Aside from every stupid Buzzfeed list ever, the number one link I’ve seen on my social media networks over the past few days has been to the new Words Without Borders issue. On the one hand, this is a testament to the amazingness of WWB; on the other, it illustrates that the vast majority of my friends are book nerds who like a little constraint with their writing.
This month we’re showcasing the sparkling innovations in form and literature produced by the members of the Oulipo. The Paris-based literary collective explores how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints, working within restrictions—alphabetical, narrative, rhythmic, metric—to set genres and language loose. Ian Monk’s tour of an apartment building maintains a strict numeric unity in lines and words. Olivier Salon travels through a gradually dwindling alphabet. Michèle Métail claims a chain of possessives, and Anne F. Garréta offers a rogue reading of Proust. In playing with poetic forms, Jacques Bens finds sonnets easy as pi, and Jacques Jouet extends the sestina. And François Caradec’s aphorisms offer less than meets the eye. Guest editor and translator Daniel Levin Becker provides a useful key to the considerations at play in both French and English versions. Join us in marveling at the verbal gymnastics of the writers, and at the dazzling ingenuity of the translators.
To regular readers of Three Percent, it’s clear that anything Oulipo would appeal to us—even more so if Daniel Levin Becker is involved. We’ve run a mini-dissertation on the Oulipo to tie into the publication of his book, Many Subtle Channels, and we also had him on a podcast to talk about the same thing. And with so many great Oulipians involved, this is guaranteed to be one of WWB’s great issues.
Sticking with DLB for a moment, and to give anyone who’s not already brain-deep in Oulipianism a bit more of a context, here’s an excerpt from the introduction to this issue:
As the prevailing image used by book reviewers to praise literary translations is that of transparency—limpid, pellucid, crystalline—it seems clear, so to speak, how ready we are to think of language as a window onto meaning. Whatever difficulties a translator may have encountered in carrying that meaning over into a new syntactic, lexical, and cultural idiom, we tend to expect his or her fingerprints to be wiped away by the time the text arrives before us, and for the resulting view to be more or less the same as the view enjoyed by the native reader. For better and occasionally for worse, we tend to be correct.
The Oulipo—ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature, a Paris-based literary collective dedicated to exploring how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints borrowed from linguistics or mathematics or parlor games—presents an uncommonly acute challenge to that expectation. To write an Oulipian text is both to draw a picture and to solve a puzzle, and more often than not these two missions blur together to the point where it becomes impossible to discern where the language ends and the meaning, such as it is, begins.
So, as you might imagine, things get doubly complex when a second language comes into play. Each language is a system unto itself, with its own rules and cheat codes, its own alliances and enmities and tunnels and trapdoors—and since exploiting all of these is the very essence of Oulipian methodology, since language is not only the raw material of an Oulipian experiment but also its demonstrandum, we might ask what, in this context, translational transparency even means. What happens when, to bedevil McLuhan, the window is the view?
The selections in this issue are an attempt to hint, by demonstration, at the range of potential answers to those questions.
Exactly. Now go check it all out.
One of the coolest releases of the winter has to be the new version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style—the classic Oulipian text in which Queneau tells and retells the same story of two men who get on a bus and have a minor row, ending with one telling the other to replace a button on his overcoat. The original version had 99 of these variations told in styles ranging from “Notation” to “Word game” to “Cockney” to “Awkward.” It’s a testament to Queneau’s ability as a writer, and just as interestingly, it sort of blows apart the idea of how many ways a story can be told—and how style can be more important than content.
Anyway, this new version, which celebrates the book’s 65th Anniversary, New Directions added in twenty-five exercises left out of the original, AND included new exercises written by Jesse Ball, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten, and Enrique Vila-Matas.
Anyway, anyway, to mark the release of this, ND posted a two-part conversation between Daniel Levin Becker and Chris Clarke about Queneau, Exercises in Style, and the Oulipo in general. You can read part one here, and click here for part two. And below are a few interesting bits:
Daniel Levin Becker: Maybe we should start with the book a little bit, if only to make it topical, and then go more general from there? For the sake of doing what I just suggested, here’s a question: what do you think is the particular relevance of Exercises in Style today?
Chris Clarke: I don’t know if I can speak so much to a “particular” relevance, it might be more appropriate in my mind to speak of a “continued” relevance. For me, Exercises in Style is the great reminder that there is no such thing as ideology-free writing. Even the simplest text, the most banal or inconsequential piece of writing, carries marks of style that affect the reader in one way or another. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that this is more important to understand now than it was in 1947, but it seems that way sometimes. Could just be a bias of time and place. But that was always the way Exercises affected me, by making me conscious of all the different ways it could affect me, and by reminding me that in its case, like in most, the whole process is intentional. Beyond that, well, I can’t not mention it, the other continued relevance of Exercises to me is simply that it’s a window into how much fun language can be, even when used to describe something as banal as a story of bus rides and button-shifting. Even the dullest crosstown trip on the S-bus can be utterly and infinitely fascinating.
DLB: I like your point about ideology. I guess what I had in the back of my mind when I asked that was something about the fragmentation of writing these days, literary or otherwise, such that fluency (so to speak) in a number of registers maybe counts a little more than it used to, because you don’t want to tweet in the same voice as you write an essay, a blog post, an email, etc. In any case, I don’t (maybe Tao Lin does). It feels a little overserious to claim that there’s all that much of a difference between an email and a blog post, but then maybe that’s where the ideology part of it comes in. [. . .]
Michael Barron: Chris, you say that there is no such thing as ideology-free writing, that everything has a semblance of style. I am curious to know how a style in the French, say “Promotional,” actually changes when rendered in English. I am also curious to know from both of you which exercises from the contributions by contemporary writers struck you as the most true to Queneau’s vision? And from there, I am wondering if you think that Queneau had a certain umbrella style that pervades all of his exercises?
CC: I thought the new contributions were a lot of fun. To me, closest to Queneau’s method might be Frederic Tuten’s “Beat.” I thought Shane Jones’ “Assistance” added a neat bit of insight into the narrator, in the same way that Queneau’s “There were oodles . . .” does. As far as style crossing over from language to language . . . well, it’s one of the goals of the translator to find the closest equivalent (s)he can. Of course, no two languages operate the same way, so it’s perhaps never a perfect transaction, but it’s something translators are very conscious of. Something like “Promotional” and its French counterpart “Publicitaire” are always going to have some little differences to them, some of them because of differences in the language and the way style works in those given languages, some because of cultural differences. In this case, a radio ad is going to have a different ring to it in a North American (or British) context than it would in a French context, just as much as it will be read differently now compared to how it would have come across 65 years ago. Also, in this case, the very last line in the French text is a riff on the slogan of a French battery called Wonder, which was so popular that it spawned a variety of parodies, including the slogan of a newspaper. The English reader isn’t going to see that in the English text, as the reference is no longer physically there, and even if it were, he likely wouldn’t react the same way because he doesn’t necessarily have the same cultural references at his disposal. In cases like this, the intertextuality can’t quite be the same. [. . .]
CC: Okay, here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask an Oulipian. If I were to tell you I was translating a piece of your writing that involved a particular constraint, my question (depending of course on the particular piece) would be, would you tell me that I should be more concerned about translating the finished piece of writing, or about reproducing the constraint used in creating the piece? For an easy example, a “faithful” literary translation of a lipogram with no “e” that attempted to stay close to the text would almost certainly contain “e”‘s.
DLB: [Trying to ignore the well-of-course-this-changes-everything implications of it being my writing,] I’d say it’s absolutely more important to reproduce the constraint or procedure than to reproduce the meaning. That is assuming, of course, that the constraint was instrumental in engendering the text, which almost has to be the case for the text to be like, good (in this admittedly peculiar entre-nous kind of way). If you were to translate La disparition for the story alone, you’d have a novel that’s not ultimately all that good; if you were to translate it without using the most common letter in the target language, you might not succeed in making the narrative/details “faithful” enough for it to be considered the same work, but I’d argue you’d have come much closer to preserving what’s essential about the book. (Fun aside: I recently translated Perec’s dream journal, which contains a few references to La disparition, and had an almost visceral aversion to the idea of rendering it in English as A Void, just because to me those are such manifestly different books. (The publisher has probably overridden my call on that; only time will tell.)) Anyway, an unofficial thought-test tells me this holds true for most constraint-based (or shall we say structure-forward) works that come to mind—imagine translating Abish’s Alphabetical Africa for content alone. Pointless! The pointlessness of the exercise would be rivaled only by the creepy colonialist overtones that rose to the surface.
MB: Hey now, we publish Alphabetical Africa . . .
So fun. And all this Oulipo talk makes me more excited to get to Scott and Lauren’s The End of Oulipo? (which I didn’t get to last weekend, since I had to read Merchants of Culture for class and am finishing up Böll’s The Safety Net. Oh, and I read Hilda Hilst’s fascinating The Obscene Madame D, but I’ll talk about that more in a Friday post . . .)
It’s in Part III of Many Subtle Channels that Levin Becker turns to the “So What” question, the influence and value of the Oulipo in the wider world of writing. Harry Mathews once told me that the Oulipo had never been “theorized” and he hoped it never would be; I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. An example of what I think Mathews had in mind was the 2005 “noulipo” conference in Los Angeles, where several presenters used the language of critical theory to protest the Oulipo’s lack of a public political stance—as though the Oulipians only built labyrinths, and did not also escape from them. Many Subtle Channels glances at this and other academic and critical views of the Oulipo, such as that of Gérard Genette, who got them entirely wrong when he summarized them as “a game of chance.” It’s not Levin Becker’s purpose to write an academic book—thank god!—but as with oulipian writing itself, it would be good to have a bibliography or a reader’s guide to the best examples of respectful and intelligent critical writing on the group.1
In the critical view, oulipian writing is often minimized as the creation of works under formal constraint. Perec’s e-less La Disparition (A Void) may be a compelling concept, but once you know the trick even it loses much of its luster. In this way, Oulipo Light tends toward in-jokes in textual form and the conceptual work which Marjorie Perloff and Matvei Yankelevich have recently debated. But the authors of such work don’t claim that it represents an unforeseen aesthetic summit. Rather, what Oulipian formal constraint allows is a kind of exhaustion of form, by pursuing it so doggedly that the unseen details of reality and narrativity come to the surface simply because everything else is off the table. Perec was a master at this, in his investigations of the “infraordinary” most accessible in English in the collections Thoughts of Sorts and Species of Spaces. This is also where Oulipian creation must come to terms with the tension between inserting itself into recognized genres and creating new generative forms. The more recognizable, the more easily a work may gain readership and popularity; the more sui generis, the more chance it will be successful as original literary creation. Does the Oulipo want to fit in, or stick out?
Out of the living members, only Jacques Jouet makes his living as an author. Even among the “Olympian Oulipians,” Queneau and Calvino worked as editors for publishing houses, Perec was an archivist, Roubaud a professor of mathematics, and so on. Several members (including Levin Becker himself) were coopted, at least in part, because they had studied the Oulipo per se—shades of the cover artist who joins the original band.” The Bourges workshop attracts people not able to devote their full professional selves to oulipian work; the kind of work that results is sometimes a kind of fanfiction and necessarily mostly Oulipo Light. So where in this is the serious literary purpose, the lasting contribution to culture?
The key lies in reading, not writing. As Levin Becker points out, those members who studied the Oulipo before becoming members learned to read “oulipianly” before they learned to write that way. But this is not the anoulipism of the founders; this has much more to do with Barthes’ notion of “readerly writing.” As explicated by Tom La Farge, readerly writing engages the reader as a creative collaborator. For the writer, “the process of composition is . . . an experience of reading,” and the reader in turn becomes “an active participant in the composition process.” The oulipian reader, like the oulipian writer, is always re-reading, re-creating, re-membering. Levin Becker claims this “creative reading”—in effect, writing in reverse—“is no less noble, no less rewarding, no less potentially spectacular, than creative writing.”
In practice all oulipian work goes through two creative phases: first, the writer sets himself a problem which he then solves (he creates a labyrinth, then escapes from it); second, the reader presented with the text is challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to reconstruct the terms of its creation. The second phase exposes the greatest philosophical divide within the Oulipo, between those (like Jouet) who see the “scaffolding” as part of the substance of the work it was used to create and who thus explain the constraints used, and those (like Mathews) who prefer to play their cards close to their chests. Jouet wants the reader to appreciate his skill directly; Mathews wants the reader to experience the frustration and pull of unsatisfied curiosity. But for both, the point is to bracket the constraint outside the reader’s experience and let the work itself come to the foreground.
In other words, the Oulipian work is not intended to be a puzzle. In fact, when it is taken too far, creative reading works against the text; it can become the kind of over-interpretation called conspiratorial or paranoid or “defensive” reading—what the characters in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum do, to their great regret. If a reader thinks there is a puzzle to be solved in the work, he will read it into the work, like the viewer of a Hitchcock film who takes the MacGuffin as the Holy Grail.
But the Oulipian work does invite a responsible level of creative reading. This openness to the reader, the invitation to interpretation, is the “generosity” which Levin Becker identifies in a recent essay on one of Mathews’ apparently minor works; unusually for a Mathews work, Selected Declarations of Dependence wears its scaffolding on its sleeve, as it were. In Many Subtle Channels Levin Becker argues that, in this sense of generosity and openness (which goes back to the group’s origins), oulipian potential is not just a tool for writers, let alone writers who are members of the Oulipo—and that people who mistake the Oulipo as some kind of exclusive club are missing the point. Oulipo is a way of reading the world. An appreciation of the Oulipo can be a kind of badge of collective trust in the power of reading—a trust that the work (and the world) does hold a meaning, even if it’s never found.
At first the Oulipo was going to be called “SeLitEx,” Seminar on Experimental Literature, highlighting its mathematical and scientific basis. The Oulipo is still experimental in two significant ways. Its work takes the form of proposing and then demonstrating a theorem (the viability of a particular form or procedure); the demonstration is published as a volume of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne. And an oulipian experiment, like a scientific one, may fail; after all, it is only potential, not a certainty. If such stark terms make it hard to understand the evident appeal of the group, consider its experiments instead as a formal rule-bound game: a close cousin to scientific experimentation, offering the same possibility of freedom within constraint. That’s the sense in which Oulipo Light can be a literary and linguistic diversion for the reader, like a good crossword puzzle. (Perec was also a master crossword constructor.) The group’s “heavier” work equally invites the reader to experience the power and the necessity of experimenting with language and meaning.
The Oulipo has even turned its own history into an ongoing game, one that is ever more tightly constrained. Starting from Perec’s story “The Winter Journey”—the very text which first introduced Levin Becker to the Oulipo—the members of the group have constructed more than a dozen alternate versions, interpolated tales, and newly-unveiled conspiracies. The original story, like the Oulipo itself, was written into the interstices of literary history; each new addition writes itself into the spaces between what came before. Levin Becker writes, “It’s about anticipatory plagiarism as it really manifests itself in collaborative creation.” As the group thinks its way out of the constraints of history, the story and its sequels have become a kind of origin myth. The Oulipo is reading its own literary history in reverse—and reading in reverse is, of course, writing.
Perhaps it would be more relevant to characterize Oulipians not as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape” but as “rats who escape from the labyrinth they have built.” François Le Lionnais was a prisoner of war in Nazi concentration camps; Georges Perec lost his family to the Holocaust; Oskar Pastior spent five years in the Soviet Gulag. One founding member said that “in the world we live in, we are beholden to all manner of terrible constraints—mental, physical, societal—with death the only way out of the labyrinth. The least we can do is mark off a little section where we get to choose the constraints we are mastered by, where we decide which direction to take.” Oulipian writing is a literature of potential, a demonstration of the potential of literature—not just something that’s “possibly literature” (and possibly not). It’s not only about language, but also about story, form, and life. It is, in Levin Becker’s words, an invitation “to live your life craftily.” Here is a new sense for the phrase “escapist reading”: reading (and thinking) under constraint, under the sign of the Oulipo, offers the reader the opportunity—and the challenge—of discovering his or her own freedom.
1 Levin Becker quotes from at least three excellent articles, though without the bibliographical detail that would allow a reader to find them. They are: Chris Andrews, “Constraint and Convention: The Formalism of the Oulipo,” Neophilologus 87 (2003): 223-232; Leland de la Durantaye, “The Cratylic Impulse: Constraint and Work in the Works and Constraints of OuLiPo,” Literary Imagination 7.1 (2005): 121-134; and Jacques Jouet, “With (and Without) Constraints,” _SubStance 96 (2001): 4-16.
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.
As you may have noticed I’m a big fan of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels a book about the Oulipo and potential literature. Which is why I asked Matt Rowe to review this for us. Well, he did. But in epic, multi-part style. (Matt Rowe is a true Three Percenter in that regard.) Today I’m posting Part I (and then jumping on a plane to St. Louis) and will get the next two parts up ASAP. Enjoy!
Daniel Levin Becker, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Many Subtle Channels is the first book in English for a popular audience on the Paris-based group of writers known as the Oulipo. For a few of you, that description will be enough for you to know you need to read it; for others, it’s all you need to know to dismiss it out of hand. But to dismiss the Oulipo would be to miss one of the most original and powerful of recent approaches to thinking about literature, creativity, and thinking itself. Certainly the members of the Oulipo and the works they create are fascinating in themselves, but properly understanding the Oulipo could also change the way you think about your own writing and reading. If Daniel Levin Becker’s book doesn’t fully explore every one of the Oulipo’s “many subtle channels”—an impossible task for a single book—it’s nonetheless an excellent place to start.
What is the Oulipo? Spelling out the acronym “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” and translating it doesn’t help much: What is a “workshop for potential literature”? “Potential literature,” Levin Becker explains, “is both the things that literature could be and the things that could be literature.” That potential is expressed in the form of rules or constraints for writing. The Oulipo is thus usually described as a group of writers who follow formal or procedural constraints—often, but not always, mathematical in origin—to create their work. The most notorious examples are George Perec’s novel without the letter e, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void, and Raymond Queneau’s slim book of One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The group’s only official definition is “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape,” though Levin Becker also describes it as “a sort of literary supper club,” because for more than fifty years the Oulipo has met monthly in Paris to eat, drink, and talk about writing.
The bulk of Many Subtle Channels answers the What question, though sometimes in a bare informational sense, with a survey of the Oulipo’s history and present practice. The Oulipo was founded in 1960 by writer/editor Raymond Queneau (Président-Fondateur) and mathematician/polymath François Le Lionnais (Frésident-Pondateur). It now counts thirty-nine members, of whom seventeen are dead and thus excused from attendance at meetings, and one imaginary. Many of its most famous members are excused: Queneau himself, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Oskar Pastior, and—certainly famous, though not as an Oulipian—Marcel Duchamp. But Harry Mathews, Jacques Roubaud, Jacques Jouet, Marcel Bénabou, and Hervé Le Tellier are alive and working.
Daniel Levin Becker is himself the youngest member, having been coopted in 2009. The first third of Many Subtle Channels recounts his experience of discovering, meeting, and finally joining this strange group. Levin Becker first encountered the Oulipo as a Yale student, when George Perec’s story “The Winter Journey” was assigned in his French class. After college, he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to go to France with a (he admits) ill-defined project to study the Oulipo. He soon found himself put to work as the group’s “slave,” organizing its archives; only after he had left France did he learn that he had been elected to membership himself. He invites us to “think of the Oulipo . . . as a search party for those of us who don’t know what we’re looking for.” You can’t call in that kind of search party: if you ask to be a member of the Oulipo, you are permanently ineligible. When I met Levin Becker in April 2009, he was still a little shell-shocked by his recent election. He’s since become the reviews editor of The Believer, but cannot regularly participate in Oulipo meetings for the practical reason that he lives in San Francisco, not Paris. This personal story is interesting primarily as a frame for the rest of the text; as Levin Becker accumulates a more substantial body of work, presumably much of it oulipian in nature, his story may take on greater resonance.
Levin Becker really hits his stride in the final two chapters of Many Subtle Channels, where he turns from the What question to So What. The key to understanding the Oulipo is the distinction dating back to the group’s earliest days between anoulipism, or oulipian reading/discovery, and synthoulipism, or oulipian writing/invention. They are closely related, and as François Le Lionnais wrote in the group’s First Manifesto, there are “many subtle channels” between them.
Anoulipism is where the group applies its idea of “plagiarism by anticipation,” the Oulipo’s way of claiming the allegiance of its literary forbears. It is by no means a serious accusation of intellectual theft, rather just a playful claim of affinity. Constrained writing has a long history, from medieval acrostics, sonnets, and sestinas, through the puzzles of Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll, to Raymond Roussel’s espionage-worthy writing procedures. The Oulipo identifies its precursors both to promote the further exploration of their techniques and to promote itself by association.
Synthoulipism is the development of new constraints and the production of works which follow them. Oulipian writing has expanded from its earlier focus on formal constraints on the finished product to now include procedural constraints on the act of writing itself; it also encompasses both transformative constraints and procedures (which build on existing works) and generative ones. Here there is a tension between the original goal of contributing to posterity by expanding the repertoire of writing in general and crowd-pleasing linguistic acrobatics which call for public performance (“Oulipo Light” according to some within the group). In France and to a growing extent elsewhere, Oulipo has become a brand name.
The Oulipo’s work is now pervaded by a tension between performance and permanence. Officially the group’s work is all about the potential, about discovering and documenting the constraints, not the work they may be used to generate, “but at the end of the day the people who invent or find or resurrect them are the ones who get to use them first, and thus the ones most likely to reap their rewards.” Between the reach of anticipatory plagiarism and the power of the Oulipo brand, it starts to sound like a game that’s amusing chiefly to those playing it, while everyone else gets taken for suckers—and in that light it’s easy to understand why someone might misunderstand and dismiss the group. Many Subtle Channels is an attempt to explain the Oulipo’s legitimate importance, though its narrative structure foregrounds the attempt rather than the answer, however provisional, that it finally achieves.
[Part II Coming Soon]
This week’s podcast features a special discussion with Daniel Levin Becker, author of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Liteature, a history of of the Oulipo, past, present, and future. For the uninitiated, the Oulipo is a 50-year-old group of writers and mathematicians and others interested in the idea of “potential” literature. At times highly technical and esoteric in their thinking about literature, the group also has a sort of prankster streak, which comes out in the liveliness of many of their writings. Some of the most famous works produced by Oulipian writers include Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler . . ., and Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Also see: all of Raymond Queneau and Jacques Roubaud, the works of Jacques Jouet, and those of Paul Fournel.)Read More...
To supplement this week’s podcast, I thought I would post the review I wrote of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels on GoodReads. Matt Rowe is planning on writing up a full review of this book for Three Percent, but for the time being, here you go:
In reading this charming book, I tried to recall how I first fell in love with the Oulipo. It must’ve been through Dalkey Archive, and probably had to do with one of the wild-eyed booksellers at Schuler Books & Music, but I just couldn’t remember . . . At first I assumed it was through Harry Mathews, whose books were being reissued by Dalkey at the time; it jus as easily could’ve been through Perec’s A Void, since that’s the most patently Oulipian work available in English and I remember pushing it on customers all the time. (And now do the same with my students.)
Then it suddenly came to me: When I was living in Grand Rapids, I went to a used bookstore just to look around, and found a mass market, old-school version of Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro. For those who don’t know, this part of Michigan is loaded with Calvinists and their moral baggage, so it isn’t all that surprising that someone had scrawled across the title page of this book, condemning it as “erotic trash.”1 SOLD!
But even then, I didn’t really know what the Oulipo was. I mean, I got the concept—use constraints to write “potential” literature—and read almost everything I could get my hands on, but without the Wikipedia of today or knowledge of the French language, figuring out what this group of strange writers was all about was like solving a puzzle without any sort of picture to work off of.
Eventually, the Oulipo Compendium came out as did Oulipo: A Primer, and all the pieces/techniques—lipograms, S+7, complicated algorithms, x mistakes y for z—started to come together. That said, until reading “Many Subtle Channels,” I don’t think I had a sense of how the Oulipo as a group has functioned for the past 50-plus years.
As a member of the Oulipo, and the “slave” who organized its archives, Daniel Levin Becker is in the unique position that he can create a context for this group of writers who, as diverse as their are personality-wise, are connected by their love of puzzles, of new ways to generate texts, of learning, of seeking out puzzles, of creating the linguistic labyrinth from which they try to escape.
For anyone who isn’t already steeped in Oulipian lore, I highly suggest you read this book, then pick up Queneau’s Exercises in Style, Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, and Mathews’s Cigarettes. After you read all of those—and possibly some of the info you can find online—you’re likely to be hooked on this way of writing and reading for life.
What’s interesting about this book to readers already familiar with the Oulipo and its crazy fun literary stylings is the way in which Levin Becker builds a context around the development of the Workshop while bringing up some really interesting questions about the nature of Oulipian writing: Is it better to reveal the constraints or make the reader figure them out? If the reader knows the constraint, is that the end of their interpretation/enjoyment of the book? How has the group’s dynamics and goals shifted from the post-WWII years to 2012? What’s the point of all this madness?
There’s a lot of great stuff in here worth quoting, both in terms of examples and explanations, but I’ll just end this here with one short paragraph that reminded me of why Lost was so damn good, and why only some people were cool with the eventual ending (I think this proves that I can pull Lost into just about every book discussion):
A good solid search, especially for something you’ll probably never find, drives the plot forward both on and off the page. The less you know, the more you want to know. Hitchcock knew it as well as Homer did: get the audience invested in the pursuit of a puzzle piece, be it the key or the antidote or the identity of the dead man, and they’ll follow you for as long as it remains missing. That’s why it’s so hard to write a satisfying ending: “solutions,” Mathews says, “are nearly always disappointing.”
1 Not exactly true. See this for the correct insult that somebody laid on Queneau’s novel.
I don’t read a lot of critical/academic books, but I can’t wait to get my hands on Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, which is coming out from Harvard University Press next month:
What sort of society could bind together Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Queneau—and Daniel Levin Becker, a young American obsessed with language play? Only the Oulipo, the Paris-based experimental collective founded in 1960 and fated to become one of literature’s quirkiest movements.
An international organization of writers, artists, and scientists who embrace formal and procedural constraints to achieve literature’s possibilities, the Oulipo (the French acronym stands for “workshop for potential literature”) is perhaps best known as the cradle of Georges Perec’s novel A Void, which does not contain the letter e. Drawn to the Oulipo’s mystique, Levin Becker secured a Fulbright grant to study the organization and traveled to Paris. He was eventually offered membership, becoming only the second American to be admitted to the group. From the perspective of a young initiate, the Oulipians and their projects are at once bizarre and utterly compelling. Levin Becker’s love for games, puzzles, and language play is infectious, calling to mind Elif Batuman’s delight in Russian literature in The Possessed.
And with Jacques Roubaud’s Mathematics coming out from Dalkey Archive coming out this spring as well, it’s as good a time as any to go on an Oulipian bender. . . .
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