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.
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