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Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules


By imposing multiple restrictions on the processes of writing, this group of French writers seek to find what literature might be, rather than what it is

You might think Raymond Queneau was guilty of a little overkill when he cured a bout of writer's block by writing One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, but this flipbook presentation of 10 sonnets did more than paper over a barren spell, it became the founding text of an experimental literary collective.

The 14 lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems. By the author's reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms) – the signatures of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop (OuLiPo) launched by Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960.

The Oulipo replayed literary modernity in ludic mode. It was, inter alia, an attempt to reconcile CP Snow's two cultures, an undertaking which was embodied by the workshop's co-founders: Queneau was a writer fascinated by science; Le Lionnais, a scientist fascinated by writing. In their own way, they were reprising the early Romantic ambition that "all art should become science, and all science art" (Friedrich Schlegel). Despite such lofty claims, the collective adopted a very pragmatic approach to fiction, which is rather unusual in France, where literature has preserved much of its mystique and creative writing programmes are almost unheard of. According to Daniel Levin Becker, Oulipians consider "literature in the conditional mood; not the imperative". They do not profess to know what literature should be, but attempt to uncover what it could be, either in theory or practice. In the early days, the emphasis was firmly on the former (i.e. "anoulipism" in Oulipospeak). When they were not scouring the great works of the past in search of proto-Oulipian procedures, the group members were busy establishing a lineage of "pre-emptive plagiarists" (Lewis Carroll, Raymond Roussel et al.). The invention and possible deployment of new writing constraints ("synthoulipism") soon became the main focal point, however, and under the aegis of Georges Perec (who joined in 1967) the production of ambitious new works took centre stage.

Oulipians are into literary bondage. Their fetish is predicated on the notion that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language itself. The solution, in their view, is not to try, quixotically, to abolish constraints, but to acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively. For Queneau, "Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery". Italo Calvino (who was co-opted in 1973) concurred: "What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically". Choosing the "right road" from the outset, instead of stumbling upon it haphazardly, is the Oulipian way: once the Apollonian structure has been circumscribed, Dionysus can work his magic. "I set myself rules in order to be totally free," as Perec put it, echoing Queneau's earlier definition of Oulipians as "rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape".

As Gabriel Josipovici argues in Wha
t Ever Happened to Modernism?
, modern literature was forged out of a refusal to submit to external constraints, with the novel a "new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition". The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. "Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than is a return to the world of the ancien régime," writes Josipovici. The Oulipo escapes the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) by reintroducing external constraints, which are self-imposed.

Whether or not constraints should be disclosed to the reader is a moot point. Harry Mathews refuses to do so, while Jacques Roubaud (another mathematician) argues that the constraint(s) should be the very subject matter of any truly Oulipian work. Some constraints are a trifle gimmicky, like Jacques Jouet's metro poems, or even Jean Lescure's N+7 procedure. Others are far more convincing, for example, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style in which the same anecdote is retold in 99 different ways. "The problem, when you see the constraint," Perec observed, is that you no longer see anything else. It is a testament to his prodigious talent that one of the first reviewers of A Void (1969) should have failed to notice that the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language. This lipogrammatic tour de force is particularly poignant because the missing e (pronounced "eux" – "them" – in French) refers to all those (including the author's parents) who went missing during the second world war.

For Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, the Romantic fragment "stands for itself and for that from which it has been detached," making it both finite and (theoretically) infinite. According to Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, the Oulipian constraint serves a similar purpose: "The work which results may be 'complete' in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint". Exhaustion is the "necessary corollary" of potentiality, they continue. This is particularly true in the case of Perec, who, like an agoraphobic miniaturist, focuses on manageable, bite-sized chunks of reality, which he then tries to shoehorn into his books. He claimed that his ambition in Life: A User's Manual (1978) was "to exhaust not the world" but "a constituted fragment of the world". An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) – his famous exploration of the "infra-ordinary" – involved spending three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice observing what happened when nothing happened.

One could argue that the failure of the Oulipian project is Perec's major theme. In one of the dreams in La Boutique obscure– recently translated for the first time – Perec discovers an edition of A Void in which the banned letter e keeps recurring. In Life: A User's Manual, Bartlebooth dies clutching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which turns out to be the wrong shape. The plot – based on an algorithm enabling the knight in a game of chess to touch every single square on the board once – enacts the novel's failure (there is a missing chapter corresponding to an unvisited basement). "The Winter Journey" (which Atlas Press is bringing out in a new edition) revolves around the discovery – and subsequent loss – of a book (the eponymous Winter Journey) proving that all the great modern poets were in fact plagiarists. Also, 53 Days – about an unfinished book left by a writer who disappears – was left unfinished by Perec, when he disappeared in 1982. The most famous Oulipian ― himself a crossword constructor– knew that literature was an unsolvable puzzle.

Some say that the Oulipo increasingly resembles a gathering of ageing cruciverbalists: it started off looking for "pre-emptive plagiarists" and is now largely concerned with archiving its glory days. In an age of N+7 Machines and ebooks, many of the Oulipo's algorithm-based experiments have lost their cutting edge. The recent revival of interest, in the English-speaking world, is due to translations of works by historic Oulipians, as well as Daniel Levin Becker's youthful transatlantic enthusiasm (he is the group's latest recruit). Perhaps it is a measure of the movement's success that these days some of the most interesting debates and experiments are taking place outside the narrow confines of the group. Take Multiples, for instance, which originated as a special issue of McSweeney's, edited by Adam Thirlwell, which Portobello is bringing out here next month. It is a typically Oulipian exercise in which 12 short stories are translated by 61 novelists into 18 different languages. Each story is translated into or out of English several times, until something new is found in translation.

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