Reading in Reverse [Part II of III]
Following up on Monday’s post, here’s the second part of Matt Rowe’s essay on Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels.
Part II of Many Subtle Channels is an entertaining survey of the group’s origins and its chief personalities. Levin Becker recounts the exploits of many literary pranksters, some of them told only in the group’s archives in the Arsenal branch of the Bibliothéque Nationale de France, others in obscure French volumes not yet translated. He has a novelist’s knack for dense description; here’s Hervé Le Tellier:
But Le Tellier isn’t quite the prankster he seems to be, nor is he as mean as very funny people sometimes seem. His books, which run the gamut from quick-and-dirty pastiche to lofty academic discourse, barely conceal a sentimentality both poignant and endearing; in person he has a magnetism that’s all brooding humor and sniperlike wit, and you get the sense that for him keeping the room in thrall is second nature, not because it’s fun but because it’s emotionally necessary. He is forever late, distracted, shabbily put together, despite all of which there is an ineffable seductive quality about him. (He also has this tic where every third blink or so is a veritable flutter of eyelashes, which probably helps a little.)
Indeed, this middle section might be Levin Becker’s contribution to “the unwritten, collective, and necessarily unfinishable novel that [Roubaud] believes the Oulipo to be.” It was, after all, written by an Oulipian—although that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written according to an oulipian constraint. As good as these stories are, they make the reader long to read full and proper biographies, or a more comprehensive history.
Levin Becker is good on the history of the group—some of his archive work must have rubbed off. For the first time I’ve read a coherent telling of the Oulipo’s relation to the Collège de ’Pataphysique (to the extent that anything ’pataphysical can be coherent). The explanation of the role of Bourbaki—not as direct a connection, but a clear source of inspiration—is less satisfactory. This is certainly because the people behind Nicholas Bourbaki, a joint pseudonym for a group of mathematicians who restructured mathematics around set theory and changed the way math is taught in France, were 1) mathematicians and 2) serious in their intention, at least considerably more so than the Oulipo, let alone ’Pataphysics. Levin Becker is no mathematician and Many Subtle Channels doesn’t attempt to explain more than basic combinatorics. Some of the constraints could be fairly easily dispatched with a diagram, such as the eodermdrome described in a text-only footnote. (This site gives a good explanation, with diagrams.) But there are no diagrams or photographs or equations in Many Subtle Channels, just words. One wonders whether that was one of Levin Becker’s constraints in writing the book, and if so whether it was chosen by the author or imposed by his publisher.
Mathematics was more central to the Oulipo’s early work. Now, more and more, the mathematicians work in the background as the writings and performances of the group and its members take center stage. Most of the early Oulipians did not create significant bodies of written work; the group concentrated on anoulipism, finding predecessors and explicating theories. Only after nearly a decade did the group “go public,” expanding to include Roubaud, Perec, Calvino, and Mathews and publishing an ongoing series of anthologies under the name Oulipo rather than those of the individual authors. Preserving and refining the definition of the Oulipo itself became one of the group’s purposes. This is also the point where the group’s focus turned from analysis to synthesis, from found potential to created potential. Now the Oulipo “brand” overshadows many of its members’ individual identities.
While Levin Becker describes those personalities well, what Many Subtle Channels lacks are detailed examples of their work. If the Oulipo is such fun, then show us, don’t just tell. For example, he mentions in a footnote that Harry Mathews’ variations on Hamlet’s soliloquy are a “delightful introduction” to the group’s work—but then quotes only three out of thirty-five variations and doesn’t say where the rest can be found. (They’re in The State of Constraint, the 128-page anthology which makes up one-third of McSweeney’s issue 22.) Many other curious works are more complex than could be shown or explained in a page or two (though the descriptions alone of Anne Garréta’s work have convinced me to read it)—but Levin Becker could at least point us to what has been translated and published.
There isn’t a proper English-language Oulipo anthology, one that simply delights readers with the group’s playful products rather than intimidating them with the scaffolding used to produce it. Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie’s Oulipo Compendium, as wonderful as it is, contains more biography, history, and theory than examples. Warren Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature collects mostly early anoulipism, essays and descriptions rather than samples of synthoulipism. The 1995 volume Oulipo Laboratory is out of print, and the 2001 collection Winter Journeys (of which more later) is a limited edition. The State of Constraint (the McSweeney’s collection) focuses on recent work and thus omits Perec, Queneau, and Calvino, the names most likely to attract someone to the Oulipo. Many Subtle Channels could be greatly improved by the simple addition of a listing of key works or recommended anthologies: a bibliography of further reading. To rectify this, I can point you to Stephanie Sobelle’s list at Bookforum, Scott Esposito’s at Conversational Reading, and the combination anthology/homage that appeared as a feature in the web journal Drunken Boat.
Levin Becker doesn’t even give the address of the Oulipo’s official website, Oulipo.net. Yes, it’s in French—but of the examples included quite a few, such as the punning band name “Grosses bises style nage indienne,” require some understanding of French to really get the joke. The book should focus on either introducing and explaining the Oulipo to English-only readers, or welcoming those already converted to a more intimate view; alas, it can’t do both. There’s actually a huge number of Oulipian works available in English translation, in addition to those by Mathews, Monk, and others written in English. Harry Mathews is on the board of Dalkey Archive Press, and they publish his works as well as many by Roubaud, Queneau, and Jouet. Perec, mostly translated by David Bellos, is mostly published by David R. Godine; other works by Queneau are at New Directions and NYRB Classics. These are all small, independent presses. As befits the only member with a major literary reputation before/outside of the Oulipo, translations of Calvino are published by Harcourt and Pantheon, imprints of “Big Six” firms. In a recent interview Levin Becker says he’s presently translating Perec’s La Boutique obscure, a dream journal, so his omission of some basic pointers to translations is curious.
Many Subtle Channels actually does a better job of pointing out oulipian works by non-members, like Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels, Christian Bök’s Eunoia, Doug Nufer’s Negativeland and Never Again, Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, and Tom La Farge’s work with the Brooklyn-based Writhing Society. There is a nice if brief section on Oulipo’s most apparent “plagiarist by anticipation,” Raymond Roussel; nearly all of Harry Mathews’ work could be said to be in dialogue with Roussel, and Oulipo has also laid claim to him in the form of a biography by François Caradec, translated by Ian Monk. Lewis Carroll comes in for a nod, and Júlio Cortázar was apparently almost invited to be a member several times. Several other famous writers have taken a benevolent interest in the Oulipo, including Umberto Eco, Martin Gardner, and Douglas Hofstadter—which has certainly boosted attention and readership, but their work is mostly Oulipo Light, just playing language games. But Levin Becker leaves out some para-oulipian work I would consider serious and essential, like Paul Griffiths’ Let Me Tell You, a novella written in the voice of Hamlet’s Ophelia—literally her voice, using only those words she speaks in the play. Haryette Mullens’ Sleeping with the Dictionary was inspired by oulipian techniques. Jorge Luis Borges and Stanisław Lem and Milorad Pavić and Osman Lins should probably be on any list of Oulipo contemporaries who neglected to actually become members. David Mitchell’s novels experiment with structure more visibly than anything since If on a winter’s night a traveler, and César Aira’s “flight forward” procedure has been a tremendously productive constraint for him. But, because they didn’t or don’t live in Paris or work in French or expect to enjoy the company of its members at monthly drunken dinners, these writers are not officially part of the Oulipo.
There are any number of offshoots of the Oulipo idea—from OuMuPo for music and OuPeinPo for painting to OuWiPo for Wikipedia and OuTyPo for typography. Most are more closely associated with the Collège de ’Pataphysique than with Oulipo itself, and in any case they have little of the cultural traction of the mothership. An exception may be OuBaPo, which works with comics (bandes désinées); its founder Étienne Lécroart was coopted into the Oulipo proper after Many Subtle Channels went to press. But OuBaPo-America and its founder Matt Madden, whose 99 Ways to Tell A Story brilliantly adapts the structure of Queneau’s Exercises in Style to the comic form, gets only a side note.
The Oulipo is French; there’s almost no mention of its thriving Italian counterpart, the OpLePo. In critical and academic circles, no matter how respected Calvino’s earlier work, his oulipian “Paris period” is seen as “not the real Calvino.” The Oplepo was founded in 1990, after Calvino’s death, and while it cannot counteract the general Italian critical disdain, it does vindicate oulipian techniques in the work of writers such as Ermanno Cavazzoni and Paolo Albani while gaining respectability through the (willing) cooptation of established names like Eduardo Sanguineti and Piergiorgio Odifreddi. I’m particularly sensitive to the slighting of Calvino and Oplepo because I’m an Italian translator, and Calvino’s oulipian masterpiece If on a winter’s night a traveler (as translated by William Weaver) was my introduction to both Italian literature and Oulipo. Slighting the Italian coverage in Many Subtle Channels, Levin Becker seems to repeat the insult, though that certainly can’t have been his intention. It’s more likely that he just doesn’t read Italian.
Levin Becker gets closest to including some fully-worked-out examples of oulipian procedure in his chapter on attending the Oulipo’s summer workshop at Bourges. Still, they’re mostly described—told, not shown—and they’re examples of writing exercises, not published work. The Bourges workshop and much of “Oulipo Light” are primarily concerned with poetry. Poetry can be short, quick to write, and it provides an unintimidating frame for the display of metrical, rhyme, or other sound-related constraints. But while poetry draws fans to readings and performances, the big market for book publishers is in prose. Oulipian prose constraints typically work on a much larger scale, one that is harder to excerpt, explain, and anthologize. For instance, Jouet’s Fins offers 216 different endings (that’s 6^3, which should put you in mind of the six-centric sestina). Roubaud’s huge ‘the great fire of London’ is a seven-book project which Levin Becker describes as being “in a pseudo-autobiographical style filled with digressions and interpolations and bifurcations”—but he doesn’t explain the procedural constraint, similar to Aira’s “flight forward,” which forces the writing into these fractal contortions. It’s as though he doubts that what he calls “the absence of legerdemain, the transparency of thought” in Roubaud could possibly itself be his primary constraint.
In all, this middle historical and biographical section is excellent. Its chief frustration, other than the lack of recommendations for further reading, is that it makes us feel the lack of proper biographies of all these fascinating individuals, readable histories of ’Pataphysics and Bourbaki, and translations of all the Oulipo treasures still inaccessible to those who don’t read French—not to mention republication in French for those who don’t have a generous budget for hunting down the obscure original printings.