The Magazine

Words at Play

Cracking the code of the Workshop for Potential Literature.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By SARA LODGE
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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.

Anyone who has ever seen a sign in the street reading “Bill Stickers will be Prosecuted” and has felt tempted to add the time-honored retort “Bill Stickers is Innocent!” has experienced the protean energy of language, which allows it to say more than we intend. Oulipians love to expose and embrace the “accidental” pun, the “misspelling” that turns out to be full of suggestive meanings. Attempts at censorship inevitably speak of the very matters they seek to repress. Oulipians are drawn to exploring, via literature, the paradoxical relationship between limitation and freedom.

In the immediate postwar period, that relationship was fraught with historical significance. Like Calvino, François Le Lionnais—cofounder of the OuLiPo—had been a member of the Resistance. Le Lionnais, by profession an industrial chemist, was interrogated, tortured, and put to work designing (and sometimes sabotaging) V2 missiles for the Germans. He was sent to concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau. He survived by reconstructing, in his mind’s eye, in astonishing detail, favorite paintings that he had seen. He then imagined characters from one masterpiece visiting and interacting with ones in another. He countered the physical confines of imprisonment by creating an imaginative plane in which the boundaries of art—time, materiality, the distinctness of the individual work—dissolved. 

The OuLiPo was born over a decade later, but its playful, yet serious, postmodern experimentation can in part be traced to the need for escape and renewal that the trauma of Nazi occupation produced. That Oulipians are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape” is a powerful metaphor for citizens choosing to revisit, by their own volition, the notion of constraint as a source of artistic power.

Becker’s account of the OuLiPo begins with the 2008 funeral of an Oulipian, François Caradec, and introduces us, with wry observation, to the current characters and workings of the Oulipian group. He then doubles back to offer us a history of the OuLiPo, his experience of working as a volunteer cataloguer of its archives, and his induction to its practices. Becker is a shrewd and entertaining writer: His youthful enthusiasm is infectious and his style, which has hints of modern American intellectual goofballers such as David Foster Wallace, combines the erudite with a cheerfully self-conscious admission of obsessive word-nerdiness. His footnotes become impressive, digressive asides. He confesses to having edited graffiti in bathroom stalls and to having “jeopardized romantic relationships by correcting completely inconsequential confusions of which and that.” Among the Oulipian projects he dreams of completing is a cycle of stories whose themes are determined by their word count.

While not everyone will share Becker’s fanatical delight in the formal patterns of language and the “coolness” of constrained writing, his insistence that this type of writing can open unexpected creative doors is persuasive. We are all familiar with the sonnet, the haiku, perhaps also the sestina: limited poetic forms with strict rules that inspire writers. But why not try creating a sardinosaur, a poème de métro, or a beau présent

A sardinosaur is a composite literary animal, an “inter-species lovechild,” in which the tail of one creature is shared with the beginning of another. Thus, you might populate your imagination with anteloppossums, ocelotters, or camelephants

A poème de métro is a free-verse form with rigid compositional rules. When you board the metro train, you compose the first line of a poem. When the train makes its first stop, you write the line down. When the train starts moving again, you compose the second line. At the second stop you must write it down. You can’t compose while the train is stopped or write anything down while it is moving. You write the last line when you arrive at your destination. According to Becker, it is “surprisingly challenging” since the time strictures make it “like a suicide-aerobics drill for the parts of your mind that usually make observations into ruminations and ruminations into language.”

A beau présent, meanwhile, is a poem that contains only the letters in the recipient’s name. Writing one for Malcolm X would thus pose a challenge. But writing one for Daniel Levin Becker is a breeze. To prove it, I had a go myself:

Carved in red and black

A riddle

I revealed. 

Driven live and

Never end.

If Oulipian constraints are labyrinths from which one must escape, then this may be the starter version, where almost every path leads to an exit.

Oulipians argue, reasonably enough, that all language works by imposing codes and limitations, through alphabets and certain conventions about what counts as a word and how communication is structured. Once you become aware of the possible complexity of the codes underlying the structure of literary works, then your eyes will become sharper and brighter. You will become a literary detective, always looking for pattern—for Fibonacci sequences embedded in the first lines of novels, for cereal box advertisements that are accidental haikus. This is part of the point of reading and writing in the Oulipian spirit. It makes us aware of potentiality in every crook and nanny.

Becker’s account of the OuLiPo is not seamless. It starts out with the wit and verve of a piece of literary journalism, but in places has the finicky attention to detail of a graduate thesis. Not all readers will be equally fascinated by the enumeration of the many different organizations that have spun off from OuLiPo: the OuMuPo (workshop of potential music), OuBaPo (comic strip artists), and OuFlarfPo (poets who generate poetry with the aid of search engines). This may, then, only be a book to rush out and buy if you already are (or know) the kind of person who is susceptible to the flicker of the Oulipian flame, someone who enjoys leaping the hurdles of a cryptic crossword, can fire a pun, and run an acrostic.

But Becker is set to join the select band of triple-barreled American authors (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer) who write hip books with weird titles that are nonetheless engaging. I, for one, am so intrigued by the knowledge that the OuLiPo is still alive—and that this odd group of intellectuals regularly meets to air its experiments—that I am tempted to visit Paris to attend one of their Thursday open sessions, where members of the public can watch. 

Let’s face it: We all need a serious, intellectual reason to visit Paris. I’ll be the one in the third row from the back with a T-shirt that says “Don’t Feed the Crocodilettante.”

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.