classic books (number 3):
exercises de style by raymond queneau, editions gallimard 1947 (1958 translation by barbara wright)
in a bus of the s-line, 10 metres long, 3 wide, 6 high, at 3 km. 600 m. from its starting point, loaded with 48 people, at 12.17 pm., a person of the masculine sex aged 27 years 3 months and 8 days, 1 m. 72 cm. tall and weight 65 kg. and wearing a hat 35 cm. in height round the crown of which was a ribbon 60 cm. long, interpellated a man aged 48 years 4 months and 3 days, 1 m. 68 cm. tall and weighing 77 kg., by means of 14 words whose enunciation lasted 5 seconds and which alluded to some involuntary displacements of from 15 to 20 mm. then he went and sat down about 1 m. 10 cm. away.
57 minutes later he was 10 metres away from the suburban entrance to the gate saint-lazare and was walking up and down over a distance of 30 m. with a friend aged 28, 1 m. 70 cm. tall and weighing 71 kg. who advised him in 15 words to move by 5 cm. in the direction of the zenith a button which was 3 cm. in diameter.
precision (page 37-38)
in the introduction to the 1963 edition, queneau explains that the idea for the exercises came to him in the 1930s, after he and his friend michel leiris had attended a concert at the salle pleyel where bach's the art of the fugue had been played. what particularly struck queneau about this piece was that, although based on a rather slight theme, its variations "proliferated almost to infinity." it would be interesting, he thought, to create a similar work of literature.
(from barbara wright's notes for the 1981 american paperback edition)