Zazie dans le Métro

P is for Paris. 
This is one of the most unusual children’s books you’ll ever read. Some might say it’s more than a children’s book; a piece of micro modernism to file alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses or a junior Bout de Soufflé. Zazie dans le Métro is all these things, it is also the sort of thing I’d have loved to read as a young adult.

Twelve year old Zazie arrives in Paris for the weekend with her mum, who hooks up with her toyboy and dumps her with uncle Gabriel, a hard drinking cross-dressing ballerina who works nights in a gay night club. Poor child! Poor uncle Gabriel more like. For Zazie is the sort of child who, in the words of one of her victims, could ‘get the mountains to go to war’.

When asked about her future job opportunities, Zazie surprises her relatives by her intention to go into teaching. Why?

‘So I can beat the shit outa the brats … the kids will be pissin’ their pants when they see me comin’. I’ll shove the blackboard eraser down their throat and the compass up their pipe. I’ll make ’em lick the floor, I’ll kick ’em with boots – yessir, army boots with spurs that big! – and I’ll tear their fannies to shreds.’

But Zazie needs all her sass to outwit the many shit heads, sex fiends and sonnofabitches she encounters as she navigates her way around Paris, sometimes with her uncle but often alone. She always comes out on top, even when she’s being groomed by the man who introduces himself as Surplus Pedro, swiping from him a pair of fashionable American bloochinnz, or is it blugenes? Or possibly bloojinz?

Raymond Quineau takes delicious liberties with the French language, as Carol King writes in her review, he ‘attempts to free the French language of its rigid shackles.’ There’s an anarchic, almost ‘jazz’ quality to his writing, catching riffs and knocking the reader off balance in the same way Zazie does to the poor people of Paris.

I’ve not read the french, but the english translation from Olympia Press is certainly faithful to Queneau’s radical intentions. His curious publisher published it as part of the ‘Travellers Companion’ series that also published esteemed works like Nabakov’s Lolita, William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and Henry Miller’s Plexus. Many of these green covered books were banned in the UK, but sold to English tourists eager for a bit of mucky holiday reading. What they got was so much more.

Zazie has endured possibly because of the film version that followed soon after its publication. Directed by Louis Malle, it’s not to everyone’s taste – David Thomson describes it as ‘crushingly unfunny’. And initially I was unsure, but about half way through, during a dizzying scene on the Eiffel Tower something clicked and I tuned in to the artful slapstick and relentless camera trickery. Richard Lester, on his way to making A Hard Days Night was a fan, as were Monty Python and Richard Ayoade has recently said it’s his favourite film.

No such quibbles about the energetic line drawings from Jacqueline Duhême though. Having apprenticed under Matisse and collaborated with some of France’s most esteemed post war poets she lets loose here, providing dozens of rude little sketches in the margins. As Queneau gets lost in his wordplay, the pictures come to the rescue, showing us what we’re missing behind the circular conversations that buzz around Zazie.

I’m about to give away the last line, but don’t worry – it’s not really the point of the book. Zazie eventually reunites with her mother who has finally exhausted her young lover. ‘What didja do?’ she asks her daughter. ‘I aged.’ Zazie replies. It’s an enigmatic line, and one that’s been taken literally by several reviewers, but I didn’t see it that way. Zazie is a coming of age story, but any growing up she does, isn’t making her a more rounded person, it’s simply adding to her essential Zazieness. She’s already fully formed, a classic literary bad girl if ever I’ve met one.


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