

I had flashbacks to French lessons at Cumbernauld High School, a dreadful affair that involved me asking every week if Petit Filous really helped make bones stronger. My teacher, a Frenchwoman who was rumoured to come from Swindon, must have despaired. The fact Joe Meno’s favourite book was an obscure French novel from the ’60s wasn’t going to put me off. Immediately, I checked the availability, finding a copy of it at Blackwells in Edinburgh. A few seconds later, without even reading the blurb, I ordered the book. Then I forgot. This happens quite often.

A few days later, a package dropped onto the mat. I checked and suddenly realised it was the book Joe Meno rated above all others. Well, I thought, this better not be shit. It was a Penguin Classic, which helped sell it to me. Someone out there, not Joe Meno, obviously regarded this book as something special, at least enough to put it out under the Classics imprint. After boiling the kettle and rolling my next door neighbour leaving their dog in the house all day again, I started reading.

Zazie dans le Métro tells the story of young teen Zazie’s trip to see her uncle (a drag queen) and his beautiful wife while her mother visits her lover for the weekend. This is Zazie’s opportunity to finally see The Métro, something that obsesses her intensely. Sadly for Zazie, she happens to visit in the middle of a strike. Thus begins a fantastical adventure full of fun and silliness – and lots of swearing. Zazie loves to swear. A foul-mouthed brat and a trickster, she makes things happen…

The first thing I noticed about the English translation is how inventive the writing is. Not in the way the story is told, but in the language used. Raymond Queneau is incredibly inventive with words, but in a way that’s playful rather than smug. Somehow, I felt at a disadvantage that I couldn’t just read the original French version of the novel. I bet it’s much better than what the translator had to reinvent. But you just know Paris won’t be the same now Zazie is running amok.

The book hasn’t got much of a plot to speak of, so I won’t. But what pulls you along are the characters. Queneau has populated Paris with strange, smart, savvy, and outlandish people. Her Uncle Gabriel, in particular, is a delight. Albertine. Trouscallion. Truandot. They all stay around after the final page is turned. The book is inventive enough to succeed, even though it could have been incredibly off-putting. Have you ever read a book where the author tries to invent a new language just so the characters speak in their own lexicon? Without giving specific examples, it can be a slog. Not everyone can speak like Zazie. Not every author can create something new but still readable as Nadsat.

The novel being a smash hit in France meant there had to be a film. The French don’t make movies, they make film. But how could a book like this ever be translated from literary to the visual? Louis Malle, one of the most celebrated makers of film ever to emerge from the French New Wave apparently managed it, or so I read online. I bought a box set from Fopp in Glasgow and decided to see how he tacked the book. Honestly? I was astonished. It’s like watching a live action cartoon, a pure Pop Art extravaganza. Paris is beautiful, of course. Even Michael Winner would struggle to make it look like shit, but Louis Malle makes it dreamy, speeding up shots, slowing the down again. The inventiveness of the novel is equalled onscreen, but in a totally different way. I might have enjoyed it more than the book it came from, actually,

The trailer for the film version of the book.
My favourite shot of the entire film. This is how I ride a bicycle.

Really, Zazie dans le Métro fully deserves the classic status the readers bestowed on it. The film, likewise. Read the book. See the film. Throw yourself into a brighter, sillier version of Paris. If not because I say so, then because of Joe Meno. Did I say he’s an awfully good writer?

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