The Magazine

Words at Play

Cracking the code of the Workshop for Potential Literature.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By SARA LODGE
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Did you hear about the Oulipian stripper? She delivered a lipogram before vanishing, with an invisible wink. 

Raymond Queneau in a photo booth, ca. 1929

Raymond Queneau in a photo booth, ca. 1929

If this joke means nothing to you, then you are—like myself and 99.9 percent of other humans—not a member of the exclusive club of verbal wrestlers, jugglers, and tightrope-walkers who call themselves the OuLiPo, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature. The OuLiPo has a quasi-mythical cult status in France, partly because it is so exclusive (asking to join automatically debars you from membership) and because its 38 members have included Marcel Duchamp, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec—leading lights in the avant-garde of postmodern art, philosophy, and fiction.

Luckily, a young Yale graduate called Daniel Levin Becker has gained membership in this mysterious enclave, only the second American ever to do so. In Many Subtle Channels, he reports from the frontier about the cultural antics of a group that has stimulated some of the most influential as well as some of the most frivolous works of European literature. Becker is clearly entranced by the OuLiPo, and his likably geeky fascination both with its annals and its ongoing activities draws readers in, until we are persuaded that, despite its reputation as a historical coterie, the OuLiPo’s ideas remain alive and offer something of potential value to everyone.

The OuLiPo was founded in Paris in 1960 as an invitation-only supper club by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, both polymath writers who wanted to explore the multidimensional possibilities of writing through inquiry and experimentation. A key feature of the experiments would be structural “constraints”: schemes and forms designed, through limitation, to force the mind into agile, creative responses. A lipogram, for example, is a text that deliberately excludes one or more letters. (The most famous example is Georges Perec’s detective novel, The Disappearance, which does not use the letter “e.”) As Becker explains, the OuLiPo is precise about what it is not: 

It is not a movement, or an -ism, or a school. It does not have an agenda, aesthetic or political or otherwise. .  .  . [I]t does not purport to tell anyone what literature should or must be. What it does is tell anyone who cares to listen about what literature could and might be, sometimes by speculation, other times by demonstration.

Oulipians come from different walks of life—computer programming, telecommunications, poetry, philosophy—and each will approach differently the questions of what literature could be, and what could be literature. The mesh of scientists and writers is important. The early members of the OuLiPo were particularly fascinated by the linkages between mathematics and language. One of the first “Oulipian” works Queneau produced is A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. It is a book of 10 sonnets, each with 14 lines of identical scansion and end-rhyme (chemise, frise, marquise). Each poem fits onto a page, cut into 14 strips: one for each line. The idea is that, gingerly flipping the strips back and forward—as you may have done in childhood to create animals with varying heads, bodies, and tails—you can create 100 billion potential poems. It is a small, but also practically bottomless, text.

Later works, like Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, employ more subtle numerical codes to structure their narratives. Calvino’s novel makes you, the reader, the protagonist of his story. You discover the beginnings of different texts in various genres and styles—but each time, just as you start to be sucked into the particular tale, it breaks off. The remaining pages are missing and your pursuit of them involves increasingly desperate visits to a bookshop, a publisher, and jail. Like Scheherazade, Calvino teases us with the coitus interruptus of the infinitely deferred story, bringing us back to a consciousness of the process of reading as a self-referential adventure. Such Oulipian texts allow us to enjoy imaginatively what is not there, as much as what is; they also revel in the potential accidents that constantly occur in and to writing. As Calvino muses:

It is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible, that is, through the uncertainties of spelling, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and pen.