Last time we reached the point where we discover the derivation of the term 'Oulipo' from the official title of the movement: ‘Ouvroir de Littērature Potentielle’
Retakes of a Formal Nautilus - the Oulipo Enlarged, part 2
‘Potential literature’? In essence the group is concerned “not with literary works but with the procedures and structures capable of producing them.” Oulipo’s aim is “to invent (or reinvent) restrictions of a formal nature (constraints) and propose them to enthusiasts interested in composing literature.”
“Describable, definable, available to everyone, Oulipian constraints provide the rules of a language game whose ‘innings’ (texts composed according to its rules) are virtually unlimited and represent linguistic combinations developed from a small number of necessarily interdependent elements.”
“The Oulipo’s work is collaborative, and its products – proposed constraints and their illustrations – are attributed to the group, even if certain constraints are invented by individuals.”
“Oulipian writing – that is, writing with constraints – endeavours to rediscover another way in which to practise artistic freedom, one that is at work in all (or nearly all) the literatures and poetic enterprises of the past: the freedom of difficulty mastered.”
“An Oulipian author is a rat who himself builds the maze from which he sets out to escape.” (All above quotes from Jacques Roubard: ‘The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art’ – 1991.)
Oulipo membership is international, these days, although it remains predominantly French. But in considering these individuals one should bear in mind another quote from Jacques Roubard: “the members of the Oulipo are characters in an unwritten novel by Raymond Queneau”.
In keeping with its origin as a sub-committee of the College of ‘Pataphysics, the group has an intentionally absurd beaurocratic structure. Yet it has remained sustainable. They have met on a monthly basis throughout the 56 years of the Oulipo’s existence, and have attempted meticulously to record the minutes of each meeting. There are two secretaries: the provisionally definitive secretary and the definitively provisional secretary. New members may be co-opted by the group, and no one can be expelled, or resign, or stop belonging, whether living or dead. However, according to the rules:
“One may relinquish membership of the Oulipo under the following circumstances: suicide may be committed in the presence of an officer of the court, who then ascertains that, according to the Oulipian’s explicit last wishes, his suicide was intended to release him from the Oulipo and restore his freedom of manoeuvre for the rest of eternity.”
So, fortunately, there is a way out.
Given its commitment to working collaboratively, one could be forgiven for thinking that no Oulipian work of literature should be known by the name of its author. But hey, if you don’t put your name about…
Two of the most highly regarded works by Oulipian writers illustrate different ‘constraints’.
Georges Perec’s ‘A Void’ (original French title: ‘La Disparition’) is a novel written entirely without using the vowel e. Its characters’ inability to name the missing letter leads to their deaths, thus adding the constraint as a kind of meta-fictional device in addition to its mechanical function in the text. It includes extracts from well-known poems and classic novels rewritten to exclude the letter e. It’s an example of what the Oulipians call a ‘lipogram’ – a text that excludes one or more letters of the alphabet.
Raymond Queneau’s ‘A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems’ was the product of an amazingly challenging constraint. Queneau set himself the task of writing 10 14-line sonnets, each with an identical rhyme scheme and grammatical construction. In the original edition of the book, each of them is printed on a page cut into 14 strips, thus making any line of any of the sonnets interchangeable with any of the 10 corresponding lines from any of the other sonnets. Whatever the resultant combination, the grammar and rhyme remain intact.
The work of Oulipian writers has been published since 1974 in ‘La Bibliothēque Oulipienne’, a numbered series of pamphlets written by one or more Oulipians, and appearing almost invariably in limited editions of 150. Some of these have been translated into English, published by Atlas Press. An extremely useful introduction can be found in the same publishing house’s ‘Oulipo Compendium’, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, and my main source for this piece.
Next time, I have a go at trying out a 'snowball', some 'perverbs' and a 'beautiful in-law', as we continue to explore the world of Oulipian 'constraints'. 'Til then, may the long time sun shine upon you.