The Oulipians

November 24: The French experimental writing group "Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle" was founded on this day in 1960. The name translates as "Workshop of Potential Literature," but the group is known internationally as OuLiPo, if only to reflect its enthusiasm for the lipogram—writing constrained by the disallowance of a letter. One of the most well-known examples is a 100,000-word novel by Georges Perec which is not only lipogrammatic but a playful whodunit: Anton Vowl has inexplicably vanished, taking "e" along with him. Titled La Disparition in the original French, the 1994 English translation by Gilbert Adair is called A Void, the e-rule disallowing "The Disappearance."

 

But Oulipians are a diverse group, and they have invented a full Olympics of literary-mathematical games. In Walter Abish's novel Alphabetical Africa, all the words in the first chapter begin with "a," all in the second chapter begin with "a" or "b," and so on. Raymond Queneau exponentially transformed ten sonnets into A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems by cutting them up in the manner of a child's head-bodies-legs book, the individual lines readable (and rhyming) in any sequence. Paul Fournel's Suburbia has title, disclaimer, ("This is a work of pure fiction. . ."), copyright statement, introductory epigraphs, dedication, Table of Contents, Word from the Publisher, Foreword, Introductory Note by the Author, running footnotes, Afterword, "Supplement for School Use" with questions, Index, Errata, publisher blurbs … and no story.

 

Perec may be the group's patron saint. He created crossword puzzles, a Guinness record palindrome (5,556 letters), and over twenty books, none of which appear to resemble each other or anyone else's. Perhaps his most famous, rated a modern masterpiece by even mainstream reviewers, is Life: A User's Manual. This is a jigsaw of 100 stories about the inhabitants of a Parisian apartment building, though this hardly describes the mathematical mind-games which shape the book's structure and plot. Oulipians may be "rats who construct the maze from which they must escape," but Perec's puzzle-solving hero dies staring at his own lifetime jigsaw:

On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle, the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape of an X. But the ironical thing, which could have been foreseen long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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