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18 December 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 1:32pm

The Penguin Book of Oulipo: a brain-bending experience

By John Self

“If I ask you to write a story,” says the novelist Richard Beard, “you might find it impossible. But if I ask you to empty your pockets on the table and write a story that includes every object on the table, it’s suddenly much easier.” That is the essence of Oulipo, an organisation founded in Paris in 1960 whose members and followers use artificial constraints on their writing: omitting one letter of the alphabet, say, or cutting words from an existing text to create a new one.

Oulipo is short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, the name making clear that it is about seeking as much as finding, about limiting how you write as a method of discovering what it is possible to say. Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau called Oulipians “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”. It is both mathematical and literary, a movement built on experiment but which has entered the mainstream. It sounds niche, but the more you know, the more you see: Oulipo is everywhere.

The 2013 Booker Prize was won by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a novel structured with every character, meeting and movement determined by the zodiac. The 2019 Goldsmiths Prize was won by Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, a novel written with an Oulipo-style constraint: it features a 1,000-page monologue with just one full stop. Oulipo seeks to extend the possibilities of literature: Ellmann’s avoidance of full stops, she said, allowed “incongruous juxtapositions to generate new ironies and fresh directions”, and helped her better represent “an approximation of consciousness”.

Now Philip Terry, a Goldsmiths Prize nominee in 2013 for his novel tapestry and author of Dictator, a rendition of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the business language Globish, gives us The Penguin Book of Oulipo, a compendium of 100 Oulipian texts.

We find that there are, broadly, two types of Oulipo structure: what we might call external, where the constraint is visible to the reader, and internal, where the text appears “normal” and the constraint is concealed. External constraints produce stories and poems that look explicitly experimental and are often, frankly, unreadable: literally, in the case of Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, where the lines of ten sonnets can be mixed and matched to create so many permutations that they would take many millions of years to read.

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Such constraints often result in language that has the lopsided quality of a bad anagram or palindrome: the dangling syllable, le mot faux (“Dish oasis rodeo odes! Retain net snow!”). But sometimes the wrong word is the point, such as the constraint commonly known as N+7, where each noun in an existing text is replaced by the seventh one following it in a dictionary. One example here is Harryette Mullen’s “Variation on a Theme Park, where Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) begins “My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar”. Mullen herself calls it “a nonsensical word salad”; it’s briefly amusing, but scarcely worth preserving.

Other experiments that must have been more fun to write than they are to read include Michèle Métail’s “Cross-Examination, where all the words have been removed and only the punctuation remains. More successful – and funnier – is Suburbia, a novel by the current president of Oulipo, Paul Fournel, which consists of several introductions warning of the book’s notoriety, followed by blank pages with a forest of footnotes and a masterly list of errata.

External constraints do sometimes work. Queneau’s “Redundancy in Phane Armé” uses the technique of cutting words from a longer foundation text, and the results can have the spare force of Sappho’s fragments: “Death-throe/denying it… Even a scrap/celebrates us/head/in darkness”. Paul Griffiths’s poem “let me tell you”, employing only the vocabulary that Ophelia uses in Hamlet, is beautiful (“I will give up this and go on./I will go on”). And Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which uses only one vowel at a time, is surprisingly mellifluous: “She needs rest; nevertheless, her demented fevers render her sleepless (her sleeplessness enfeebles her).”

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Where the constraint is internal and hidden, the texts read more like achieved literature than “potential literature”. The masters here are Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. The latter’s Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973) uses tarot cards to direct the stories, but is written in his usual fluent, witty style. Perec, one of the great geniuses of modern literature, is the most represented writer here with 11 entries, from hypnotically funny permutations of cookery instructions (“81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners”) to an excerpt from his masterful novel W, or the Memory of Childhood (1975), which runs two stories concurrently to devastating effect.

Perec’s most famous work, the novel La Disparition (1969), which was written without the letter e, is also represented. It is a riposte to the suspicion that Oulipo may be little more than self-indulgent jokes: the letter e in French sounds like eux, meaning “them”. For Perec, “they” are his parents, both of whom were missing from his early childhood: his father died fighting in 1940, and his mother was transported to a death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943. A document sent to the families of deported Jews after the war was titled “Acte de Disparition”. Perec’s novel is a powerful representation of life without “them”. Oulipo can be political too, as shown by Juliana Spahr’s HR 4881 is a Joke” – which replaces every seventh word in an anti-abortion text with the word “gag” – and Jacques Roubaud’sIs Le Pen French?”, which uses infinite regression to ridicule the idea that a person is French only if both their parents are French.

Literature has always been written under limitation, whether of time or form: what is a sonnet or sestina but the product of a formal constraint? Oulipians looked for texts with Oulipo qualities and, with typical drollery, called them “anticipatory plagiarism”, a selection of which Terry includes: Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths”, with its proliferating possibilities; George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, where the lines get shorter then longer (known to Oulipians as a snowball poem); and The Iliad, with its accumulative lists.

The quality of work in The Penguin Book of Oulipo is varied, but failures are part of the Oulipo experiment. The line-up – more pieces by Queneau, Perec and Calvino than by women – reflects Oulipo’s men-only origins. The weakest link is the supplementary material, which displays a sloppiness surely at odds with Oulipo’s taste for precision: no author index, notes which annotate only a fraction of the work, and misspellings and referencing errors. It makes the book more of a brain-bending experience than even the founders of Oulipo would have intended. 

The Penguin Book of Oulipo
Edited by Philip Terry
Penguin Classics, 576pp, £25

This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning