The End of Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, and: Une nouvelle pratique littéraire en France: Histoire du groupe Oulipo de 1960 à nos jours / Creating a New French Literary Style: A History of the Oulipo Circle by Cécile De Bary
Two recent texts join the field of research on the Oulipo writing group. The End of Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement is a slim volume, mostly comprising two essays and a preface. Authors Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito contribute one essay each, in which they address some of the issues that have arisen with the present-day Oulipo. Cécile De Bary’s Une nouvelle pratique littéraire en France: Histoire du groupe Oulipo de 1960 à nos jours is almost as brief, and assesses the Oulipo in terms of its evolution from experimental workshop to literary group.
The Oulipo, or “Ouvoir de littérature potentielle” (“Workshop of potential literature”) is now over fifty years old. It was founded in November 1960 by novelist Raymond Queneau and polymath François Le Lionnais, as a group dedicated to investigating what they called “potential literature.” The jointly-written preface to The End of Oulipo? explains what this means: “The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated” (1).
The preface of The End of Oulipo? provides a brief overview of the group, just enough to acquaint newcomers, before moving on to the study’s critical work. For Oulipo devotees, or anyone who first reads De Bary’s book or (Oulipian) Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (2012), this section does not contain much that is new. Attentive readers may also note with irritation that Marcel Duchamp is listed as a founding member on the first page; while a member of the group’s first generation, Duchamp did not actually join until 1962. Nevertheless, for its brevity, the section commendably brings newcomers up to speed with the long history of a complicated group, and raises the book’s key questions. In short, the authors ask where the Oulipo can go from here, and what changes might improve the group’s literary output and future viability.
To get to these questions, Elkin and Esposito’s preface reviews what (and where) the Oulipo has been. They cover the group’s founding, its [End Page 156] initial obscurity, Queneau’s break with the Surrealists, Le Lionnais’s manifestos, the creative boom of the sixties and seventies, and the movement’s present-day stagnation, which is blamed in part on the failings of a younger generation. Despite the book’s title, and its criticism of the current state of affairs, this preface is favorable to Oulipo (perhaps excepting the treatment of some select writers). The authors write: “Were the Oulipo to come to an end tomorrow it could only be regarded as an immense success” (9). The authors evidently care about the group, which is why they set out to critique it. Levin Becker argues that potential literature is “both the things that literature could be and the things that could be literature” (9); Elkin and Esposito’s investigation looks at the potential of the Oulipo itself. They are writing for the sake of its future, wanting it to be what it could be, and pointing to today’s writers who might deserve to join its ranks.
Esposito’s essay, “Eight Glances Past Georges Perec,” begins by noting the absence of reference to Perec in David Shields’s plagiaristic manifesto Reality Hunger. Reality Hunger advocates art that has a greater engagement with reality, by way of its use of collage and plagiarism. Esposito shows that Shields’s core descriptors of innovation “are all salient aspects of . . . Georges Perec[’s]” literary practice (15), as are Perec’s (and the Oulipo’s) own exploration of plagiarism in the collectively-written Winter Journeys series. Esposito argues that discussion of Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual ) should have been included in Reality Hunger, and he goes on to make the larger case for placing Perec “among the greatest avant-garde writers of the twentieth century” (15). With that said, the absence of any mention of Perec and discussion of his influence in Shields’s manifesto does seem appropriate, if one keeps in mind Perec’s lipogrammatic writing in La disparition (A Void ). Like the absent letter e in La disparition, Perec’s non-appearance in Reality Hunger makes his importance more greatly felt. Esposito also goes so far as to assert that “Perec informs the work of writers who are currently pushing far beyond the style and aspirations that Shields claims are new in Reality Hunger” (21).
In his introductory remarks, Esposito evokes works by Ben Marcus, Lars Iyer, and Walter Benjamin that have had a critical bearing on the history of the Oulipo phenomenon, and this discussion is itself insightful and wide-ranging. The End of Oulipo? is, however, primarily concerned with the group’s future, and as such, Esposito turns his attention to contemporary writer Jacques Jouet. Jouet is a prolific writer “in just about every medium imaginable” (Levin Becker 25). He has invented a poetic form called the “metro poem,” a practice defined by the stopping and starting of a subway train wherein the poet creates while the train is in motion, and [End Page 157] writes when it has stopped. Levin Becker explains that Jouet’s work has an “underlying conception of poetry as a communal activity” (71). It becomes a collective endeavor not just through the social aspect of Jouet’s metro practice, but through his workshops, his practice of writing in public, and his demonstration of the ways in which poetic structures can be used by anyone. In this regard, Jouet might in some respects have also been suitably included among the writers Shields considers in Reality Hunger. Yet Esposito does not disguise his dim view of Jouet’s work. For him, metro poems have “little literary value” and possess “the mealy-mouthed quality of a first draft” (34). With respect to Jouet’s prose, Esposito has some praise for Upstaged, but none for My Beautiful Bus (35–36). To his mind, Jouet goes too far in the demystification of literature, although as Levin Becker notes, Jouet does at least routinely burn his drafts (74). In place of Jouet, Esposito recommends the Argentine novelist César Aira, who is not currently a member of the Oulipo, but whose work he champions regularly on his blog Conversational Reading. Aira’s improvisation and prolificacy are “an example of what the fulfillment of Jouet’s aspirations might look like” (38). Esposito also places Aira’s work on a par with Oulipian Jacques Roubaud’s achievements in Great Fire of London (41).
While Aira’s works are typically short, Roubaud’s Great Fire is a lengthy series of books that are now gradually making their way into English. Aira improvises, incorporates observations, and does not revise, while Roubaud’s writing appears carefully composed. Nevertheless, the comparison is apt, as both authors use the conditions of writing to propel their work forward. In the first volume, titled The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, Roubaud writes “I would like, in short, to preserve almost unchanged the conditions for a prose experience that will . . . be a daily one: the place will be nearly invariable, the time fixed . . .” (4). The book branches off into digressions, called “interpolations and bifurcations,” which make up a section of endnotes. The symbols for these interruptions appear within the text (sometimes displacing its lines), as testament to the act of writing. We can see this sort of emphasis placed on the writing process in both Aira and Jouet (particularly in metro poems), but according to Esposito, it is Aira who more frequently produces worthy literary results.
After discarding Jouet in favor of Aira, Esposito names three other non-Oulipians whom he sees as successors to Perec. In place of Jacques Jouet and Hervé Le Tellier (the focus of Elkin’s essay) – who, he claims, merely “play in the sandbox made by Perec, Queneau and [Italo] Calvino” (44) – Esposito proposes Tom McCarthy, Édouard Levé, and Christian Bök as authors whose writings have been influenced by Perec and who are best equipped to revitalize literature and the Oulipo. In Bök’s case, “the fact [End Page 158] that he has not yet been co-opted is perhaps evidence of the movement’s increasing irrelevance” (55). While he would certainly be at home in the group (his own critiques of the Oulipo notwithstanding), Bök’s status as a successor to Perec may also offer the best opportunity for the group’s continuing relevance, member or not. As someone who’s paid tribute to Perec and worked within an Oulipian tradition, it would be wrong to dismiss the group even if Bök never joined; rather, its potential has made much of his work possible.
Elkin’s essay, “Oulipo Lite,” has a narrower focus: the unserious, rather more public phase of the Oulipo’s history that began in the 1980s. At the heart of this moment is Hervé Le Tellier, who, Elkin observes, “plays it safe” in executing his constraints (69). In her view, Le Tellier’s caution, and this more playful tendency, may not be such a problem, but his sexism is. Elkin lists “69 Theses, Notes, and Observations on Why Hervé Le Tellier Matters,” although some of her points are just jokes. (Elkin quotes a review of Le Tellier’s The Sextine Chapel, which characterizes its humor as occasionally “limp.” She responds: “That’s a mean thing to say about a penis-driven narrative” ). Presumably the number was chosen to suit Le Tellier’s themes of love, as well as for humor’s sake. Elkin’s essay adopts a more conversational and sometimes jocular tone than Esposito’s, though the critical stakes in her analysis are higher. The object of the essay is not just an assessment the Oulipo’s contemporary work, but the representation and status of women in both the group and its output.
Elkin takes apart Le Tellier’s Je m’attache très facilement (The Intervention of a Good Man ), Assez parlé d’amour (Enough About Love ), and La Chapelle Sextine (The Sextine Chapel ), moving from criticisms of the individual works to commentary about the group as a whole. Her remarks about the books are sharp, and incisive enough to make readers rethink their view of Le Tellier with some degree of discomfort. More important, however, is how Le Tellier’s writing reflects on the group as a whole. I do not think Elkin hopes to strip him of his membership – one is an Oulipian for life, and she still holds out hope for him (101). Rather, she is pointing out the general marginalization of women within the avant-garde. The Oulipo is, after all, still primarily male-dominated, and for a time allowed no women at all.
The problem with unserious Oulipian writing such as Le Tellier’s “Oulipo Lite” is that it does not question or examine the existing structures of either power or language. Le Tellier gets away with quaint or erotic stories that use rudimentary constraints, while Queneau, Perec, and feminism in general at least “attempted to read life and literature against the grain” (79). The latter were innovative with language, changing the way we might understand it. Our language lets us make sense of [End Page 159] a world that gave us language in the first place, but our understanding of it has perhaps become too narrow. At the end of her essay, Elkin recommends Sphinx (1986) by Oulipian Anne Garréta, a love story that makes no reference to gender at all (98). It is this kind of inventive writing that interrogates our very modes of interpretation. The constraint imposed (here, writing a text devoid of gender markers) disrupts the inner workings of signifying processes, and expands the limits of our language, and hence our experience.
Elkin proposes that the revitalization of the Oulipo will come with more self-examination, the imposition of more rigorous constraints, and a greater female presence in the group. She recommends that the group promote Garréta’s work more, and hoped at the time of writing that Sphinx would one day be translated; it since has, though the book is now twenty years old. The Oulipo is already invested in promoting the creation of literature (its constraints are available for anyone to use), but it must move beyond Le Tellier’s simplistic, chauvinistic writing and Jouet’s project of demystifying literature. Elkin’s opening remarks concern the Oulipo’s contemporary “performance,” and while she does not mention Jouet, Esposito’s assessment of his work in the same volume implicates the poet in the dynamics Elkin critiques. Running workshops and writing in public may democratize literature, but the experiments do not innovate, and thus they pose no challenge.
In the end, Le Tellier arguably gets fairer treatment than Jouet. Elkin, who is detailed in her interrogation of Le Tellier’s work, offers a valid ethical critique of his writing. Her co-author, however, sets Jouet up to fail. Esposito’s discussion of Jouet comes after the high praise he gives Perec, and the works he chooses to analyze lack the formal complexity, for instance, of La Vie mode d’emploi. While united under the label “Oulipian” (which itself can mean many different things), these two writers have different projects. The procedure Jouet uses in the metro poem follows rules that “bear on the process of writing,” which are defined by Chris Andrews as “protocols” (1). These are distinct from more formal constraints such as the lipogram. In addition to considering the protocol’s literary effects, critics such as Andrews also offer compelling arguments for considering Jouet’s metro poems as expressions of conceptual art and appreciate their creative possibilities.
One must also concede that Perec is, with good reason, so highly esteemed that many authors cannot help in comparison but fall short of his achievements. He looms large in the Oulipo, and while his addition to the group in 1967 was itself revitalizing for their work (as detailed in Roubaud’s “Perecquian OULIPO” ), he is only one member. Jouet may be more deserving of a comparison to Duchamp or (Oulipian precursor) [End Page 160] Comte de Lautréamont. Esposito evokes the conception of art based on the discovery of potential, noting that “art, like Duchamp’s Fountain, lies in seeing the artistic potential of something that already exists and having the wherewithal to make something of it” (44). This is rather like incorporating the subway, and the journey one takes on it, into the process of poetic production. Art and literature are a part everyday life and Jouet’s blurring of the lines between living and writing demonstrates this. Similarly, in Many Subtle Channels, Levin Becker compares the work of Lautréamont to Jouet’s, noting that both authors wrote poetry that participated in a democratization of literature (72). Given that not everyone wants to write lipograms, it is beneficial to have Oulipians who promote accessibility, and whose innovation lies in finding potential writers in everyday readers.
While Elkin and Esposito’s analyses of individual works are sound, the sample of texts they draw upon is perhaps too small to judge the current vitality of the Oulipo. The authors themselves raise this problem in the preface, stating that “[n]one of the Oulipian works that have made their way into English in the past decade . . . can rival the best work published during the group’s staggeringly successful run through the 1960s and 1970s” (6). This seems, then, to be as much a problem of how works are made available in translation as it is one of publication; it is doubtful, for example, that the group itself was holding back an English edition of Sphinx. The authors’ focus here on two saleable authors results in a critique not of the group itself, but rather on its popular perception and reception.
Elkin and Esposito also both treat the Oulipo as “writers who use constraint” rather than “writers who investigate potential.” Esposito is indeed harsh in his criticism of the less-than-demanding limitations that Jouet introduced in some of his works. It must be acknowledged, however, that both Jouet and Le Tellier have also done thoughtful work on the idea of literary constraints and have also imposed very challenging ones in some of their writing. Jouet’s “Les Sept Règles de Perec” (“Perec’s Seven Themes”), for example, is “a completely lucid analysis of Perec’s aesthetic that also happens to be a monovocalism” (Levin Becker 77). Jouet’s essay “With (and Without) Constraints” and Le Tellier’s Esthétique de l’Oulipo (Aesthetic of the Oulipo ) show that these writers have thought deeply about literary constraint and potential, even if this reflection is not always discernible in their fiction. Regardless, as criticism of Perec’s, his successors’, and Le Tellier’s fiction, The End of Oulipo? is a generally well-reasoned and insightful work. It is clear that its authors have the Oulipo’s best interests at heart, and they do offer suggestions that might help impel the group forward. If this results in a new phase of the Oulipo (or membership for Bök), one should not complain. At the very least, Elkin [End Page 161] and Esposito have themselves engaged in an investigation of potentiality, which itself might be proof that the movement cannot be exhausted.
De Bary’s Une nouvelle pratique littéraire en France is less critical of the group than The End of Oulipo?, offering instead a rethinking of its place within literature and the avant-garde. The book is written in French, but also bears the title Creating a New French Literary Style: A History of the Oulipo Circle, and includes an English foreword by Jean-Jacques Thomas. Rather than suggesting a way forward for the Oulipo, De Bary examines its history and traces its evolution. Her guiding principle is to show how the Oulipo “a ouvert la possibilité d’une pratique littéraire spécifique . . .” (13).1 The study includes an impressive bibliography of both works by Oulipo authors and a survey of existing critical studies of their literary production.
One of De Bary’s central arguments is that the Oulipo became a literary phenomenon only gradually. The book’s first part, “La lente émergence d’un groupe littéraire” (“The slow emergence of a literary group”), reminds us that the Oulipo began as an experimental workshop, with many early members coming from fields other than literature (mathematics in particular) (15–16). The participants’ interest at the time was in the process of creation, rather than in the works that were actually created. The chapter’s amusing epigraph, taken from Georges Charbonnier’s 1962 interview with Raymond Queneau, supports this. Charbonnier asks: “Mais c’est peut-être générateur de littérature?” To this query Queneau replies: “Oui. cela, c’est un risque. C’est un risque mais ce n’est pas grave” (15).2
The group spent many of its early days experimenting with forms and examining the literature of the past. Many of the experiments involved reworking past texts with newer methods, or identifying old methods for reuse. As Levin Becker notes, the group’s early work was “intensely analytical, creative almost by afterthought” (132). The Oulipo’s first work, published in “Dossier 17” of the journal Cahiers du Collège de ’Pataphysique, was a mix of what De Bary calls “citations de textes anciens” and “manipulations d’autres textes anciens, relevant du canon littéraire” (17).3 It is the group’s keen interest in the past, and its knowledge of literary history, that leads De Bary to see erudition as one of the Oulipo defining traits. Even as its experiments started to yield novel or unconventional results, the Oulipo did not make a radical break with the past. Perhaps owing to the fact that it did not start out as a literary project, the group remained aware of its influences and predecessors and did not seek to usurp them.
In her discussion of the Oulipo’s considerable erudition, De Bary is able to make what is arguably her most surprising claim: “L’Oulipo n’est pas un groupe d’avant-garde” (48).4 Certainly, the Oulipo has its place alongside the avant-garde, owing to the time of its birth, and its associations with Surrealism, Dada, and ’Pataphysics. However, it did not seek association [End Page 162] with the avant-garde itself. The Oulipo possesses a traditionalism that sets it apart from such movements. For instance, it acknowledges its ancestors as influences in the practice of what it calls “plagiat par anticipation” (anticipatory plagiarism). The group also defined itself against Surrealism, asserting that, unlike André Breton’s Surrealist group, no one could be kicked out of the Oulipo. Moreover, it has survived far longer than an avant-garde movement might normally be expected to last (49–50).
Despite its traditionalism, the Oulipo has nevertheless evolved. Perhaps this was inevitable: its own potentiality was to eventually shift from being an experimental workshop to becoming a literary circle. As Jacques Roubaud explains in “Perecquian OULIPO,” George Perec played a critical role in energizing the group. In her chapter “Naissance d’un groupe littéraire” (“Birth of a literary group”), De Bary underscores how important Perec’s presence was in the recognition “Oulipian literature” (45) would gain as a cultural phenomenon. He seemed to be comfortable working with all constraints and genres, and his experiments pushed the concept of constraint into new territory. The relationship Perec formed with the Oulipo was mutually beneficial. In it, he found a group of like-minded writers who were interested in his work and in turn, the group found a motivating presence that impelled all of its members’ literary production.
De Bary also points to the important role Italo Calvino played when he joined in 1968. He, too, was adept at using a broad range of constraints, and had already published a substantial body of work. De Bary’s analysis raises questions that go unanswered about just how well known Perec, Calvino, and even Roubaud (who joined in 1966) were prior to joining the group. Their prior reputations as writers likely had some effect on the Oulipo’s status and the recognition it would go on to gain. De Bary does, though, rightly identify the decisive role these writers played in spurring the group’s growth and evolution, and shows how it, in turn, fostered the creation of what are still these three writers’ most significant works.
The second part of Une nouvelle pratique littéraire focuses on “Le texte oulipien” (“The Oulipian text”). Its task is harder: to identify the distinctive features of Oulipian writing, and to examine how constraints work within it. Since the group was not always exclusively a literary one, and its members came from a variety of disciplines, defining how the concept of constraints shaped the practices of all of its members at different moments in time is difficult. Yet De Bary does an admirable job demonstrating how Perec’s influence and his exhaustive approach to constraint defined the group’s central objectives. If the first part of De Bary’s study shows us how Perecquian constraints affected the Oulipo, the second shows us how constraint affects writing. Here, De Bary summarizes how central figures such as Roubaud, Perec, and Jouet understand the notion of constraint. She [End Page 163] demonstrates that for Oulipians, constraints are not necessarily binding; they can work without them, or even sometimes even circumvent them. Nevertheless, one of the group’s major contributions is the widening or opening of the concept of writing, one that is not limited to the creation of new modes of literature. In fundamental ways, De Bary explains, “Le group interroge la langue et la littéraire” (100).5 The erudition that group members collectively possessed allowed them to investigate the forms of the past and all kinds of non-literary writing, advancing a multi-disciplinary project that let them to create entirely new forms of knowledge whose insights extend well beyond the field of literature.
In assessing the Oulipo’s importance as a historical and cultural phenomenon, De Bary’s study forms compelling arguments and makes well-substantiated claims. She displays a vast knowledge of both the Oulipo and the critical work it has inspired. The group can be difficult to define, since it has evolved over time, and has had many different members who have adopted varying approaches to the art and practice of writing. Forming a precise and comprehensive definition may yet elude students of the Oulipo, but De Bary’s study provides a clear understanding of the history of the group and one that is remarkable in its concision. It is unfortunate that Une nouvelle pratique littéraire is, for now, only available in French, for as Jean-Jacques Thomas remarks in his forward, De Bary’s study offers knowledge that “might be less familiar to an English speaking audience” (vii) whose interest in the Oulipo is obviously growing.
1. “has opened the possibility of a specific literary practice [. . .].”
2. Charbonnier: “But might [the experiment] generate literature?” Queneau: “Yes, this is a risk. This is a risk, but it is a not serious one.”
3. “citations of older texts” and “manipulations of other older texts drawn from the literary canon.”
4. “The Oulipo is not an avant-garde group.”
5. “The group interrogates language and literature.”