In the 1920s Raymond Queneau went to Paris for his final days of formal education. He kept a detailed journal of his time there and in 1936 he wrote this autobiographical novel based on those years as a student in Paris. Times had changed. In 1936 the threat of imminent war hung over Europe, and so even though he was writing about relatively carefree student days in Paris the tinge of the times he was experiencing in 1936 had an influence on the novel. Calling the 1920s The Last Days
I think definitely indicates the state of mind of not only Queneau, but the French people in general. They were starting to understand that the The War to End all Wars
was going to be indicated with a roman numeral very soon.
Monsieur Brabbant and Monsier Tolut are standing together watching it rain. They are of the older generation represented in this novel. Both could be considered con men, but of different stripes. Brabbant is intent on achieving the big score by hook or by crook. Tolut is mired in guilt for all the years he taught school children geography and yet didn't know a blessed thing about the subject. "You'd think it was oil, wouldn't you? Personally, I don't call this weather, I call it oil."
"What d'you expect--its been like this ever since the war. The shells have played havoc with the seasons. Think back to the prewar Octobers. There was real rain, then. And the sun, where there was sun, it was real sun. Whereas these days it's all mixed up--the dishcloths with the napkins and Christmas with Midsummer. These days there's nothing to tell you when to wear your overcoat or when to leave it off."
Vincent Tuquedenne our hero and the character representing the young Raymond Queneau arrives in Paris. He is very serious about reading, but not very serious about his studies. When Vincent Tuquedenne got off the Le Havre train he was shy, an individualist, an anarchist and an atheist. He didn't wear glasses he was shortsighted, and he was letting his hair grow in order to display his opinions. All this had come to him from reading books, a lot of books, an enormous amount of books.
Vincent has friends, but he does not seek them out. He doesn't mind people he just prefers books. His head is permanently clouded with ideas and his friends misinterpret his impression of them. And Turquedenne?
Oh him! We don't see him much these days. We only meet him by chance. And then he looks down on us from the heights of his grandeur. No kidding. We are only poor unfortunate medical students, whereas he reads Saint Thomas in Latin and knows which way up to look at a cubist painting. It's obvious; you can see why he despises us.
In truth, Turquedenne has his own issues. He can't get laid. He doesn't seem to understand the concept of wooing. He feels that romantic love is a cosmic event where his presence is all that is necessary for a woman to fall into his arms. He also inexplicably fails his first exams.
Alfred is by far my favorite character in the book. He is a waiter who has spent an enormous amount of time conceiving a system involving the planets that will allow him to successfully retrieve his family money that was squandered at the race track by his father. He does provide help to the slippery Monsieur Brabbant also know as Martin-Martin. Whenever Brabbant dreams a new scheme he races over to Alfred for guidance.
The older generations, naturally, become obsessed with dying and the afterlife and as they begin to attend the funerals of their contemporaries. Queneau uses their maudlin state of mind to explore what comes next. Let me tell you, monsieur, that while hell may perhaps exist heaven certainly does not exist.
That's very sad, what you've just said.
Sad but true.
I wonder how you came to think such things.
My whole life has led me think that. What if I was mistaken though? What if, on the other hand, my whole life...You think it exists, heaven? I'm asking you as man to man, I'm asking you for an honest answer.
It doesn't exist.
The novel explores the generational rift exposing the thorns of the older generation and the uncertainty of the younger generation. This novel can be read on many different levels. You can read it as a novel of philosophical ideas or you can read it as a pleasant autobiographical novel of a bright young man coming of age in Paris. I can tell the book will gain weight with each reread. It has certainly inspired me to read more Raymond Queneau. I also find the pictures that Queneau had taken below to be...intriguing.