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Boyd Tonkin: Singing in the chains: a tongue-tied heroine

The Week In Books

Ambitious authors who fancy a tough climb may wish to try writing a work that wholly lacks, or flags up, particular linguistic traits. Such a book might limit its span to a tight vocabulary, cut parts of normal lingo, or fix strict laws to follow – as in many kinds of sport. A bunch of smart guys did such tricks in Paris not too long ago. "Oulipo" was this group's tag. That gang could brag about fabulous high points though, as all cults do, it soon ran out of puff. But that notion of a sort of writing bound by voluntary chains, as a big gambit against stiff odds, still has its fans. Fix your idiom, runs this mantra, and it will allow your imagination to soar.

Phew ... or perhaps, aargh! That was an Oulipian paragraph. This will not try to be. The Parisian pranksters' best-known achievement remains Georges Perec's novel without a single "e", La Disparition. With stunning brilliance, Gilbert Adair emulated what Oulipo calls a "lipogram" as he translated it into the equally e-less A Void. Oulipo, by the way, survived to thrive again: its current president, novelist and diplomat, is Paul Fournel, literature attaché at the French embassy in London.

Any poet, however amateur, who knows the unconscious rewards of rhyme will grasp the creative logic behind Oulipo's experiments. All works of art fix rules for themselves as a source of liberation. Save for the odd world-shaking genius, the freer the verse – or the fiction – the lower its value. Even in a time of anything-goes aesthetics, a set of self-chosen manacles may tempt. The Dogme film-makers, such as Lars von Trier, made an international splash with their no-frills manifesto.

But Oulipo, created in 1960 by a group that spanned engineers and mathematicians as well as literati, set the gold standard for artistic inspiration through willing bondage. One of its founders was the French-based American writer, Harry Mathews. His warm endorsement can be found on the cover of a slim novel by Paul Griffiths, Let Me Tell You (Reality Street Editons, £9).

Griffiths, a leading music critic and author of two other novels, here lets Ophelia recount her story in her own words. Literally. His first-person narration uses only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet. It sounds bizarre. Yet the result is tender, touching and extremely beautiful. Neither archaic nor colloquial, Ophelia's language both reflects her bounded life and strives to overcome it. "My words may be poor," as she says, "but they will have to do".

We grow accustomed to this sad young woman's voice. The limits of her speech begin to feel as natural as breathing. They never muffle – in fact, they intensify – her bewilderment at Hamlet's pain, a lost soul "of such cold woe that one could weep". They brighten the glimpses of a happy childhood, quicken the anguish of estrangement from Laertes ("how could that sweet little brother of my memory have turned in to this?") and sharpen anger at her mother's neglect as she sports lasciviously with her lovers: "To be gyved. To be jangled. To be larded. To be larded all over and in me. To be done. To be well and truly done."

As the plot of Hamlet circles round her like a wolf from the surrounding snows, she seeks to give it the slip and "make another way" (shades of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Ophelia feels, and shows, that "there's more to me now than the poor, sweet daughter". And she does so in achingly lovely words – all her own words – that stem from Shakespeare but bring Beckett's later prose to mind.

Sceptics often assume that Oulipo-style obstacles imprison feeling in a cage of constraint. Rhyming poetry has for centuries proved otherwise. Let Me Tell You narrows its range to deepen its impact (again, Beckett is the exemplar). Not many authors will want to wear such shackles. Only a few can ever make them sing. But when work of this poignant beauty comes along, less really does mean more.

P.S.I once heard Mick Imlah, who died on Monday, silence a chatty dinner-table by singing – gloriously – "The Bonny Earl of Murray". "Ye Highlands, and ye Lawlands,/ Oh! whair hae ye been?/ They hae slaine the earl of Murray/ And hae layd him on the green..." Many sad words have marked the passing of a deeply gifted poet. Here are happier ones from "Iona", a prayer for his daughter, "my perfect rhyme", in last year's The Lost Leader: "how you would seize the reins, Iona, /riding my shoulders over the hill/ Or rarely sitting still,/ your hands spread on my knees, my jeans/ the sidelines of your throne./ Succession is easy: first it was them,/ then me for a bit; and now it's you." In poetry, succession is harder: first Michael Donaghy, now Mick Imlah, leaders lost in their prime. "An the bonny Earl of Murray,/ O he might hae been a king!"