I. An Audacious Undertaking
Months ago I decided that I wanted to write about the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, the French avant-garde group better known as the OuLiPo. I had read Queneau’s Exercises in Style one afternoon a few years ago, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual in an early graduate seminar, and the same author’s W, or The Memory of Childhood during a very long airplane ride. Offhand, I could tell you that the OuLiPo was co-conceived by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960 as a kind of literary dinner club for writers, mathematicians, and other intellectuals interested in playing with language—via anagrams and palindromes, for starters—and literary forms—from established ones like sonnets to modified ones like irrational sonnets to invented ones like the belle absente. Members you might have heard of include, besides Queneau and Perec, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Roubaud, Harry Mathews, and Italo Calvino. The group is still active today.
All I would need to do to produce a competent post on the OuLiPo, then, was pick up some of the central texts and check out some essays and interviews. Right? Well, as with any worthwhile pursuit, the more I read, the less able I felt to talk about what I had read—because the more I learned, the more I realized how much I had yet to learn. And the more I knew about the OuLiPo, the more I knew how much I may never know about the OuLiPo.
I had already made promises, binding in various degrees, to several important parties—my editor (for example), my readers (in my previous post), myself (damnit!)—that I would write about the OuLiPo. But my wings weren’t built for the altitude to which I’d pitched myself. Then I came across Oulipian Marcel Bénabou and the insight he offers up near the end of his wonderfully charming and cheeky meditation on the difficulties of writing, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books: “Thus, writing that one would like to write is already writing. Writing that one cannot write is still writing. One way as good as another of accomplishing the reversal that is at the origin of so many audacious undertakings: making of the peripheral the central, of the incidental the essential, of the scrap rock the cornerstone.”
So maybe I too could make something essential of my own incidental struggle to parse the OuLiPo, take that which I could—probably—have hidden (would you have thought I could read French? understand calculus?) and, instead, hide behind it, looking through.
II. Ad Libitum
Thinking it would make a good lead-in to my planned OuLiPo post, last month I wrote about Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a novel devoid of the letter E. Even as I drafted that post, reading up on the group I came across American Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker’s discussion of La Disparition in his book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature. I admit I was at least a little embarrassed when I read that while La Disparition isn’t “Perec’s best work by a long shot, or even his most monumental,” it’s “the first example you’ll usually hear of an Oulipian work because it’s the simplest to explain.” Alas, wasn’t I guilty of retreating into the safety of such simplicity? Further—and worse?—I had to face the fact that even though the “word constraint… is not the optimal way to sum up what the Oulipo does,” in my post I had used the word “constraint” six times!
It seems the preferred example among actual Oulipians of what the group is and does is a book of poems by Raymond Queneau—“the first truly oulipian work,” according to Levin Becker, who describes it better than I could:
Cent mille milliards de poèmes (One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) consists of ten sonnets, each containing fourteen lines of identical scansion and rhyme—that is, the first line of each poem is twelve syllables long and ends with the ease sound (chemise, frise, marquise), so that the first line of the second poem can be substituted into the first poem, and vice versa, ad libitum. Each poem fits on a single page, which is then cut into fourteen strips, one for each line, such that the reader can mix and match between ten different possibilities for each of fourteen lines—yielding 1014, or one hundred trillion, potential poems: a corpus that would take a dedicated reader, by Queneau’s estimations, 190,258,751 years to exhaust.
These are potential poems, as Levin Becker says; remember that the Po in OuLiPo stands for Potentielle—it’s the “workshop for potential literature.” So in its early years the group privileged the devising of form(ula)s, rules, and constraints (yes, constraints) that could potentially yield a nearly infinite variety of results over the results themselves; these resulting texts, because they could be considered finished, closed, and so no longer “potential,” were merely the “non-essential bonus[es]” of the group’s work. But this emphasis shifted, Levin Becker explains, with the addition of three “truly gifted writers” to the group in the late ’sixties and early ’seventies: Perec, Italo Calvino, and Harry Mathews. “From then on,” Levin Becker says, “the workshop began to be about writing first and asking questions later; for its most eager participants, it became desirable above all to write the text you conceived, rather than just suppose what it might be like if you or someone else ever wrote it.”
III. Five (Or So) Obstructions
It’s this shift in the group’s attitude, I suppose, that’s to blame for the imposing rank of uncracked translated-from-the-French spines on my bookshelf. But how hard it is to keep up! And not only because the time it would take to get through just the first item of the growing OuLiPo bibliography is best measured on the geologic time scale. No, there are other obstructions, too, and the more I pondered how to make this stuff accessible to you, my readers, the more I had to confront the question of the OuLiPo’s accessibility, both in general and for me personally.
First, let me not pretend that I don’t have to check the spellings of words like ouvroir and potentielle every time I write them. In an interview with The Paris Review, Harry Mathews says that it’s “hard for any reader who doesn’t share the writer’s native language to understand what a writer is doing.” True enough, I’d say, but questions of language and translation become crucial when reading the OuLiPo, for one thing because so much of the group’s work is rooted in wordplay: for instance reading A Void, Gilbert Adair’s English version of Perec’s La Disparition, I never would have caught on to the fact that asphyxiation kills off some of the characters because in French sans air sounds like sans r, a play on the book’s E-less-ness. I was disappointed to learn, too, that many of the workshop’s texts are unavailable in English, either (I suspect) because of the marketplace’s hostility toward the avant-garde or because these texts wouldn’t survive the linguistic transplantation.
But say I learned French, which, conceivably, I could—would I be prepared to master the OuLiPo then? Not likely, without the means to travel to Paris, where the group gives its monthly Thursday readings at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Paris is also where they hold their regular meetings (invitation only). Every summer in Bourges, central France, non-members can study constrained writing for a week under writers like Hervé Le Tellier, Ian Monk, or Jacques Jouet; the workshops are “open to anyone who cares to pay a couple hundred euros to learn about sestinas and lipograms from the masters” (Levin Becker).
Thinking about these obstructions, I start to feel a bit helpless, like Bénabou himself, who writes of “despis[ing] the fate that had caused [him] to be born at a time choked to such an extent with books and writers” and who recognizes that he is “not responsible for the time of [his] coming into the world.” If only my maman had produced me in some Parisian hôpital! If only my relationship with mathematics, like so many other adolescent couplings, hadn’t been destined to dissolve on my graduating high school! (Really, without a little research, I wouldn’t know how to tell you, in conversation, the title of Jacques Roubaud’s first collection of poetry, ∈.) Not to mention the formidable level of general erudition common among OuLiPo members: word is that Le Lionnais’s library contained not 2,500 books but 2,500 chess books, among multiple cellars, at least, of others.
Finally, there’s the exclusivity institutionalized by OuLiPo protocol. Admission to the group comes about only when one is invited in or “co-opted,” and the bylaws allow for only twelve living members at a given time (dead members are still members, making the current total 38, including only five women). The kicker, though? Merely wanting in can be fatal to the fulfillment of that desire: “anyone who asks to be a member of the Oulipo thereupon becomes inadmissible for life” (Levin Becker).
IV. Fetchingly Non-Utilitarian Possibilities
But wait. Mathews also tells The Paris Review that even though translation can be a barrier, he doesn’t “think there is such a thing as misinterpretation.” He then recites Blake’s “The Sick Rose”—I was impressed—to make the point that “the meaning of the poem is in the reading of the poem. Doesn’t the Blake affect you? It affects me. Obviously something is happening there, but to say why it’s happening or what it means in terms of paraphrase doesn’t matter.” I had read (and been affected by) Mathews’s own novel The Conversions the same way, and to find out that “there are many things [Mathews has] written that [he] didn’t really understand until a long time later” is quite liberating, if you ask me.
What else is liberating is realizing that just as Queneau’s hundred trillion sonnets literally cannot be read in their entirety, trying to “master” a group like the OuLiPo is impossible—and if it’s impossible, then there’s no reason to beat yourself up over not being able do it. I once had a professor who would ask the class if we’d read this or that book, and when we inevitably said we hadn’t, he would shrug and say, “Well, it’s in your future.” The idea of that future is comforting: embrace its potentiality. Even Levin Becker, the group’s newest member, is willing to say that “each real-life encounter [he has] had with the group so far has reminded [him] that there’s still a great deal [he doesn’t] know about it.”
And despite the arguably masturbatory aspect of the OuLiPo (Queneau famously described the group as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”), I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the ways in which the OuLiPo and its work is all about accessibility and public service. Not only for those writers and works who have found a home in the oulipian worldview (if not on the group’s official roster)—Christian Bök’s collection of poetry Eunoia, Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel Mulligan Stew, Matt Madden’s book of comics 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, or Lars von Trier’s film The Five Obstructions—but also for amateur writers or even non-writers (see also: Ou-X-Po). Levin Becker describes those present at one of the Bourges pedagogical retreats as “a non-trivial number of people newly sensitized to something in the language they speak and hear every day, newly fluent in its inherent and fetchingly non-utilitarian possibilities.” Paul Fournel, another member, puts it this way: “Take ten people and ask them to write an unforgettable poem, and you will in all likelihood be met with enduring silence. Ask them to write a poem without the letter E and there they are at work already, pushed forward by curiosity and challenge.” And by the time they finish, the thinking is, the task will have tapped into their hidden potential, and they will have said something they didn’t know they could, or needed to.
Because even I know more than I could possibly say in this constrained space, let me direct any further interest to some of the books to which I am indebted for what I do know, and where you can learn much more:
Photo credits: mhpbooks.com, nebraskapress.unl.edu, goodreads.com, nickm.com, and shangrilatextosaparteblog.blogspot.com.