Profiles in Literature: Oulipo

Greetings, literature-loving dharma bums!  Last week we traveled to contemporary Japan to rub elbows with bestselling pseudo-surrealist author Haruki Murakami.  This week I’m taking a slightly different tack than usual and profiling a group rather than an individual author.

Did you ever wish you could break free from the constraints of language and literature and simply express yourself purely?  Well, one group of mid-20th century writers would tell you that’s nonsense, and we’re bound by more constraints than we even realize.  In fact, why not pile on more!

Sound crazy?  Then let me introduce you to the wickedly funny, darkly screwball, surprisingly warm group of radical theorists who started meeting in France in the 1960s: the Oulipo.

Oulipo stands for ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, or roughly “the workshop of potential literature” (ouvroir doesn’t translate directly into English, since depending on the time period it can refer either to a traveling workshop or a knitting circle, among other things).  It began with an idea of mathematician François Le Lionnais, expanded and put into practice by his colleague Raymond Queneau, and soon attracted a devoted group of writers, artists, and other thinkers.  Among the most famous, and the ones we’ll be discussing in this entry, are Queneau himself, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Harry Mathews.  That’s two French, an Italian, and an American if you’re keeping count (Oulipo knows no national borders).

So what exactly does this “workshop” do?  Oulipo centers on the notion of “constraints”, or unwritten rules that govern what we write.  Some constraints are obvious: a sonnet has 14 lines, a haiku involves a particular number of syllables, etc.  Some deal with more general ideas of structure: longer works tend to be divided into chapters, longer paragraphs into sentences, etc.  Narratives tend to begin with exposition, build to a crisis, and settle down with a brief dénouement.

Other constraints are so deeply embedded in our collective conscious that we can hardly imagine literature without them, at least until the more radical experiments of the 20th century.  Grammar and spelling are constraints, as are broader notions like psychological unity of characters.

The Oulipians argue that attempting to free oneself of all constraints is a fool’s errand: anyone who thinks you can write without rules is only fooling himself.  Conversely, by being cognizant of the rules that bind you, and by embracing them, you might just find a level of creativity that you never realized existed.  For example, Queneau pointed out that people who attempt to spout out random numbers invariable fall into a common patterns; people who instead construct patterns have better luck creating something that “feels” random.

Let’s take an literary example to show how artificial constraints can nudge the creative process in unexpected directions: Georges Perec scored a succès de scandale with his 1969 novel, La Dispiration (translated as A Void or A Vanishing).  The tale, which concerns mysterious disappearances, was written entirely without the letter E, which is the most common letter in French as well as English.  You’d be surprised how smoothly a well-written E-less text can read: some clever Wikipedia user wrote the entire plot summary of the novel without using E.

Is that a productive way to write, or just a carnival trick?  Oulipians argue the former, because – as the novel’s award-winning translator into English Gilbert Adair noted – being barred a typical path forces you to choose paths that never would have occurred to you.  That may not seem like much, but comb through the last thing you’ve written and notice how many stock expressions are there.  We traffic in commonalities. Harry Mathews explained the value of constraints thusly:

There is no value inherent in the product of a constrictive form, except one: being unable to say what you normally would, you must say what you normally wouldn’t.

That is huge.  As with Queneau’s example of generating random numbers, the attempt to break free of all constraints more typically leads to cliché; meanwhile the artificiality of Oulipo is, as it turns out, the best antidote against cliché.  In effect, Oulipo is anti-surrealist, denying that automatic writing and attempts to tap into the subconscious are in any way productive.  It finds artistic freedom in voluntary chains.

None of this would matter if the writers we’re discussing were lesser artists: theory is fun but the proof, to fall into cliché, is in the pudding.  Let’s talk about a handful of these writers and how they used literary constraint as a way of generating rather than restricting their output.

One sidenote: I should mention that constraints are a way of writing, not reading.  You don’t have to know whether a particular Oulipo-influenced novel has a mathematical backbone, which adds nothing to the experience itself – these novels live or die on their plots, characters, and use of language.  Queneau compared it to scaffolding: you need it to build, but you’d never judge the finished building on it.

Raymond Queneau

The real literary birth of Oulipo came with the 1961 publication of Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (that’s “One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems”).  The deceptively simple work is a small book of sonnets – fourteen, to be exact.  But the paper is sliced so that you can peel back any line to read the line underneath it instead, which gives you the possibility of generating 1014 different sonnets, all of which rhyme!  Try it yourself.

Some of Queneau’s major contributions to French literature include his freeing the language from its constraints of spelling and grammar, and introducing a new set: speech and phonetics.  In his bestselling Zazie in the Metro, about a shockingly foul-mouthed little girl on the loose in Paris, Queneau pokes fun at the way French people talk, which is often hugely divergent from the way they spell the things they say.  The opening line is infamous:

Doukipudonktan, se demanda Gabriel excédé.

That wonderful word “Doukipudonktan” is a good approximation of what’s otherwise “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant?”  (“Why the heck do they stink like that?”).  I can’t vouch for any translations of the novel, but if you can read French, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud.

The French weren’t his only target of linguistic playfulness.  Queneau was an avid reader and lover of the English language, but he couldn’t resist a fun barb at the expense of English speakers trying to wrestle with the French language.  You’ll have to read this aloud to get the effect:

Ung joor vare meedee ger preelotobüs poor la port Changparay.  Eel aytay congplay, praysk.

That’s from the mini-chapter “Poor lay Zanglay”, one of 99 retellings of a banal anecdote in Queneau’s masterful Exercises in Style.  In the course of the book, Queneau morphs the anecdote in a variety of ways: sometimes he changes the verb tenses or the order of events; next he’ll rewrite it as a three-act comedy or a sonnet; later he’ll imitate 18th century style or postmodernism.  It’s a very funny book.

Italo Calvino

Calvino is undoubtedly the best known of all the Oulipo writers, in part because he staked out a lot of non-Oulipo territory as well.  Like Borges, Calvino was a master fabulist and could spin a slightly askew portrait of modern life into a fairy tale. 

Among his most popular novels is the Oulipo-influenced If on a winter’s night a traveler, a book about the joys and frustrations of reading a book.  The self-reflexive novel begins with You opening the first page:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Relax.  Concentrate.  Dispel every other thought.  Let the world around you fade.

After a brief introduction, the “story” begins: a hazy noir-esque meeting in a train station that turns out to be…  But then the story stops, and You realize the book’s been misprinted.  When you return it for another copy, you open to the first page to find it’s now entitled “Outside the town of Malbork” and has nothing in common with book you just started.  What gives?

Do you really need to know that the plot was generated by visually mapping out sets of squares with themes attached to each of their sides?  … Naw, not really!

On the other hand, the outstanding short story “The Burning of the Abominable House” directly addresses its own creation, since it’s one of the first stories that ever used a computer to help with its construction.  In the story, an insurance investigator knows that four recently deceased people have committed sixteen acts against each other (ranging from strangling to blackmailing) and must reconstruct what happened before the house burned down around them.  The number of permutations is huge, but certain ones can be ruled out: if A stabbed B to death, it’s unlikely B later seduced C.  The story begins to shape itself:

Following this method allows me to rewrite my flow-chart: to establish a system of exclusions that will enable the computer to discard billions of incongruous combinations, to reduce the number of plausible concatenations, to approach a selection of that solution which will present itself as true.

Despite the deceptive artificiality, Calvino has a sophisticated point to make: all plots are generated this way, since we weigh a number of possibilities against the plausibility of their occurrence (given the characters, order of events, etc.), and we proceed from there.  The story’s surprising twist ending only underlines how sharp Calvino’s eye is for the implications of writing.

Georges Perec

Once dubbed “the circus flea” of French literature, Georges Perec turned out to be the greatest of all Oulipo writers, and one of the best of all 20th century authors.  He was initially famous as author of Les Choses (Things), a novel about the desire for material objects in which the very grammar plays a subtle role (see Harry Mathews’ essay, “Georges Perec”).  But Perec was also a masterful short story writer, essayist, author of the world’s longest palindrome (5000 characters!) and historian of form: when certain critics decried his E-less La Dispiration as a mere stunt, Perec responded with a article outlining the history of the lipogram, an ancient art form as it turns out.

His Oulipian prowess was most infamously flexed in La Dispiration, but the novel that’s assured his immortality is the monstrous La Vie mode d’emploi (Life a User’s Manual), which is without doubt my favorite novel ever written.

It is the twenty-third of June, nineteen seventy five, and it just before eight o’clock in the evening.

Life sounds as artificial as a novel can possibly get: the author takes one moment in time, strips the façade off a typical Parisian apartment building –  11 Rue Simon-Crubellier – then tells us what he sees in each room. 

That’s all.

But the rooms are people’s homes, and any human being has, in the course of his/her life, have more experiences than can fit in a mere work of art.  So the author flits from room to room, and sometimes a postcard on the dresser turns into a lengthy story about its origins; sometimes a piece of furniture leads us back to the craftsman who carved it a century ago.  Over the thousand pages – including a forty-page index of proper names that appear in the novel, a map of the apartment complex, and a chronology of events – the stories both interweave and explode outward.  If a full life is too complex for literature, what about an entire building’s worth? 

This enormous scope is constructed within the simple (ha!) elegance of a puzzle, and likewise the puzzle becomes both a plot point in the book (one of the characters carves wooden puzzles) and a supreme metaphor for the book itself.  As Perec says in the ominous final words of the introduction:

From this we can deduce something which is undoubtedly the ultimate truth of the puzzle: despite its appearances, it is not a solitary game: every move the player makes, the puzzle maker has made before him; every piece that he picks up and picks up again, that he examines, that he caresses, every combination that he tries and tries again, every trial and error, every intuition, every hope, every discouragement, have all been decided, calculated, and studied by the other.

All this would be enough to make the book pretty dazzling in its own right, but the final chapter’s twist implicates not only the novel, but the author and reader as well.  It is a breathtaking work of fiction, considered alongside Proust as the greatest of all 20th century French novels, and it took Perec years just to develop the intricate system of constraints that governed the novel’s construction.

Harry Mathews

Oulipo has only one English-speaking fiction writer in its ranks, the American-born Harry Mathews.  Mathews was a good friend of Perec’s and is the only writer discussed here who is still alive and publishing.  He gained an invitation to join Oulipo after the debut of his novel Tlooth, a fast-paced, completely bonkers novel that I don’t even know how to describe (it opens with pseudo-Soviet prison camps, battling fake evangelical groups, accidental amputations, and baseball). 

Since then, Mathews has not only been one of Oulipo’s biggest defenders, but also among its most interesting theorists.  He developed a constraint system that now bears his name, Mathews’ Algorithm, a nifty piece of combinatorics that can work at any level, from the individual letter to the chapter arrangement.

Mathews used the algorithm most effectively (and invisibly) in his novel Cigarettes, a 1987 novel which reads like a witty British novel of manners transplanted to American high society, warts and all.  The loves and ambitions of the characters criss-cross through high comedy and tragedy, and whatever artificiality went into the novel’s construction is completely erased in its reading.  Often the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, especially given the high society milieu it takes place in:

They had taken refuge under an immense copper beech when lightning transsected the night and revealed Pauline picking her nose.  Oliver couldn’t pretend he hadn’t noticed: “So that’s how you spend your free time.”
  Pauline waited for the thunder to rumble away.  “I couldn’t wait.  It is a basic pleasure.”

A favorite of mine is an earlier novel, 1975’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium.  A suspenseful treasure hunt told through the loving letters of a separated husband and wife, the novel’s surprise ending caught me complete off-guard.  The letters of one of the characters, a South Asian woman from an imaginary country who schools her American husband in her language and culture, show that an artificial style is not incompatible with powerful emotion:

Weï weï lemö slop. Wo-woe the mysyry of love, we say.  But it has no so bad a soun be-cause weï is “a-las” and “sad-ness”, OK, but all-so “to-laugh”.  You shall for-ever rememer lemu be cause it is, “love”.


– Articles on Queneau and Perec at the Scriptorium.
– Articles on Queneau, Calvino, and Perec at Kirjasto
– Links, reviews, and resources on Perec and Mathews at The Complete Review
– Huge Italo Calvino site
– Warren Motte, “Reading Georges Perec
Interview with Harry Mathews

The excerpts from Queneau come from the Gallimard/Folio editions.  The excerpt from Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler comes from the Harvest Book edition, translated William Weaver; “The Burning of the Abominable House” from Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, Vintage International edition, translated Tim Parks.  Excerpts from Perec from the Hachette edition, translations mine.  All the books by Harry Mathews are available from Dalkey Archive Press.  All pictures from Wikimedia commons, linked back to their original sources.  Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Thanks for reading!


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    • pico on October 10, 2007 at 00:06

    I actually made a pilgrimage to the neighborhood of the fictional 11 rue Simon-Crubellier.  That’s how crazy I am about this novel.

    Next week, I haven’t decided yet.  I might take a break from profiling writers and launch a discussion of the Western Canon, and start a debate about its relative merits and drawbacks.

    • pfiore8 on October 10, 2007 at 01:13

    it makes me wonder about god and all and every molecule and cell and every particle in every direction, bigger or smaller, being touched by god… being put together

    very very weird

    “…every move the player makes, the puzzle maker has made before him; every piece that he picks up and picks up again, that he examines, that he caresses, every combination that he tries and tries again, every trial and error, every intuition, every hope, every discouragement, have all been decided, calculated, and studied by the other.”

    and brilliant

    • nocatz on October 10, 2007 at 01:55
  1. I was pretty sure smeone at sometime had experimented with all os this weirdness….but didn’t know who!

    A 5000 word palindrome is just insaaane, lol

    Thanks pic!

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