Books: There's method in the madness

A novel without the letter `e'? A poem that would take 190 million years to read? Welcome to Oulipo, where writing is played strictly by the rules. By Kevin Jackson
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To be or not to be: that was the quotation. I was in Paris, being given a beginner's lesson in a particular literary technique by the writer and classical historian Marcel Benabou. "Choose a famous line of English poetry," he instructed. Too bemused (or not too be-mused?) to come up with anything more original, I opted for the first line of Hamlet's soliloquy.

"Good. Now think of a replacement for the verb `to be'." "How about `to agree'?" "Very good. Now, a word that rhymes with `question'." "OK, `digestion'." "And now what do you have?" "To agree or not to agree: that is digestion." (Which just about passes muster as an accurate definition, if you think of idiomatic expressions such as "cheese doesn't agree with me".) "Voila! We have created a new line of English verse."

Not a very impressive line, perhaps, but, as I say, this was only a beginner's lesson. Had I been able to stay in Paris for a few more days, M Benabou might have been able to give me lessons in other, more advanced techniques employed by the Oulipo, a writers' group of which he is the "Definitively Provisional Secretary". Application of some of these Oulipian techniques to Shakespeare's lines may result in, for example, "To be or not to be: that's the problem" (lipogram in I); "To be or not to be: that is not the question" (negation); "To beckon or not to beckon: that is the quinsy" (transposition, W+7); "Note at his behest: bet on toot or quit" (anagram); "At a bier, a nutty boy, too, heats the queasy tone" (homoconsonatism); "Two-beer naughty beat shatters equation" (homophony); or the charming snowball:












Readers curious to see what other diverting trifles may be prepared from the Bard's chestnut should turn at once to page 111 (a palindrome, I note) of the newly published Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (Atlas Press), which prints the complete text of Mr Mathews' "35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare", as well as many other feats of ingenuity by that alert, alarming, allusive and altogether admirable American author. The Oulipo Compendium is, appropriately, the most compendious guide to the work of the Oulipo that has so far appeared in English.

If you've already heard of the Oulipo, you'll probably have made up your mind as to the wisdom or folly of their collective enterprise. If you haven't, but have been willing to venture at least as far as this paragraph into uncharted territory, you'll have worked out that Oulipianism has at least something to do with verbal games-playing. You deserve, at least, the courtesy of a little historical background.

Put most simply (a practice few Oulipians would tend to favour, unless to simplify involved, say, stripping away all the consonants from a sentence: "o e o o o e: a i e ue io..."), the Oulipo is a society of authors, mostly French, with a light sprinkling of Anglophones, who have devoted themselves to the production of highly idiosyncratic literary works - ranging in scale from the miniature (such as a one-letter poem by Francois Le Lionnais, which reads, in full: "T") to the epic, such as Georges Perec's La Vie, mode d'emploi (Life, a User's Manual) - all of which are written in accordance with strict, sometimes impossibly strict, self-imposed formal constraints.

(The preceding paragraph was made of a single sentence: a childishly easy discipline.) Probably the most commonly cited example of the impossibly strict constraint is Perec's lipogrammatic novel La disparition, which never employs the letter "e", and which has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void. Both the French and the English versions include a miniature anthology of well-known poems, lipogrammatised into e-lessness, so that in Adair's version "To be or not to be" suffers the outrageous fortune of mutation into "Living or not living".

Perec went on to write a novella, Les revenentes, in which those repressed es returned with a vengeance, and usurped the place of all the other vowels; this work has also been translated into English, by Ian Monk, as The Exeter Text.

But I flee from my principal theme. (To flee or not to flee, lee, that is digression.) Some of Oulipo's leading lights, like Perec himself, have managed to become fairly well known around the world despite the relative obscurity of their party of allegiance. Italo Calvino was a member, and his novels The Castle of Crossed Destinies (based on the Tarot deck of cards) and If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (based on some formulations by the semiologist AJ Greimas) are Oulipian fictions that have won a more general readership. Raymond Queneau, still probably best known in Britain for his best-selling novel Zazie dans le Metro, was, in effect, the movement's founding father - or, as one Oulipian put it: "the members of the Oulipo are characters in an unwritten novel by Raymond Queneau."

To be (or... no, forget it) more prosaic, the Oulipo, or Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle ("Workshop for potential literature") was founded on 24 November 1960, at a meeting of mathematicians and writers convened by Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais (1901-1984). Queneau had recently been at work on his mind-boggling text 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, a sequence of 10 sonnets, printed on pages that are cut along each line from the edge of page towards spine, so that the lines can be read in a total of 10 to the power 14 possible combinations. (Queneau calculated that it would take 190, 258, 751 years to read.) While at work on this singular effort, Queneau asked Le Lionnais for help and advice; their discussions soon broadened out into more general questions as to how mathematical structures might be incorporated into literature.

Before long, the founding members of Oulipo had modified this original brief into something close to its present form: an investigation of the fun and profit to be found in the constraint. Le Lionnais also presided over the foundation of several kindred research groups, known as the Ou- x-pos, where "x" denotes the field of activity: hence the Oupeinpo, for work in the visual arts, and the Oulipopo (Ouvroir de Litterature Policiere Potentielle), for detective fiction, as well as the Oubapo (comic strips), Oucuipo (cooking), Ouhistpo (history), Oumupo (music), Ouphopo (photography) and Outrapo (tragi-comedy).

You have been very patient with me, hypothetical reader, but I'm sure that you are now bursting to say something along the lines of: "Yes, yes, but is any of this stuff really any good, or is it just a matter of party- games for the over-educated?" Well, de gustibus and all that. My immediate replies would be "Both" or "I can certainly say that Oulipian writing has given me a lot of pleasure".

Nor is it all about literary fun and frolics. For Jacques Roubaud, a professor of mathematics, novelist and, by some reckonings, France's most distinguished living poet, Oulipian techniques have been a way both of surmounting writer's block and of coming to terms with bereavement. His autobiographical fiction, The Great Fire of London, is heartbreaking. Marcel Benabou, too, has produced searching Oulipian autobiography, notably in Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.

When I asked him for a general statement of the value of Oulipian research and composition, he said: "all we are really doing is rediscovering what people found at the very beginnings of literature. If you look at ancient Chinese writing, pre-Islamic writing, Hebrew writing... you'll find that there is this same desire to explore the possibilities of languages and structures."

On a more prosaic level, every working journalist understands the pressures and pleasures of numerical constraint. My editor, for example, insisted that this piece should be 1400 words long. Well, so it is: exactly 1400. I took such care to make it precise that I'm brooding about the possibility of charging him extra for it. To fee or not to fee, that's my obsession.

`Oulipo Compendium' and `The Way Home' by Harry Mathews are available at good bookshops or direct from BCM Atlas Press, London WC1N 3XX