Jacques Bens

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The Independent Online

Jacques Bens, writer: born Cadolive, France 25 March 1931; died Bedoin, France 26 July 2001.

The recent announcement in Le Monde was certainly curious, a small paid notice proclaiming:

L'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (The Workshop for Potential Literature) has the sadness of announcing that, since Thursday 26 July 2001, Jacques Bens, novelist, short-story writer, poet, crossword-puzzler, founding member of the OuLiPo, is excused from its meetings due to his death.

The tone of this statement gives some suggestion of the nature of this OuLiPo. L'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle is a mysterious if not clandestine organisation that has long been a deliberately oblique part of French culture but which remains central to the lives of its members, not least Jacques Bens. For Bens was a founding member of the Ouvroir and actually present at its original 10-day meeting at Cerisy-la-Salle organised in the summer of 1960 by the writer Raymond Queneau and the mathematician François le Lionnais.

Here the methods behind "potential literature" were first broached: a literature which embraces systems, programmes, complex games and self-imposed rules of great difficulty, the diametric opposite of free association, spontaneous prose or stream of consciousness. OuLiPo members are committed to experimentation and research which lead to increasingly challenging tasks, such as the lipogram which requires the suppression of one letter, acrostic verse patterns or the classic palindrome.

Perhaps the best demonstration of OuLiPo techniques came from Georges Perec, who wrote an entire novel without the letter "e" (the most common in the French tongue) and created the longest palindrome in French or any other language. Other notable OuLiPo members include Italo Calvino and Jacques Roubaud as well as artists such as Marcel Duchamp or Enrico Baj; indeed the organisation has branched out to include "potential" painters, cooks and crime writers, all using similarly restrictive forms.

On 24 November 1960 the OuLiPo was officially created at the Parisian restaurant Le Vrai Gascon, and according to Bens' own typed notes he was appointed "sécrétaire définitivement provisoire" or "definitely provisional secretary". A role he was to relish all his adult life.

Bens was a quintessential OuLiPo member because his single passion, writing, included every potential form, whether crosswords, technical manuals, transcriptions, ghost writing or copywriting, what he termed his "prose secrétariale". This emphasis on writing in its least self-important, least Romantic mode, engine instructions, recipes, inventories, is typical of the OuLiPo desire to free literature from the autobiographical.

Indeed, Bens' own personal life outside full-time literary work hardly rivals Hemingway. He was born in 1931 at Cadolive, in the Bouches-du-Rhône just beyond Marseilles. Both his parents were teachers and his father-in-law was a well-known educator of the period, a didactic formation akin to OuLiPo ideals. "I am one of the two provincials of the group," Bens declared with typical dry wit. "Which isn't nothing, if it isn't everything."

Bens was already the tribunal president of the "Collège de Pataphysique" (an even more obscure organisation based around the pseudo-science of the absurdist Alfred Jarry), and this led him in turn to Raymond Queneau. Bens' scientific studies brought him close to Queneau, the legendary author of Zazie dans le Métro, who asked the young man to work with him on the authoritative Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Bens published a study of Queneau in 1962 as well as later works on Boris Vian and Marcel Pagnol.

He was also a key figure for the OuLiPo as their dedicated minute taker, secretary and highly professional scribe, for group meetings were famously protracted, complex and bilious, a taste for excellent wine being another of the members' shared characteristics. Further proof of Bens' secretarial excellence came with his appointment in the 1980s as secretary general of the Société des Gens de Lettres de France (SGDL).

Bens edited several key works in the history of the OuLiPo including the seminal Guide des Jeux d'esprit in 1967 and the definitive Bibliothèque oulipienne published in several volumes from 1990. Bens published two volumes of his own crosswords but also a large body of poetry, fiction, and prose verse. Indeed his first book of "prose versifiée", Chanson vécue, won the prestigious Fénéon prize in 1958. In the same vein came such books as 41 sonnets irrationnels (1962) and Le Retour au pays (1966).

He defined his literary terrain "des histoires d'amour" and stuck to it through more than 15 novels and short-story collections. Though he won the Goncourt prize twice, with the historical narrative Gaspard de Besse in 1986 and a collection of stories, Nouvelles désenchantées, in 1990, Bens remained a relatively marginal figure. As an archetypal "writer's writer" Bens would not have wanted it any other way but the title of his recent book Lente sortie de l'ombre ("Slow Exit from the Shadow") hints at an increasingly public profile.

Throughout Jacques Bens' oeuvre there is the haunting echo of mortality, a sense of death as the ultimate liberty. As he wrote in his "Chanson vécue xi": "J'aimais si fort ma solitude / Que pour s'accomplir mon destin / Devait m'accorder cette gloire / De mourir seul sur l'océan" – "I love my solitude so strongly / That to accomplish my destiny / Should grant me this glory / To die alone upon the ocean".

Adrian Dannatt

Further to your obituary of my friend Jacques Bens, writes Stanley Chapman, it might interest your readers to know that two years ago, knowing that he was unlikely to recover as a complete paraphysician, he wrote a short and brilliant Opus Posthume which was published in the series Bibliothèque Oulipienne.

Two or three of his ¼-shaped sonnets and a short fragment of one of his novels were published in Britain in long out-of-print anthologies.