Oulipo: Freeing Literature By Tightening its Rules

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 July 2013:

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

Billions of ideas ... Raymond Queneau Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Billions of ideas … Raymond Queneau Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

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 What 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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Here is a longer, unedited version of the above piece:

One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s fabled collection of ten sonnets, appeared in 1961. Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it came in the singular — albeit fittingly juvenile — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page were printed on individual strips, so that every line could 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. Rather than a mere gimmick, Queneau had produced a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — 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 C. P. Snow’s two cultures. This bold undertaking 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. In Many Subtle Channels (2012), Daniel Levin Becker explains that 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.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that 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. “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” argued Queneau, who rejected the Surrealists’ automatic writing: “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino (who became a member 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. It is thus through the observance of rules — which make it possible, for instance, to eradicate linguistic automatisms — that emancipation takes place. “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”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of modern literature. Gabriel Josipovici brilliantly analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the 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, hence a crisis of authorial authority. “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. This is perfectly true. However, the historical importance of the Oulipo is to have found an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance). This was achieved through the reintroduction of external constraints — self-imposed this time round, in compliance with the laws of the French Republic, but within a collective framework (that of the workshop).

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. “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. Some Oulipian constraints are a trifle gimmicky, like Jacques Jouet’s metro poems, or even Jean Lescure’s famous N+7 procedure (which consists in replacing every noun in any text with the seventh following noun in a dictionary). Others are far more convincing. In Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (recently republished by New Directions) the same anecdote is retold in 99 different ways, thus proving that writing is never just writing. Perec’s aforementioned 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.

In The Literary Absolute, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy write that 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” (The End of Oulipo?, 2012). They go on to explain that exhaustion is the “necessary corollary” of potentiality. 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 are 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. 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 enthusiasm (he is the group’s latest recruit). 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, that Portobello are 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 weaves in and out of English several times, until something new is found in translation.

The Man Who Stopped Writing

This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 11 July 2011:

marc-edouardnabe

L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, Marc-Edouard Nabe, 2010

Marc-Edouard Nabe has always relished playing with fire, but never more so than when he burned what would have been the fifth volume of his journal. His main motivation was to avoid being trapped in a Shandyesque race with time, ending up pigeonholed as a diarist. Nevertheless, he went on to describe this event in Alain Zannini (2002), a novel so blatantly autobiographical that it even bore his real name as its title (Nabe, short for “nabot” — midget — is a nom de plume). The implication was clear: having lived his life in order to narrate it, Zannini had gradually become Nabe’s creation. What, then, would happen if the writer were to stop writing?

This ontological question is raised in L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire (“The Man Who Stopped Writing”), which begins with the author-narrator’s paradoxical assertion — given the length of the book, let alone its very existence — that he has forsaken literature after being dropped by his publisher. “A publisher paying me to write books nobody reads,” he deadpans, “I thought this would go on for ever.”

For the best part of two decades, the real-life Nabe had received a monthly wage from Les Editions du Rocher, but this stipend was suddenly withdrawn when they were bought out in 2005. The novelist responded by taking legal action. Throughout the lengthy lawsuit, he expressed himself by means of posters, which his hardcore supporters pasted all over the walls of France’s major cities. He also maintained the fiction that his authorial days were over, so as to remain in character while secretly writing his novel about writing no more.

The appearance of L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire thus came as quite a surprise, not least because Nabe chose to go down the self-publishing, or rather “anti-publishing”, route. The minimalist jet-black cover has a whiff of piracy about it: no barcode, no ISBN, no publisher’s name or logo; the spine remains bare. On the front, the author’s name is reduced to “Nabe” as if it had become a brand, and on the back you only find a number, indicating that it is the author’s twenty-eighth published work (and seventh novel). The book is only available through an official website and a handful of highly unlikely retailers (a butcher’s, a florist’s, a hairdresser’s and three restaurants at the last count). By cutting out the middleman, Nabe claims to be able to make a 70% profit, instead of the usual 10%, on each copy sold. The initial print run — funded by the sale of paintings (Nabe is also an artist and jazz guitarist) — sold out within a month; there have been three more since. Last year, the novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Renaudot prize — a first for a self-published volume in France — and last month, the online platform morphed into a full-blown company.

This declaration of war on the publishing industry is in keeping with Nabe’s image as an écrivain maudit. “Great artists,” says the protagonist, as Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil manuscript is auctioned off at Sotheby’s, “have but one purpose: to become moral alibis for the bastards of posterity”. Initially accused of being a crypto-fascist (partly because of his predilection for Céline and Lucien Rebatet), Nabe is now frequently depicted as a pro-Palestinian leftist (whose anti-Americanism, it must be said, borders on the pathological). His first television appearance, in 1985, proved so incendiary that he was beaten up by a leading anti-racist campaigner. Every day, he declared — looking every inch the provocative young fogey, complete with centre parting, bow tie and retro spectacles — I shoot up with a Montblanc pen full of “utter hatred of humanity”. A great admirer of Jacques Mesrine, Nabe famously befriended the flamboyant bankrobber Albert Spaggiari as well as the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Following 9/11, he produced a pamphlet entitled Une Lueur d’espoir (“A Glimmer of Hope”) and argued repeatedly that bin Laden was only acting in self-defence. In 2003, he even travelled to Baghdad, where he protested against the invasion of Iraq in typically Gallic fashion: by writing a novel. These antics may have earned him a large cult following, but Mazarine Pingeot summed up the views of many when she declared that Nabe was “unfortunately” a great writer.

Despite running to almost 700 pages, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire has no chapters or even paragraphs, as though it were shot in real time, like 24, the American TV series the narrator watches. If the dialogue is a little didactic — even Socratic — at times, there are far fewer purple passages than usual. This is the affectless, almost pedestrian, prose of someone who will not even allow himself to sign an autograph or compose a letter any more. The novel is meant to read as if it were unwritten. This tonal blankness (often reminiscent of Houellebecq’s) is marred on occasion by poor punning, but it can also be shot through with flashes of sheer poetry: a vintage sewing machine is likened to a “giant bee in mourning”; a brunette’s hair looks like it has been “soaked in liquid night”.

Structurally, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire is a 21st-century reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy, taking us all the way from Inferno to Paradiso via Purgatorio. The picaresque plot begins when the protagonist abandons his calling, and spans seven days during which events that really took place over several years are skilfully conflated. At a loose end, the “post-writer” wanders around town and meets Jean-Phi, a young celebrity blogger who acts as his Virgil, guiding him through his post-literary vita nuova. Nabe’s mouthpiece dreams of a “literary lobotomy” that would rid him of all the bookish references preventing him from living fully in the here and now. Try as he may, Jean-Phi is unable to wean him off his old ways, and each new stroll through the streets of Paris gives rise to a digression about Raymond Roussel‘s birthplace or Proust‘s childhood haunts. However, as the days go by, and his life becomes increasingly bound up with Jean-Phi’s youthful entourage, the narrator rediscovers the pleasure of living gratuitously, without having to worry about transmuting his experiences into words. In the final pages, Mallarmé‘s famous dictum that “The world was made in order to result in a beautiful book” appears on a poster but, crucially, it has been misquoted, so that it is now the book which results in a beautiful world.

The protagonist inhabits this inverted world. Early on, he wonders if his new condition does not necessarily imply that he has himself become a character, as if a writer and his creation were but two sides of the same coin. The names of all the famous living people who appear in the novel have been slightly doctored (Depardieu, for instance, becomes Depardieux). This is no doubt to avoid lawsuits, but it also seems to indicate that they too have stepped through the looking-glass, on the other side of which they are exposed as grotesque parodies of themselves. As one of Jean-Phi’s friends remarks, a mere typo can suddenly plunge you into another universe.

One of the key scenes is a chance meeting with Alain Delons (Delon), on the seventh day. The narrator explains that he is his favourite actor because in all his major films Delon/s goes on a quest for a doppelgänger he could replace or who could replace him. The same, of course, can be said about the novelist’s entire oeuvre, which is haunted by the figure of the double. Narrator and author are as indistinguishable as ever, here, although the former is clearly an anti-Nabe, inhabiting a parallel universe where he has been defeated by his detractors. L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, proof of the real-life author’s triumph, is an affirmation of the truth of fiction, as well as of the virtues of unmediated life: after all, he wrote his novel by pretending not to. Give Nabe a mask, and he will tell you the truth. Just don’t ask him — or me, for that matter — who the doppelgänger is.

Zannini/Nabe once quipped that Alain Zannini — in which Zannini meets Nabe — was told in the “double person singular”. Sometimes, however, I really is another, rather than just the other half of a divided self. Although no oil painting, Michel Houellebecq is Dorian Gray to Nabe’s picture — the acceptable face of controversy. Or at least this is Nabe’s spin on events. In the early 90s, both men lived at the same address (103 Rue de la Convention in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris) facing each other, like bookends, across a cobbled courtyard. Both belong to the same generation, come from similar lower middle-class backgrounds, had domineering Corsican mothers they rebelled against, established their reputations by courting controversy and chronicled the demise of French joie de vivre. Nabe was, in fact, the senior partner in this relationship, up until the success of Atomised in 1998.

In The Map and the Territory, which finally earned him the Goncourt prize last year, Houellebecq depicted his own murder. Nabe immediately outed himself as the culprit in the course of an interview. What he really meant is that Houellebecq had committed literary suicide, by selling out and writing a Goncourt novel. Losing the Renaudot prize, on the other hand, reaffirmed Nabe’s outsider status. Like his master, Céline, he remains untainted by recognition, alone against the world; beyond the pale. With an eye on posterity, Marc-Edouard Nabe is biding his time.