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 Ruins of Books

Kate Briggs, “Four Questions for Kate Briggs on Roland Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel by Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading ? May 2013

Barthes suggests that the destiny of all books is to end up as ruins, fragmented, remembered in bits and pieces but never in their entirety. I think the image he uses is a piece of lace: in our recollections of them, we turn the books we read into pieces of lace.

The Desire-to-Write

Kate Briggs, “Four Questions for Kate Briggs on Roland Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel” by Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading ? May 2013

Barthes refers to the protagonist of the story he’s telling (the story of someone who has experienced the desire to write and wants to set about writing a novel) as a “hero,” a “hero” who will have to undergo three “tests” or “trials.” So there’s already something mythical about the way this story is presented: writers as heroes who somehow manage to achieve their goals despite the setbacks, the difficulties, the interruptions, the breakdowns. Barthes is interested in the force, the desire-to-write that somehow sustains the writer throughout that process. In terms of the relationship between writing and desire, his point is that it’s a question that has been insufficiently studied in the field of literary theory — and this leads him to ask what for me are some very important, but very difficult questions: How is it that works of literature get written? What are the necessary conditions for writing to happen? Why is it that some readers, in love with certain books, feel compelled to write while others don’t?

An Attempt at Exhausting Negation

Scott Esposito, “Negation: a Response to Lars Iyer’s ‘Nude in Your Hot Tub’,” The White Review September 2012

I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation.
— Georges Perec, W, or the Memory of Childhood

[…] One important thing Perec helped commodify was negation. Negation was a huge thing in the 1960s, when Perec began to write. It informed and empowered the groups then fighting against capitalistic culture. … Perec was one of those writers who, in part, made literature from the irony and ridicule of consumer society. … Yet there is much more to these books than a critique of mass culture. These are books built around missing pieces, feelings of emptiness, unsolvable quests. The same irony that ridicules Anne’s fad diet [in Life A User’s Manual] also gestures toward a heavy, existential sense of void. (Dieting is perhaps the single most widespread, obsessively unsolvable, mass-produced quest of post-capitalist existence.) For instance, in Things the protagonists go to Africa to find a meaning to life that they can’t in France. In A Void the absence of the letter e comes to represent the absence of some essential quality in modern life that gives rise to malaise. Reading Perec, one senses an artist self-consciously working on a grand scale to generalise this quality of negation to as many forms as possible — an effort to exhaust negation. Such ambitions are of a piece with the Oulipo manifestos, despite the fact that the manifestos are written with a clear sense of optimism. Aware of the exhaustion of art’s old forms, Oulipo strove to find new paths for the novel. Perec’s optimism in the face of negation is due in large part to how he fought to make negation itself an engine for innovation.