Queneau was born in Le Havre, Seine-Maritime, the only child of Auguste Queneau and Joséphine Mignot. After studying in Le Havre, Queneau moved to Paris in 1920 and received his first baccalauréat in 1925 for philosophy from the University of Paris. Queneau performed military service as a zouave in Algeria and Morocco during the years 1925–26. During the 1920s and 1930s Queneau took odd jobs for income such as bank teller, tutor, translator and some writing in a column entitled, "Connaissez-vous Paris?" for the daily Intransigeant. Queneau was drafted in August 1939 and served in small provincial towns before his promotion to corporal just before being demobilized in 1940. After a prolific career of writing, editing and critique, Queneau died on October 25, 1976.
He married Janine Kahn in 1928 after returning to Paris from the his first military service. Kahn was the sister-in-law of Andre Breton, leader of the surrealist movement. In 1934 they had a son, Jean-Marie, who became a painter. They remained married until Janine's death in 1972.
Queneau spent much of his life working for the Gallimard publishing house, where he began as a reader in 1938. He later rose to be general secretary and eventually became director of l'Encyclopédie de la Pléiade in 1956. During some of this time, he also taught at l'École Nouvelle de Neuilly. He entered the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in 1950, where he became Satrap.
During this time, Queneau also acted as a translator, notably for Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (L'Ivrogne dans la brousse) in 1953. Additionally, he edited and published Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Queneau had been a student of Kojève during the 1930s and was, during this period, also close to writer Georges Bataille.
As an author, Queneau came to general attention in France with the publication in 1959 of his novel Zazie dans le métro. In 1960 the film adaptation directed by Louis Malle was released during the Nouvelle Vague movement. Zazie explores colloquial language as opposed to "standard" written French. The first word of the book, the alarmingly long "Doukipudonktan" is a phonetic transcription of "D'où qu'ils puent donc tant?" – "How come they stink so much?".