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Ouilipo’s Future

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
pp. 21-22 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0063

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In 1960, a group of French writers, mathematicians, and academics identified themselves formally as the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Oulipo, the Workshop of Potential Literature, whose purpose was to pursue experiments in various forms of procedural writing—ways of putting words together derived from mathematics, the history of rhetoric and poetics, or whatever combinatory system might prove constructive, or at least conceptually interesting. In its early years, Oulipo was chiefly an underground community, but as old and new members came to prominence during the 1970s, the group gained recognition as a new wave of literary modernism, and during the last twenty years or so, it has even acquired an enthusiastic audience on this side of the Atlantic, thanks particularly to the work of Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Harry Mathews (this last until recently the only American member of Oulipo). Perec’s La Disparation (1960), a novel of some 300 pages that does not contain the letter e, has become the standard example of a Oulipian achievement, but one could cite (potential) works of even greater formal complexity—see, for example, “Mathews’s Algorithm” (Harry Mathews, The Case of The Persevering Maltese: Selected Essays [2003]). Warren Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (1986), an anthology of Oulipian essays and manifestos, provides perhaps the best introduction in English to the early history and theory of the group’s practices. More recently, Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (2012) has given us an engaging account of the workshop’s members and activities over the past half a century.

But in what sense, shape, or condition is Oulipo still a living thing? That, basically, is the question that Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito try to address in The End of Oulipo? It is, after all, in the nature of literary movements to die out or, what is worse, to linger interminably in a fruitless afterlife. Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, Elkin and Esposito are both critical and yet optimistic about the current state of Oulipo’s innovative efforts, especially when viewed (as Esposito views them) against the background of George Perec’s achievements. Esposito’s contribution—“Eight Glances Past Georges Perec”—takes Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (1978), translated by David Bellos as Life: A User’s Manual (1987), as the touchstone against which all once and future attempts at procedural writing are to be measured. Esposito reminds us that the constraints Perec followed in his writing are not merely formal—chess moves, for example—but substantive as well. In an essay, “Notes on What I’m Looking For,” Perec objected to critics who viewed him as “a sort of computer, a machine for producing texts,” and by way of correction, he described his modes of composition in the following terms: 1) “sociological”—“how to look at the everyday”; 2) “autobiographical,” which entailed among other things an obsession with disappearance (Perec lost his parents during World War II); 3) “ludic”—that is, a delight in Oulipian word play, especially “palindromes, lipograms, pangrams, anagrams, isograms, acrostics, crosswords, etc.”; and finally, 4) “the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face-down on your bed: Life a User’s Manual is the typical example.”

The first of these modes is worth some emphasis. Recently, Mark Lowenthal has given us a translation of Perec’s Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2012), which is something like a poetics of the “infra-ordinary,” which figures writing not as a form of expression but as the obsessive documentation of “that which is generally not taken note of, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” (Perec’s L’infra-ordinaire [1989] still awaits its English translation.) Esposito makes the valuable point that such exhaustive attention is a way of defamiliarizing what lies in plain view in order to make it visible again, or possibly even for the first time. One recalls—besides the Russian Formalists—Wittgenstein’s effort to bring cognition down to earth: “don’t think, but look” (Philosophical Investigations, §66). Look, in...

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