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Tekijän teokset

Writings for the Oulipo (2005) 17 kappaletta
Winter Journeys (1979) — Kääntäjä — 13 kappaletta
Family Archaeology (2005) 7 kappaletta
Plouk town (2011) 4 kappaletta
Le voyage d'ovide (2004) 3 kappaletta
N/S (2004) 2 kappaletta
(2014) 2 kappaletta
La Jeunesse de Mek-Ouyes (2011) 2 kappaletta
Histoires parallèles (2005) 1 kappale
Vers de l'infini... (2017) 1 kappale

Associated Works

Write To Kill (1990) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset1,083 kappaletta
Monsieur Malaussène (1995) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset952 kappaletta
Passion Fruit (1999) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset544 kappaletta
The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (2000) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset486 kappaletta
Haikaroiden arvoitus (1994) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset413 kappaletta
McSweeney's Issue 22: Three Books Held Within By Magnets (2007) — Avustaja — 335 kappaletta
Symbols of Freemasonry (1997) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset289 kappaletta
Three by Perec (1996) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset174 kappaletta
White (2003) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset75 kappaletta
Winter Journeys (1979) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset46 kappaletta
A Brief Stay with the Living (2001) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset39 kappaletta
Raymond Roussel (1997) — Kääntäjä — 33 kappaletta

Merkitty avainsanalla


London, England, UK



What is Wrong with Oulipo's Understanding of Itself

Once again it's possible to take stock of Oulipo. This book has English translations of writings by all 41members from the founding in 1963 to 2018. The last two assessments of Oulipo, "The End of Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement" by Lauren Elkin and Veronica Scott Esposito (2012) and Cécile De Bary’s "Une nouvelle pratique littéraire en France: Histoire du groupe Oulipo de 1960 à nos jours," were both reviewed by Mitchell Kerley in SubStance (2018, online). This anthology is more wide-ranging than the materials covered in either book.

1. Literary value

Esposito's critique of Jouet as not sufficiently "literary" -- his Métro poems, one of which is in this anthology, are criticized as "mealy mouthed," like a "first draft"--and his praise for Cesar Aira is a useful way to raise the question of literary value. Technically, Oulipo's productions aren't supposed to have literary value: first because they are only "potentially" literature ("littérature potentielle"), and then because the interest is supposed to lodge in the constraint and the new forms it enables, not in conventional literary ideals such as expression, insight, affect, or realism.

Nevertheless it isn't possible to avoid the impression that Oulipo has produced a possibly disproportionately large number of forgettable texts. In this book there is Hervé Le Tellier's "Liquid Tales" (2012), a set of harmless apercus that are occasionally whimsical or existential; Olivier Salon's "Shark Poem" (2013), a trite parallel between poets and sharks; Étienne Lécroart’s "Counting on You" (2012), disappointing for me because it is the only entry that makes an attempt to apply constraints to visual material, but does so in an entirely unvoncincing manner; Pablo Martín Sánchez’s "Metric Poetry" (2012), which does not add much to Jouet's idea of writing on the Métro... there are many forgettable entries in this anthology. (The anthology has several excellent pieces. Harry Mathews's "Saint Catherina" (2000) is a hypertrohpied sestina in prose, and the effect is a kind of hypnotic dementia; and Pierre Rosenstiehl's "Frieze of the Paris Métro" (1998) is an excellent fusion of visual elements--mathematical diagrams--and prose, and it's followed by one of Jouet's actual Paris Métro poems.)

So I am interested in Esposito's criticisms of Jouet and others, and in his praise of Aira and other non-Oulipians such as Tom McCarthy, Édouard Levé, and Christian Bök (I've written on all these, except Levé), but the assessment of literary value is not an Oulipian criterion.

(Esposito's co-author, Lauren Elkin--no relation of mine--is concerned with gender representation, especially in Hervé Le Tellier's work. As Kerley puts it, she notes that Le Tellier and many other Oulipeans fail to "question or examine the existing structures of either power or language." This is also significant, but it is also not an Oulipean criterion.)

The problem of literary value, for me, has to be raised alongside the problem of the members' lack of attention to the concept. I don't say lack of awareness, because literature and literary value are continuously present in Oulipean writing. But it is seldom clear which qualities of literature are to be emulated, which are to be avoided, and how constraints affect those qualities.

2. Constraints

The idea of constrained writing is itself curiously unconstrained. Some of Oulipo's constraints are very challenging: monovocalisms, permutations on the sestina, lipograms, etc. But many others are so loose that they effectively don't prevent any content. Michele Audin's "Caroline, October 21, 1935" (2015) is an inventory of objects on a tabletop. Is this usefully understood as a constraint, or is it more like a theme, or even an interest, or a focus? Paul Formel's "Novels" (2006) is described by the editors of this anthology as an "extended descendent" of Queneau's "Exercises in Style," in which an anecdote is retold 99 times. Formel retells a story from 7 perspectives. It's more like "Rashomon," but whatever its genealogy, there is no appreciable effect of the constraint: "Novels" is just 7 pieces of average flash fiction.

In order to make sense as a constraint, a constraint should exert a perceptible effect on the writing--perhaps by excluding words or ideas, or by forcing their inclusion; or else by distorting the language itself, for example by redirecting the narrative, or rearranging morphemes, words, or elements of narrative. In addition (and this is a second, separate theme) if the constraint is apparent, if the author publishes it, or if it can be deduced from the text, then it becomes part of the work. It exerts its own pull on the reader, and has its own "literary value." I will consider these points separately.

(a) When constraints are known, or can be deduced

This anthology provides a wonderful contribution to this topic, in the form of Calvino's "How I Wrote One of My Books" (1982), describing "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" (1979). The text, which occupies 15 pages in this anthology, can be used as a guide to all 12 chapters of Calvino's book, and at the end Calvino gives page references in Greimas's "Du sens" that provided the structuralist semiotic combinatorics.

This text, "How I Wrote One of My Books," now becomes part of the book for English-language readers. The reading experience of the book now changes. It will always be possible to read "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" by itself, just as it is possible to read Perec's "Life: A User's Manual" without the astonishing documents of its constraints (they are all online: see But these documents are not of the same kind as Flaubert's letters, or Sartre's, or discarded drafts of manuscripts: they are finished documents, the exact equivalents of simpler statements of constraints given throughout this anthology. When constraints are known, or can be deduced, it seems to me they produce a more interesting hybrid text, comprised of the constraints and the texts they have been permitted to produce. The problem for literary criticism and reception multiplies, because Calvino's "How I Wrote One of My Books" is actually readable.

(b) Motives

Given the variety and sometimes the intricacy of Oulipean constraints, it is surprising that there is so little on the subject of motivation. What has prompted members and followers of Oulipo to impose constraints?

There is an interesting passage in Jacques Roubaud's piece called "⊂" that bears on this problem. (The ⊂ is explained by the editors of this book as "the mathematical symbol for complementarity," which is wrong; they also have a very poor explanation of Queneau numbers [p. 220], which makes me think that they have little affinity for the often strong mathematical content of Oulipo.) Roubaud remarks:

"I sensed... that I was not going to be able to stop myself from having mathematics play a part in [my] process... it was initially just a desire for amazement, a hoax, [a desire for] singularity, originality, an aesthetic meaning which was of course not entirely inexistent (Max, calligrams, cummings). But now I want to take this hoax thorugh to its end." (p. 277)

To me, this is a remarkable passage, because he declines to think about what mathematics is actually doing for his writing. Naturally enough, when he first started, it would have been a pleasure to produce "amazement" in his readers, and there would have been times when his mathematical constraints were taken as a "hoax," and other times when they were recognized as "original." But now that those motives have passed, he still remains committed, and it is not clear why--and more puzzling, it is not at all clear why he does not perceive the need to explain that commitment. There are similar passages by other Oulipo writers, in which the hardest thing seems to be thinking about what literary effects constraint actually produces.

Among the implicit and explicit answers to that question, there is the possibility that constraints produce originality by dismantling or blocking literary conventions that are unknowingly brought into the text. That is often true, but it is never entirely true: certain conventions will be made difficult or prevented by certain constraints, but many other will not be, including the underlying conventional desire to produce "good" or "strong" literature.

(c) The effects of constraints on writing

The idea of multiplying constraints as a blockade against conventions has been explored much more thoroughly in music. Stockhausen's Klavierstueck 10 is an example: for that, he invented 12 "dimensions" of music (like pitch, pedalling, etc.), divided each one into 7 "levels," and then made permutations of each one. Almost nothing of older music could survive in the final composition. The result is still not impossible to listen to as a virtuoso composition in the romantic mode, and that is an aspect of its reception in performance. Boulez did the same kind of thing in the Second Piano Sonata, and it is full of fragmentary equations from Berlioz, Wagner, and any number of predecessors. Constraints do not necessarily produce originality or the freedom from convention, and when they do, they work in ways that are entirely unpredictable.

Perec's "A Void" is an excellent example of this unpredictability. I am not aware of any reviews or assessments that remark on the strange kinds of English that result from the lack of the letter "e," but the effect is intense and kaleidoscopic. (I assume it's the same in French, but I can't assess that.) The beginning of a sentence might sound like patois, and then it might evoke a vernacular usage or even an obscenity, then veer into a surprising ventriloquism of some dialect (like Southern American English, or Midlands UK English). None of this would be intentional. The simple constraint does indeed produce a complex originality, but that originality is not itself analyzed, because Oulipo constrains itself to speak only of its constraints. (I've written on "A Void," for example on Goodreads, and also on Bök's "Xenotext," which has passages that sounds like weird Loeb Classical Library translations. An example in this anthology is Olivier Salon's "Invisible Cities: Lille" (2007), which is a variant of a lipogram in that it contains only the vowels in "Lille." It veers senselessly between various implied styles: offhand, literal-minded, formal, oddly abbreviated, jocular, Joycean, beginner's prose... and I am only reading the first three lines:

"Lille's glimmering. It seems impressive. Lille stretches then Lille rises. Night's ending, it's high time! Lille's sheer steeples rise, then it flicks its index finger right there..." (p. 213)

I can't imagine a way of approaching texts like this, or Perec's lipogrammatic texts, without acknowledging this ruleless, uncontrolled collage of pastiche styles.

(d) The difference between literary texts and lists

I would also like to explore the possibility that there are two flavors to Oulipo: readable texts, like Perec's, and lists, like Bernard Cerquiglini's "A Very Busy Year" (2013), which gathers all the emails he received at work regarding the closures of departments and facilities related to his job:

"The Digital Francophone Campus of Tbilisi will be closed from January 1 through January 7.
"The West Africa Office and the Digital Francophone Campus of Saint-Louis will be closed on Thursday, January 12, in observance of Magal de Touba" (p. 253)

And so on for many pages. Without a narrative, the expressive value comes from the unusual placenames. Carquiglini ends with an optimistic note:

"The entire staff of the Middle East region wishes all of you excellent holidays and a new year filled with joy, good health, and peace."

This balances whatever sense of dissipation and uselessness might have accumulated over the long read of the list.

In the aesthetics of lists and what has been called "cruft" (see David Letzler's excellent book, "The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention"), the question of attention looms. How should such texts be read? Kenny Goldsmith chooses to read his own unoriginal texts quite expressively, as if they were conventional mid-century poetry. Others read in a carefully affectless voice. Tan Lin has said that his texts ask for different kinds of attention and inattention--skimming, glancing, selecting. All of these questions of reader's attention are raised by texts like this one that avoid narrative. It's such a fundamental choice that it seems to me it should count as a fork in the Oulipo road. It leads to flarf, conceptual poetry, and aleatorics, and away from problems of literature.

Concluding thoughts

I'm hoping this will be the last time I feel the need to write about Oulipo. I agree with Esposito's concern with literary value even if I'd make different choices, and with Elkin's concern with the fact that constraints haven't produced effective politics or gender representations. (And to that I'd add that constraints also haven't prevented whimsy from being Oulipo's principal mood.) But in addition I find it difficult to understand or believe in the critical reception of Oulipean texts as long as the literary values and meanings that are produced by the constraints go unanalyzed and unremarked. It is equally difficult for me to understand descriptions of Oulipean texts that do not address the question of whether the constraints themselves are, or aren't, to be read as of the text itself.

I am interested in writing texts that ask to be read differently, including texts that seem to be produced by constraints, and texts that seem to be non-narrative, like lists. But I am uninterested in abrogating the writer's duty to analyze and understand their own methods and strategies by applying constraints in the hope that they will produce innovative effects. Writing is so much more interesting than that.
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JimElkins | Jul 31, 2019 |


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