Miles Kington: There is more than one way to tell a simple story

He gets to the kitchen, opens the fridge and says: 'What was I looking for, anyway?' That's it. Nothing else...
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The Independent Online

In 1947 the French novelist Raymond Queneau did something that no other writer has ever done, I think. He wrote a theme and variations. Ninety-nine variations, to be precise. The book was called Exercices de Style. The theme was a scrap of story about a man getting on a bus and arguing with a fellow passenger, then reappearing an hour later in another part of Paris discussing a missing button on his overcoat. That's it. Twenty lines at most. And Queneau then retells the story 99 different ways.

For instance, as an official letter. "Dear Sir, I have the honour to inform you that yesterday, on the bus, I witnessed a curious incident ..." Or as a book review. "Most of the action of the story takes place on a bus in central Paris..." Or as a play. "Act One, Scene one. A bus in Paris..."

In one version labelled "Reactionary", the narrator adopts a right-wing tone. "The bus was full, of course, and the conductor extremely disagreeable. I blame the eight-hour working day, personally. And nationalisation. And the French. Do you know the trouble with the French? They are disorganised and they have no sense of civic pride. If they were organised, they wouldn't need to take little numbered bits of paper while waiting for a bus. Hopeless. Anyway, there were 10 of us waiting for the bus..."

Being French, Queneau also does some intellectual tricks, such as rephrasing it in a mathematical formula, Latin verse, French alexandrines, and so on. It's a virtuoso display. It's not as grand as Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, but it has the same kind of wit and spread, and I know nothing like it.

Well, not till now, at any rate, because someone else has done the same trick, in drawings instead of words. The American graphic artist Matt Madden has produced a book called Ninety-Nine Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises in Style, which is inspired by and dedicated to Raymond Queneau, and is published over here by Jonathan Cape.

The story-line is even simpler than Queneau's. A man working at his desk gets up and goes downstairs. En route, his wife (unseen) asks what the time is and he says "1.15". He gets to the kitchen, opens the fridge and says: "What the hell was I looking for, anyway?" That's it. Nothing else.

Madden then redraws this storyline in 99 different styles, never more than a page long. Some are quite grand, like the colour version à la Bayeux Tapestry (with real Latin!). Many are pastiches of different comic styles: a war comic, a superhero strip or a science fiction adventure. (A lovely Krazy Kat pastiche, for instance.) Some are punning in different ways, as in the version called "A Life", where the main figure is a baby in the opening frame and an old man on his deathbed in the last...

I am not going to go on about it, because I think everyone should rush out and buy it, and that's that. Madden's drawing is workmanlike rather than inspired, but his endless ideas for redrawing the story are brilliant. I am afraid to say that although I got down my hallowed and dusty copy of Queneau's book to reread for this piece, I got far more pleasure from the Matt Madden book than the French original.

This format used to be mandatory for composers of the 1800s, of course, as in Mozart's variations on the tune of "Baa Baa Black Sheep" which so many past piano pupils will remember. Weber, Schubert, they all did it. Beethoven wrote variations on "God Save the King", which I learnt for a piano exam at school, and I can still remember the head of music saying to me: "What on earth can have possessed Beethoven to waste time doing variations on such a boring tune?"

But writers? Has anyone else ever done this theme and variations? I dimly remember that Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called "Twenty Four Ways of Looking at a Blackbird". I also recall that GK Chesterton rewrote "Old King Cole" in the style of different poets. Is that really it? Can readers think of any other examples of writers doing theme and variations? If you can, let me know. If you can't, just get the Matt Madden book. You won't regret it.