Exercises in Baby Style

There are many less-than-attractive elements of baby-rearing. These are usually associated with a bodily fluid or high-pitched and/or incessant noises.

But there are also tremendous joys, many of which I wasn’t expecting. Among my favorites so far has been reading to Nico.

I’ve read her the Spanish translation of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and an original Spanish kids’ book called The Girl in the Paper Dress. We’ve both read to her from the book Marta’s reading now, The Private Life of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, and I’ve occasionally read her important news stories from the New York Times and El Pais.

My favorite text to read her so far, though, has been Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (English translation by Barbara Wright). It’s a book I had heard about forever, but never read. And it’s a book that, in many cases, really should be read out loud. Which is where a baby comes in perfect. They are like ready-made audiences.

For those of you who haven’t read it or haven’t read enough about it that you can pretend you’ve read it, Exercises in Style is basically an extended commentary on the rhetorics of storytelling. It begins with a rather unexciting story about a man who sees another man on a bus and that other man berates yet another man for supposedly stepping on his toes and then, after his outburst, he dashes to take an empty seat. The conclusion occurs when the narrator is on another bus and spots that first man outside a new bus station talking to a friend (also a man), who is overheard telling him he should move the position of the button on his coat.

Very uneventful indeed.

After that first telling, though, the story is retold 99 different times – and a couple dozen or so more times in the re-relase of the translation that was just put out by New Directions. These retellings all come with a different title. There is the “Retrograde” telling, in which the whole story is told in reverse. So we begin with the button advice and end with the man getting on the bus. There is the “Passive” version in which every sentence is told in the passive voice. So: “The bus was being got into by passengers.” There is an Ode and a Sonnet and a Telegraphic version, the last of which ends, of course, with “stop.”

The best ones to read to Nico, however, were the ones that incorporated the most arcane of phonological phenomenon. So in the “Syncope” version one or more sounds from the interior of each word is removed. The version reads as such: “I gt io bs full opssgers. I niced a youngn with a nesemataraffe and with a hathaplord.”

The “Epenthesis” telling adds sounds to the middle of each word while the “Metathesis” version, like the Argentinian slang Lunfardo, rearranges the syllable or letter ordering, a phenomenon quite close to the “Spoonerism” telling in which syllables or parts of a word are switched with that of a word that comes before or precedes it.  So: “One May about diday, on the bear fatborm of a plus, I maw a san wtih a nery vong leck and whose cat was enhircled by a pliece of straited pling.”

This is the type of literary word play that can either be enjoyable if you’re in the mood for it or aggravating and seem overly precious if not. If I had read the book along, to myself, I probably would have oscillated between those two poles. But reading such experiments out to a one-month old baby it was hard to feel anything short of pure, unadulterated joy a this thing called language.

My only fear now, of course, is that Nico will grow up speaking neither my English nor Marta’s Spanish but instead in Spoonerisms and Odes.

Though I probably shouldn’t worry. This was her “active listening” face during most of our reading sessions:


3 thoughts on “Exercises in Baby Style

  1. I have to admit that there are many more interesting Economic Texts to read to Nico that would put her to sleep faster than what you are suggesting,



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