cover image The Skin of Dreams

The Skin of Dreams

Raymond Queneau, trans. from the French by Chris Clarke. NYRB Classics, $16.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-68137-770-4

This breezy and witty episodic novel from Queneau (1903–1976), originally published in 1944 and newly translated by Clarke, chronicles the episodic adventures of a young dreamer. Jacques L’Aumône is the son of a hosiery manufacturer in Rueil, an unexciting Paris suburb. He has an active fantasy life, projecting himself into the roles of cinematic heroes or singling out people on the street to follow, “less to learn about that person than to wear them for a few minutes.” As the story unfolds, Jacques imagines a boxing career, toys with a fanciful scheme to engineer a race of giant lice, has his heart broken, and strikes out for a career in the movies. His sole abiding commitment, however, remains imagining alternate lives for himself. Within this loose bildungsroman framework, Queneau draws amusing and kindhearted portraits of those in Jacques’s orbit, most memorably a cuckolded provincial poet who has an “existential illness” he calls ontalgia (“like asthma only it’s more distinguished”). The occasional antiquated expression (e.g., “right in the kisser,” “peepers”) can make the text feel fusty, but Clarke generally has a nimble way with Queneau’s wordplay and neologisms. This winning satire demonstrates the rewards of cultivating one’s imagination. (Jan.)