Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature
By Daniel Levin Becker (Harvard University Press 322pp £19.95)
On the face of it, there is great deal in this book to baffle even the most open-minded of English-speaking readers. It is essentially an account of the life and times of the Oulipo group, a Paris-based coalition of writers, mathematicians and artists that was set up in 1960 with the express intention of making life difficult for its members and readers. The clue to the real nature of the group is in the acronym 'Oulipo' - which, when unpacked, stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature. This is meant to describe the practice of Oulipo members, who deliberately set themselves constraints on their writing. These can include palindromes, lipograms (excluding one or more letters), the snowball (a poem in which the first line is a single word, the second two words, and so on) and other myriad forms of self-imposed difficulty. The big idea is that if you set off to write, let's say, a short story by deliberately forcing yourself to replace every seventh noun in the text with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary then you are bound to end up somewhere unexpected. Hence the term 'potential literature'. From this point of view, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is no more than a particularly mirthless form of linguistic trickiness for its own sake; a kind of highbrow Gallic version of Scrabble or indeed the quiz show Countdown.
This book admirably demonstrates that this is not the case. Daniel Levin Becker was a student of French literature at Yale when he encountered the works of the Oulipo in the course of a standard review of twentieth-century French literature. He describes his first reaction as fascination, intrigue and then, when introduced to a novel written without the letter 'e', a declaration of love: or as he puts it, 'one of the five coolest things I'd ever heard of!'
It was not long before Levin Becker set off for Paris, armed with a Fulbright grant and a postgraduate thesis plan to get to grips with the mysterious literary pranksters. From this point on, the book is a sheer delight. Levin Becker warns us that Oulipo is not for everybody, and he makes it clear that his book will be a largely uncritical and unashamed homage to the group. He admires them so much he ends up joining them (becoming only the second American member). But most importantly he is a sharp-witted guide to the most obscure details of Oulipo activity. Above all, he emphasises that this is not merely an eccentric offshoot of Surrealism. Rather, he describes the Oulipians as scientists in a laboratory - they experiment endlessly, preferring no conclusion to false certainty, especially the false certainties of literature in a didactic or imperative mood. As Levin Becker puts it, this is the science of literature in a conditional mood.
This science is otherwise called 'pataphysics and is defined thus: 'If you have a brother and he loves cheese, that's physics; if you have a brother and therefore he loves cheese, that's metaphysics; if you don't have a brother and he loves cheese, that's 'pataphysics'. This definition, which owes as much to the Marx Brothers as to Mallarmé (both heroes to the Oulipians), comes from Georges Perec, possibly not the only genius but certainly the most well-known writer to have traversed the Oulipo group. It is of course possible to read Perec, a master craftsman in French, without little or no knowledge of Oulipo. The activities of the Oulipo group, as Levin Becker emphasises, are all about practice and opposed to theory.
Accordingly, Perec's major work, Life: A User's Manual, a diachronic account of daily life in a Paris apartment building, is based on Oulipian principles; but it can be read too, quite simply, as a sharply observed and acerbic comedy of manners as well as a massive crossword puzzle, packed with riddles and unsolvable word games. It is also worth remembering that, as demonstrated by David Bellos in his magnificent biography of the man, Perec had a much darker side than many of his best-known writings seem to indicate. He lost his Jewish parents during the Second World War (his mother possibly died in Auschwitz), and constantly referred to this trauma in the most oblique ways, always in the straitjacket of another Oulipian constraint. Indeed Perec embraced the constraints of Oulipo almost to the point of masochism. The fact that he was a virtuoso is matched by the fact that, as his first novels indicate, he would have been a good writer anyway and did not really need to pirouette around the backbreaking limitations he forced upon his work. Other Oulipians of Perec's vintage - Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino - were brilliant in their own way but never quite matched the fusion of life and art which Perec found in Oulipo's dizzying pyrotechnics.
Levin Becker is keen too to introduce us to the present generation of Oulipians - and so we meet the OuMuPo (a collective of DJs), the OuMaPo (marionette players), the OuBaPo (comic strip artists), and the OuFlarfPo (who make poetry with the aid of search engines). What all these Oulipians have in common is the notion that play is a serious business. One of the guiding spirits behind Oulipo is of course the Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga, whose key work Homo Ludens was translated into French in the 1950s and devoured by Surrealists and Situationists as well as Oulipians. The great theme of Huizinga's book is that all true civilisations are shaped by play - art and myth - rather than work, which produces only walls, war and factories. This is an extremely liberating notion. Indeed, as the twenty-first century grows darker by the day, it may be that we will need the effortlessly ludic lucidity of Oulipo as an antidote more than ever.
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Andrew Hussey is Dean of the University of London Institute in Paris.