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]
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