Saturday, August 08, 2009

'The Flight of Icarus'

by Raymond Queneau
(Original title: Le Vol d'Icare)
Fiction, 1968 (English translation, 1973)
Oneworld Classics, trade pb, 164 p.
Translated from the French by Barbara Wright
In late-nineteenth-century Paris, the writer Hubert is shocked to discover that Icarus, the protagonist of the new novel he’s working on, has vanished. Looking for him among the manuscripts of his rivals does not solve the mystery, so a detective is hired to find the runaway character, who is now in Montparnasse, where he learns to drink absinthe and is picked up by a friendly prostitute.
These hilarious adventures make Queneau’s novel, presented in the form of a script and parodying various genres, one of the best literary jokes in modern literature.
I’d heard of Raymond Queneau before and I believe I even have a couple of his most well-known books, in French (Zazie dans le métro, and Exercices de style) that I still imagine I might read someday, but The Flight of Icarus was my first direct experience of his writing, albeit in English. I have to say right off the bat that I am in complete awe of the translator, Barbara Wright! Queneau seems to love puns, alliteration and generally playing with unusual words and she did a fantastic job keeping the witty, playful prose that I imagine is in the original. Just… wow!
She had this to say in the Translator’s Note at the beginning:
The man in the street takes it that when he reads a book in translation he is simply reading an exact replica of the original in a language he happens to understand. The ideal translation sustains him in this illusion.
I agree, and while I'm no expert on translation, I feel that she succeeded.

The story too was very fun to read. Basically the main character of a manuscript in progress goes missing and hilarity ensues, with duels in the park, romantic misunderstandings, pranks, and various adventures. I recently talked about how much I enjoy Jasper Fforde’s wacky imagination and this reminded me of Fforde’s books quite a bit, although of course Queneau’s work predates Fforde’s. I occasionally felt it was almost too witty and clever for this unsophisticated reader, but I still found myself smiling or chuckling throughout.

I’ve never studied Greek mythology so I’m going to admit my ignorance here but in a little bit of reading synchronicity, I first learned about the Greek tale of Icarus just a couple of months ago. Early on in Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel, the main character Lilia refers to a print by Matisse, ‘The Fall of Icarus’, which prompted me to look it up and the myth behind it. I’m very glad I did because it definitely added another layer to my understanding and enjoyment of this amusing story. Queneau also makes a nod to the play by Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which from the title alone sounds equally intriguing, and which I’m now curious to read as well.
Final verdict: A highly entertaining, intelligent novel.

Thank you to Clémence and Oneworld Classics for the opportunity to read this book.

First sentence: On the papers – no sign of Icarus: between them - ditto.

Buy this book at: | |

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#41 for 2009, Orbis Terrarum Challenge, Lost in Translation Challenge, ARC Reading Challenge)

Also reviewed at:
If you've reviewed this title too, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. My education is terribly lacking when it come to mythology. I'm glad to know I'm not alone. Amazing that the writing reminds you of Fforde. That makes me want to read this one.

  2. I don't think I'm familiar with this author at all. This sounds so interesting. And it goes to show just how important a good translator can be.

  3. Booklogged - It was a very fun read and with the main character escaping his book and going on an adventure, I couldn't help but think of Fforde's series. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one too who is lacking in knowledge of mythology. :)

    Wendy - It was such a fun premise! I was really impressed with the translation of this one, and that definitely let me enjoy it more.


Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love hearing from you and I read every single one!

P.S. In an effort to eliminate spam, I moderate all comments, so there will most likely be a delay between when you submit the comment and when it appears on the post. Please let me know if you have any trouble leaving comments here, and you can also chat with me on Twitter, if you prefer. Happy Reading!