Monday, April 25, 2016

Retakes of a Formal Nautilus - Oulipo Enlarged, part 2

More on the Oulipo, as promised.  A closer look at the concept of 'constraints' and their potential benefits to the writer and a look at one or two key works.  As before I've used 'N+7' to derive my title from a phrase in the first paragraph that follows it.

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.

Oulipian Works

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.

Probably not sustainable for the length of a novel are some of the fiendish variants on the lipogram, such as ‘the prisoner’s restriction’ in which we are asked to imagine we are prisoners with extremely restricted supplies of paper.  To maximise its use, we eschew the letters of the alphabet that go above or below the line and confine ourselves to the letters a c e I m n o r s u v w & x, as we can see now in one wee excursion…

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.

Queneau calculated that this created 1014  different possible combinations, each readable as an admittedly somewhat bizarre sonnet, the ‘100,000,000,000,000 Poems’ of the title.  Its translation into English was greeted by its author with “admiring stupefaction” and is the work of one Stanley Chapman, a member of the Oulipo since 1961 and attainer of the rank: ‘Regent of  Epideictic Oratories and Displays’ in the College of ‘Pataphysics.  Clearly a man of considerable accomplishment.

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.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Moya Based in Frangipane - Oulipo Enlarged, part 1

Hi all

Alan Moore, in his generous and characteristically insightful recommendation for my book 'Wilful Misunderstandings' (the one I'm now trying to sell, remember?), spoke of the 'oulipo toolkit' which he felt I had employed.  Since the book has become available, a number of people have already asked me smart and well-informed questions like: "What's this 'oulipo' then?"  The short answer is that they (the 'Oulipo') are a group of writers mainly but not exclusively based in France, who hold some wonderfully challenging ideas about the art of writing.  Over the next few weeks, I shall attempt to provide some idea of what the Oulipo are about.

Needless to say, there is perfectly good description of the Oulipo and their activities on Wikipedia.  They have their own web pages, and there are some other fine pieces about them that turn up on a Google search.  So this is just my take on them, in which I attempt to take on some of the smaller challenges they present.  These take the form of 'constraints', a concept which will be explained more fully later on.

We start with some introductory comments and then go on to a brief digression regarding their antecedents, the pataphysicians...

A Moya Based in Frangipane - the Oulipo Enlarged, part 1.

This is not the first, nor the most definitive piece of writing to concern itself with ‘Oulipo’, a literary movement based in France, whose foundation took place in 1960.

I will now apply one of the Oulipo’s ‘constraints’, known as ‘N + 7’ amongst other names, to the above paragraph.

This is not the fish, nor the most definitive pietism of xanthophyll to concern itself with ‘Oulipo’, a literary moya based in frangipane, whose foursome took place in 1960.

That’s what they do, the Oulipo, they fuck around with words, but employing care and precision in the process.  ‘N + 7’, for example, is applied by replacing each noun in a text with the seventh noun following it in the dictionary.

Here’s one they did to the beginning of the Book of Genesis:

‘In the behest, God created the heckelphone and the easement.  And the easement was without format, and void: and darshan was upon the facial of the defeasance.  And the spirituousness of God moved upon the facial of the wattles.  And God said, Let there be lights: and there was lights.’

If you, like me, enjoy making language a playground for purposes both serious and trivial, the Oulipo are worth knowing about.  Their story is one of eccentricity, wit and extraordinary persistence.  Its roots go back to the Surrealists and to another extraordinary and enduring institution: The College of ‘Pataphysics.


I have now to digress, in a way that I hope will cast light on the Oulipo, into the subject of ‘pataphysics.  The term was coined and the concept was created by the notable turn of the Twentieth Century French writer and absinthe drinker, Alfred Jarry, who defined it as ‘the science of imaginary solutions which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments’.  Make of this what you will, ‘pataphysics has also been described as a philosophy dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics and as dealing with "the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one".

Are you any the wiser?  I do hope not.

The College of ‘Pataphysics became an institution in 1948, long after Jarry’s untimely death in 1907.  Its early members included Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Eugene Ionesco and the Marx Brothers.  Its UK branch is the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics.  In a 2005 Guardian article, writer Zoë Corbyn described the college as an “elaborate pose”.  She continued: “Nonsensical beaurocracy is its hallmark and with a remit to conduct useless research, the college seems more of a joke than a serious enterprise.”

Whilst this dismissal possibly misses a point, humour is undoubtedly a hallmark.  Whilst browsing the web pages of the London Institute I was amused by its departmental acronyms.  DDT – the Department of Dogma and Theory; CHAP – the Committee for Hirsutism and Pogonotrophy (look it up – I had to); and BISI the Bureau of Subliminal Images (no, I don’t know what the first ‘I’ stands for either).

Origin of Oulipo

Prominent amongst the College’s early membership was the writer Raymond Queneau and his close friend François Le Lionnais.  Their respective ranks and titles in the college were ‘Transcendent Satrap’ and ‘Regent’.  These two gentlemen launched Oulipo as a sub-committee of the College.

Queneau (1903 – 1976) was a writer, a philosopher and member of the Surrealist group until 1929, when he left after a ‘violent disagreement’ with Andrē Breton.  What led to this disagreement (nor indeed just how violent it was) is not apparently recorded, but it is clear that Queneau had little time for the surrealists’ free associating and trancelike approach to the process of writing.  Queneau began his literary career in 1933 with the publication of ‘Le Chiendent’ (‘The Bark Tree’).  A competent amateur mathematician, he became increasingly interested in the integration of mathematical elements into the composition of his novels and poems.

He shared this mathematical interest with Le Lionnais (1901 – 1984).  The latter survived imprisonment in a World War 2 concentration camp, following his activities with the French Resistance.  His career began in industry and he went on to become a scientific adviser to the National Museums of France.  Le Lionnais did not see himself as a writer, but took fascination in the possibilities of what could be written, and it was this concept that was at the core, when he and Queneau inaugurated the Oulipo.

The name began as an abbreviation of ‘Ouvroir de Littērature Potentielle’ (which translates as ‘workshop of potential literature’).  The abbreviation: Ou. Li. Po. evolved into the noun, thus allowing for adjectives such as ‘Oulipian’ to be coined in due course.

Next time: we'll take a look at the concept of 'constraints' in more depth, and some of the extraordinary work these writers have produced.  Until then, may your ship sail smoothly and your anchor hold you well beside isles of plenty.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

From Launch to Lunch

Well, here we go, into the post-publication date/post launch phase of my enterprise.  Here's how the launch went:

April 2nd - Shaftesbury Arts Centre Book Launch

So it's 2pm and the tables we've set out are burgeoning with goodies that I've bought with the help of my good friend Elaine Cadogan, but which have been doubled in quantity by my ever resourceful sister Trish who has baked sweet and savoury scones, various pastries and a bunch more things with funny names that I can't remember.  Peter Rolfe and Pam Kelly are sat at the table ready to sell the books, Elaine is at the drinks table, Hilary doing the teas and coffees.  Now all we need is some people to wander in and buy the book.

Several kittens later it starts to happen and by 3pm the room has filled up quite nicely, at least some of the food mountain is being consumed and I've had a bit of practice at writing my name (a bit more and I should be able to spell it).  It's time to get up, say my thank-yous, reel off a few of the '23 Darned Good Reasons to Buy This Book' (as featured on the WMs blog) in the hope of getting some preliminary laughs, waffle a bit about how the project came about and then read a story from the book.  I do 'Enlightenment', the one about the evening class that - by the end of term - has become a deranged cult.  It seems to go down well and gets laughs in most of the places I was hoping to get 'em.  Phew.  

We sell enough books to slightly reduce the pile under my dining table, and it appears that everyone goes with the feeling they've had a good time.  Job done.  I'm still eating my way through the remaining 'nibbles' four days later.  I don't want to see another cocktail sausage for at least a year.  Oh no, wait...  I've got someone else's launch to go to in about half an hour's time...

Ah, the social whirl....

Actually, it's a week later and I'm still eating leftovers.  The other launch mentioned was a local arts group's launch and they had very sophisticated nibbles - pretzels, little crunchy savoury things - a rung or two up the class ladder, I suspect.  But hey, some of the paintings on display were delightful and if I had the money and the wall-space I'd have bought one or two of them.

I'm going easy on myself this post as I'd really like to do some work on my next project before another week winds to a close.  I don't know if any of the 'hits' on this blog mean that anyone is reading it with any regularity, but if anyone is and wonders what I look like when I am animatedly reading a story from Wilful Misunderstandings, here's one taken by Jamie Delano at the launch...

Whoo hoo.  There was an audience.  I didn't dream it.  

Or did I?

Happy trails.