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. . . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .