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January 2019 Issue [Reviews]

A Crew of Variegated Weirdos

On an anthology of Oulipo

Discussed in this essay:

All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo, 1963–2018, edited by Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker. McSweeney’s. 374 pages. $32.

In Voltaire’s novel Zadig (1747), the titular Babylonian philosopher has written some verses praising the king. When it starts to rain, he abandons his tablet outdoors, where it breaks in two. Zadig’s enemy, the envious man, finds half of it, on which is written (in Donald Frame’s 1961 translation):

By all the greatest crimes
Established on the throne
In these our peaceful times
He is the foe alone

For this grave insult to the king, Zadig is tried and sentenced to death. No one will support him; he stoically awaits his fate. Before the execution can occur, however, the king’s parrot finds a peach clinging to a fragment of a tablet. He brings it back to the palace, where the queen, after reading what is apparently gibberish, is inspired to see if the fragment will match with Zadig’s lèse-majesté inscription. It does, and the entire poem now reads:

By all the greatest crimes the earth is wracked and sore.
Established on the throne, the King controls our sphere.
In these our peaceful times, ’tis only Love makes war.
He is the foe alone whom men now have to fear.

Zadig is forgiven and then some; he begins to entertain the possibility of happiness. The story can also illustrate the perils of wordplay, of course. Would Zadig’s fate have been so quickly sealed at first if he hadn’t bothered to insert a set of mid-line rhymes?

From Étienne Lécroart’s Contes et décomptes (L’Association, 2012). Translated by Matt Madden. Courtesy McSweeney’s

From Étienne Lécroart’s Contes et décomptes (L’Association, 2012). Translated by Matt Madden. Courtesy McSweeney’s

Literary games of this sort date back to the ancient world, when extravagant rhetorical strategies flourished. There are acrostics in the Hebrew Bible, tautograms in Sophocles; Ausonius (310–395 ad) composed a famous nuptial cento entirely made up of lines from Virgil; and in 79 ad someone in Herculaneum devised the Sator Square—a twenty-five-letter inscription the lines of which are anagrams that read in both directions, vertically and horizontally. This tradition has been carried on in more recent centuries most prominently by the French, whose taste for play has always been entwined with their notion of elegance, and today its best-known practitioners may well be the Oulipo. Since its founding in Paris in 1960, the group, whose name stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), has sought to use restrictions on form to generate new kinds of literature. These range from the virtuosic, if somewhat trivial—like the snowball, a device in which each line of a poem is progressively longer than the last—to the considerably more substantial. Georges Perec, to write his masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual (1978)—a portrait of what one would find in a Parisian apartment building if its ­facade were removed and its many inhabitants frozen in place—drew on, among other things, a mathematical structure called a Greco-Latin bi-square to help determine almost every detail in the book. None of these complex underpinnings, however, are perceptible to the reader. The novel, which is subtitled romans, plural, in the French edition, is a machine for generating stories, so many that there is a separate list of its self-contained narratives in the back matter, after the index and the time line—so many that it begins to resemble an entire world, with its teeming masses (there are a thousand or so characters), its constant pileup of anecdotes, its triumphs, failures, and accidents.

Oulipo’s initiator and presiding spirit was the writer, editor, and polymath Raymond Queneau, author of Zazie in the Metro (1959), Exercises in Style (1947), and much else. By 1960, Queneau had composed his Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a sequence of ten fourteen-line sonnets—the lines of which all follow the same rhyme scheme and style of semantic ambiguity, and are printed on separate strips in the original French edition (not unlike those children’s books consisting of strips bearing a variety of eyes, noses, and mouths, that can generate an endless succession of funny faces), so that they can be recombined in 100,000,000,000,000 ways; a reader would require 190,258,751 years to exhaust them all. In the course of the work, Queneau asked for help from the mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, and their discussions led to the formation of Oulipo. Although the ten founding members were mostly writers and poets, they included another mathematician, Claude Berge, and the linguist Albert-Marie Schmidt. Its roster after a decade or so included Perec, Italo Calvino, and Harry Mathews, as well as its United States correspondent, Marcel Duchamp.

The literary games that attracted the Oulipians were the ones that held the greatest generative promise: constraints that force the author to abandon intention to a greater or lesser degree and allow the process to take over. Removing conscious control can liberate the imagination; imposing strictures gives it something to bash against, building up muscle by enlarging the effort. The Oulipians sought literary equivalents to the chance operations devised by the Surrealists for the automatic production of visual works, such as decalcomania and frottage, in which a purely mechanical task, such as rubbing paper on wood grain, reveals latent images that can then be consciously enhanced; many of Max Ernst’s extraterrestrial landscapes originated that way. But the Surrealists had mostly failed to find literary forms to match. Automatic writing per se didn’t cut it, usually resulting in feeble word salads devoid of shape or dynamic. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s recipe for chopping up the individual words in a text, tossing them into a hat, and drawing them out randomly at least imposed a set of limitations, but to limited effect. Much more promising were the procedures employed by the eccentric Raymond Roussel, a wealthy rentier who financed his own extravagant publications, which failed to sell until they were discovered by the Surrealists (whom he regarded with lofty contempt). In How I Wrote Certain of My Books (1935), he revealed his method:

I chose two almost identical words. . . . For example, billard [billiard table] and pillard [plunderer]. To these I added similar words capable of two different meanings, thus obtaining two almost identical phrases.
1. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard
[The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table]
2. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard
[The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer]
The two phrases found, it was a case of writing a story which could begin with the first and end with the second.
Now it was from the resolution of this problem that I derived all my materials.

The Oulipians were not Surrealists, although Queneau had been an early if uneasy member (he was married to André Breton’s sister-in-law, which kept him in the group until he signed the schismatic tract Un cadavre [A Corpse] in 1930). By 1960, anyway, the Surrealists were fishing in the murky waters of occultism, and the scientifically minded Oulipians had more than one reason to want to distance themselves. Their researches led them not just to the blackboard and the calculator, but into the past. If there is any single procedure most associated with the group, it is the lipogram, a constraint that involves leaving out words containing one or more specified letters; the earliest known example, by the Greek poet Lasus of Hermione, dates to the sixth century bc. The form had quite a career in the ancient world (there are lipogrammatic versions of Homer) and trickled down over the centuries (there is a tradition of Germans omitting the letter r from their texts, r being almost unavoidable in German), although the sententious anglophone nineteenth century scorned it (an item in the New York Times from 1880 called it “the most childish of all forms of verse”). The most famous example is Perec’s novel La disparition (1969; heroically translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void, 1995), which sails quite entertainingly through its three-hundred-odd pages—a group of people search for the missing Anton Vowl—without the use of the letter e, which is even harder in French than in En­glish. (Perec subsequently wrote Les revenentes, published in 1972, in which the only vowel admitted is e.)

Among the greatest Oulipian texts are Queneau’s Exercises in Style (an anecdote told ninety-nine different ways), Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, ambitious works that symphonically orchestrate Oulipian methods in the service of complex organizational strategies to drive their narratives. Calvino’s scheme, “How I Wrote One of My Books” (1982), appears in Monk and Levin Becker’s new anthology, All That Is Evident Is Suspect. There is a diagram, composed of letters, some with superscripts, arrayed in squares, which looks vaguely or alarmingly logarithmic, and then it is explained in something like verse:

The forger (A-) dreams up a super-­author (the father of stories, A+)
The super-author knows all the novels the author (A) dreams of writing
The author has a nightmare: his novel will be written by a computer (A*)
The computer will be capable of realizing the forger’s dreams
The author’s dreams and those of the forger resemble one another
The computer-author of novels is a dream like the father of stories

The resulting book is an adventure starring “you,” the reader, who begins reading a novel that appears to be misbound, and when returning it to the store meets Ludmilla, also a reader of the novel the “you” character is trying to read. The story of their relationship is interrupted at intervals by the beginnings of ten novels—varied in style and genre—which all break off at a climactic moment but somehow bleed into the main narrative.

Monk and Levin Becker’s is not the first Oulipo anthology. In French these go back to Oulipo: la littérature potentielle, published in 1973, despite the present editors’ claim that “during the first fifteen years of its existence the Oulipo worked in secret.” The most notable previous effort in En­glish is Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie’s Oulipo Compendium (1998), which differs considerably from the present collection. For one thing, it is arranged in alphabetical order, elaborately cross-referenced, introducing concepts and methods along with authors, and including contributions from notable, like-minded non-Oulipians such as John Ashbery and Gilbert Sorrentino. Monk and Levin Becker are most concerned with bringing the Oulipo into the present, and have included works by every member, living and dead, all forty-one of them.

These works vary greatly. Du­champ’s, for example, consist primarily of brief notes apologizing for missing meetings because he happened to be on the wrong side of the Atlantic (he apparently attended only one). He was a member in spirit since before the group existed, though, in particular for his expanded notion of punning, such as the translingual puns he had been producing since around 1916: “Salissez Mesens’ chausettes?/?Sally says Mesens’ show set.” Puns, however, represent a key problem for a book like this one, since they very often cannot be translated (and finding En­glish-language approximations is a mug’s game). And they are inevitable and abundant in a group devoted to wordplay, roughly 79 percent of whose members have or had French as their first language. French, which has a much more restricted phonic range than En­glish, generates puns naturally—whole sentences can be turned into homonymic equivalents with very different meanings.

I was interested to see that there was a contribution by André Blavier, an early joiner (credited by some with suggesting the idea of such a group to Queneau) and editor of the review temps mêlés, which published many Oulipians. Blavier went to school with my father and served as librarian of our mutual hometown in Belgium for forty-five years. He published a novel and a 4,002-line epic erotic poem in rhymed alexandrines, both of which defeat translation because they pyrotechnically showcase the elasticity of the French language, deploying its full range of wordplay; his En­glish-language Wikipedia entry reads, in its entirety: “André Blavier (23 October 1922–12 June 2001) was a Belgian poet.” As it happens, his contribution to the anthology consists of a brief excerpt from his monumental survey of French “outsider” writers, Les fous littéraires (1982), which is among the less Oulipian things he wrote.

This is in any case an extremely assorted collection, as befits a crew of variegated weirdos, each with a diagram pulsating above his or her head. The earliest entries are, in fact, mostly recipes, instructions, grids, devised by methodical thinkers based on principles filched from a number of disciplines—or merely random, as in Jean Lescure’s N+7 method: every noun (say) in a text is replaced by the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. And then Jean Queval fulminates against “inspiration”; Stanley Chapman vents his spleen about internal politics; Noël Arnaud (who seems to have found his way into every Parisian avant-garde cultural cabal of the midcentury) carries on at some length about the importance and practice of taking minutes at Oulipo meetings, and then provides a painstaking example.

In those minutes, Le Lionnais is quoted as distinguishing the Oulipian notion of structure from that of

good honest non-Oulipians. Structure must be understood simultaneously (1) in the mathematical sense of the word; (2) as any constraint we may choose to impose; and (3) likewise, as any algorithm we may choose to set for ourselves.

Which states plainly that the Oulipo is a group that forswears ideology. Anything goes as long as it somehow involves chance. Thus there is very nearly a separate Oulipo for each member, especially as time rolls on and the focus shifts from describing operations to carrying them out, and from tightly controlled mechanical procedures to ever looser and more subjective elaborations.

The Oulipo encompasses both the grandeur of Calvino’s novel scheme and the triviality of Hervé Le Tellier’s fantasy in which he notices that, in those books on his shelf that have numbers in their titles, the figures have changed: The Four Musketeers,The Postman Always Rings Thrice. It ranges from the tweezers-­and-­magnifying-­glass labor-intensiveness of Étienne’s bilingual palindromes (“Mon Eva rêve ton image, bidet!?/?Ed, I beg, am I not ever a venom?”—I don’t know why the name in the second line isn’t “Ted”) to structures so loose they barely seem Oulipian at all, such as Clémentine Melois’s vignettes based on found shopping lists and Eduardo Berti’s interviews with patients and staff in the palliative-care unit of the university hospital in Rouen.

The genesis of the Oulipo was sparked by the mathematical nature of poetic form. Dear to Oulipians in particular are venerable, tight forms like the sestina (a poem of six stanzas of six lines apiece, with a concluding tercet, in which the end words of the first stanza recur as end words in the later ones, in a determined shifting order) and the pantoum (a poem of any length, arranged in four-line stanzas, in which the second and fourth lines of a stanza become the first and third of the next). Here Mathews several times tries his hand at the narrative prose sestina; Marcel Bénabou speculates on extreme reductions of poetic form, such as one-word poems, poems containing only numbers or symbols, and poems that might consist only of physical gestures; and Michelle Grangaud devises what she calls the “anti-Sapphic tercet” (five, five, and eleven syllables) to rather bracing effect:

She opens the door,
walks into the room,
turns on the overhead light, sees the bodies.
after kissing her,
he runs to the washbasin to wash his mouth.

And Jacques Jouet and others write Métro (also called metric) Poems, which take their name from the fact that they are made on the subway (in any city): each line must be mentally composed between two stations, then written down when the train comes to a stop. In this way the number of lines in a poem is determined by the length of the journey, a limitation that inspires Pierre Rosenstiehl to devise an elaborate means of visiting as many stations as possible on the Paris Métro while repeating stations as few times as possible. Jouet’s consequent nineteen-page poem based on this scheme qualifies as a feat; unfortunately, it is not very interesting. Valérie Beau­douin finds her own way to transform subway riding into a poetic form, by observing the activities of passengers on London’s Northern line and recording them as double-columned, seven-line stanzas. The results are somewhat predictable (“she reads her novel?/?he dozes?/?he looks to his right,” etc.), although she takes care to break up the monotony by lengthening or shortening the individual entries on various days. Still, the project’s paradoxical stasis suggests that it might work best as a gallery installation, where its visual qualities might stand out.

But if poetry is the fundament of the Oulipo, prose has brought it its greatest triumphs, a fact that is reflected in this anthology only somewhat. Coeditor Daniel Levin Becker writes an essay entirely in the form of questions, which is not bad but pales in comparison to the more sustained use of that operation by Padgett Powell in his novel The Interrogative Mood (2009). And Paul Fournel’s lovely “Novels,” in which an affair leading to a bad marriage is related by seven entities, including a canary and a floral bouquet, is described by the editors as “an extended descendant of Queneau’s Exercises in Style.” In fact, it is a variation on the Rashomon scheme: a story is told by multiple characters in sequence, each recapitulating the entire narrative from their own particular standpoint, as in Sorrentino’s devastating Aberration of Starlight (1980).

Eduardo Berti and Pablo Martín Sanchez’s “Microfictions” engage both the Oulipo’s jeux d’esprit and its rather underused collaborative potential. One of them composed elaborate critical exegeses for thirty imaginary microfictions; based on these, the other wrote the stories themselves. The pleasure, alas, resides more in the premise than in its execution. By contrast, Anne F. Garréta, in proposing her “N-evol,” does not do much more than state that the novel is boring and obsolete and that its most boring bits should be expunged. But the resulting work, chronicling events in a Parisian nocturnal demimonde of the recent past from the point of view of a club deejay, is vivid and discomfiting:

The bartender from the Kat calls me one morning, late, drunk. She is listening to Fréhel on repeat, thinks I understand poetry. She reads me her poems over the phone. They do not mention her mother, impregnated by a Nazi soldier and publicly shaved in the purge after the war, nor her blue-collar youth spent gutting cats in a catgut factory. . . .

A Dutch whore kept by a Lebanese arms dealer, very pretty, very fine in her white tailcoat, is backed up against the balustrade near my turn­tables. She talks to me. Shuts up. Her eyes lock on me. I can see her shoot up through the pocket of her pants.

And Michèle Audin provides affecting works that consider history through unusual lenses. One of them, “Caroline, October 21, 1935,” takes the form of an inventory, modeled on the Fluxus artist Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (1962; he exhaustively enumerates and recounts the lengthy backstory of every item on his crowded breakfast table) to portray a young woman in the fraught period between the wars, her profile emerging gradually and teasingly from the objects accumulated in her room. In “No One Remembers,” she evokes the nameless and unrecorded dead of the Paris Commune after the Bloody Week of May 1871 by tossing out little anecdotal bits that work like snapshots, fleeting and fragmentary but moving and suggestive in aggregate:

. . . the shoemaker who recalled the touching way his wife used to raise up her hair, she had died during the siege and now there were three little orphans; the lathe operator who wanted to be a schoolteacher; the bookbinder who adored pigs’ trotters and who kept a notebook in which she jotted down what she had done or was thinking, her notebook has vanished too.

The Oulipo also comprises a number of subordinate units devoted to other pursuits: Oumupo for music, Oupeinpo for painting, Ougrapo for graphic design, Oupopo for crime fiction, Outrapo for (staged) tragicomedy, and Oubapo for comics. Only the last of these is represented here, in the form of two works by Étienne Lécroart, of which the more notable is a tribute to his deceased sister. It consists of a series of fifty-two drawings based on family photographs, each succeeding panel employing one fewer line than the previous; they are thus progressively simplified until the last panel, which is empty: the void. The marriage of form and content is deep, unforced, and emotionally acute.

Seemingly no Oulipo anthology can fail to include strictly internal matters: grousing, panegyric, procedural detail. Here the editors’ decision to include every member means that they have to stretch to find writing by a few people who were presumably invited on the basis of their pleasant personalities and mainly came to eat lunch. A bigger problem is that the book neither serves as a useful introduction to the Oulipo (Jacques Duchateau’s 1963 lecture, which is solid but short, is the only item that presents much of a background, historical or philosophical), nor as a showcase for the best work produced by the group.

The Oulipo, a diverse if clannish guild that has somehow managed to survive for fifty-eight years, has included both major writers and pedantic hobbyists, and inspired work along the entire range of its members’ capabilities. The procedures it has explored are neutral; they can expand the imagination or constrict it, depending on who employs them and how. The thing too often overlooked in work of this kind—and this may be the unintentional lesson of the book—is emotional investment. It is a very good thing that some of the most recent Oulipo works, such as the writings of Garréta and Audin and the drawings of Lécroart, are moving confidently in this direction.

’s most recent book is The Other Paris. She teaches at Bard.

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