How Queneau took over

In April 2008 I was starting to think about a new project, for Christmas that year. It was something along the lines of 10x10x100, although the exact details are difficult to remember.

I know I'd been given Queaneau's Exercises in Style (in translation, obviously) as a birthday present by my friend Richard. It had struck a chord: the twin notions of working in miniature and working in small multiples have always been important to me; the Exercises encapsulated both. And so, my head full of ideas, I took the book on holiday to Spain for what I think was my mother's 60th birthday party.

At the party I was co-opted to play the guitar. I rarely play the guitar these days, and I'm really quite badly out of practice. But that hardly seemed to matter, and I was far more of a hit than I expected or indeed deserved. But one of the songs I didn't accompany - but which people sang among themselves - was a version of Show Me The Way To Go Home, rewritten with circumlotionary synonyms dropped in place of original words. You'll have heard it: it's all very Latinate and ornate, somewhere in the orbits of Precious and Noble. We all eventually escaped into the night and soon after - possibly that very evening as we walked away from the pensionistas club on the sea front - I mentioned to K. that I had an urge to do something similar.

I liked the idea of variations on a theme - two or three different versions had been sung in sequence - coupled with something folky and unpretentious; there might be fun to be had in the juxtaposition of a high-concept Oulipian idea with an old music-hall tune. The original has basically become a piece of lacquered folk music: even those who sing it in pubs, sing it half-jokingly these days; meanwhile, pop culture continues to refer to it and re-hash it, either affectionately or with a studied archness.

Something clicked, then. Here was a structure, handed to me by Queneau - who almost certainly had no particular plan when he began his own variations - into which I could fit my own work. Here was a vindication of my own wish to construct the small multiple, that not only could it work to produce something which might approach (however remotely) literature, but that it could be something which my parents' friends, consisting largely of not-at-all bookish ex-pats, might appreciate.

At that point, Queneau took over all my existing, completely. It sounds like such a silly idea, even now; but it utterly supplanted everything else I had been thinking of. And later, the misery of being 2/3 through but running out of steam: that blocked all other work too. Only on finishing it, boxing it up, exorcising it: only then have I been able to get back to 10x10x100.