Oulipo (Ouvroir de litterature potentielle/Workshop of Potential Literature; Wikipedia), founded in 1960, is a loose gathering of (mainly) French writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques.
Members seek out “new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit”, founded on the paradoxical principle that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The resulting work may be ‘complete’ in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint; exhaustion being the ‘necessary corollary’ of potentiality.
More than tricksy gimmicks? Compare the rules of classical tragedy with the poet who writes that which comes into his head…a great Oulipian work is both a statement of what it knows and a gesture toward something infinitely larger than itself – see for example Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, ten sonnets printed on perforated paper.
The French avant garde loves a game, with rules of engagement and an unknown outcome – but for Oulipo it has to be capable of producing valid literary results. The constraint is not an arbitrary choice but a technique adopted to explore, to the point of exhaustion, a subject within its given parameters. It creates an environment in which creation can be helped along – instead of a blank page the Oulipian can begin with a project. The challenge is to find the virtue in the constraint, a seriousness of purpose.
In Oulipo Lite, her essay in The end of Oulipo? Lauren Elkin asks whether its brand of “ludic literary experimentation” pursued through “wit, humor and public performance” has a future. Like a writer’s workshop exercise inspired by a prompt, Oulipian writing today is all too often mechanical and formulaic, even derivative. The group has become inbred, as concerned with archiving its history and carrying on its traditions as making new literature. Has Oulipo exhausted its potential by becoming a societe de spectacle? Or is it an antidote to “writing programs which produce fully competent and easily forgettable books”?
Perec and s/p(l)ace
Anything vaguely Oulipian I’ve encountered up to now has lacked heft, but when it touches on place and space things get more interesting, due in the main to Georges Perec (1936-82; Wikipedia).
One of those irresistible figures (see pieces by Tom Payne and Lauren Elkin; the cat pic), there’s a further personal appeal due to the librarian within me. With temporary jobs in market research giving early experience in classification, Georges worked as a research librarian (“a low-paid position”) from 1961-78. His taxonomies of the everyday “use excess to slip the bounds of realism” (Elkin) and draw attention instead to the infra-ordinary.
His writing goes beyond the merely quirky. See the Gdn’s best of Perec, or this non-exhaustive list:
- Portrait of a man (1959; rediscovered 1993, published in English 2015)
- A void (1967; Wikipedia/La disparition) – uses a lipogram, ie the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language; the missing e, pronounced eux (them) in French, refers to all those (including Perec’s parents) who went missing during WW2
- The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise (1968; in lib)
- Life a user’s manual (La Vie mode d’emploi, 1978; Indy) – ‘to exhaust not the world’ but ‘a constituted fragment of the world’
- The winter journey (1979) & Winter journeys
- La Boutique obscure: 124 dreams (Joanna Walsh) – a ‘nocturnal autobiography’
- on crosswords
In 1974 Perec spent three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris observing what happens when nothing happens, resulting in An attempt at exhausting a place in Paris (Lauren Elkin | Karl Whitney | Jacket2: “a nonambulatory flâneur” | Soundlandscapes: “a contra-flâneur” | Jimmy Lo’s 2010? attempt at re-exhausting the same place).
An attempt… is part of Lieux (Places) a grand projet aimed at systematically recording memories and descriptions of twelve Parisian locations over the course of twelve years, one of those self-imposed personal projects which all too easily slide…
Perec’s/Perecquian geographies have become a thing, with a conference at Sheffield in May 2016, and his influence is noticeable in much writing about place. Perecquian fieldwork in Copenhagen awaits, with lots more to plunder in the collection Species of spaces and other pieces/Espèces d’espaces (Amazon; Angela Last | Toulisan).
- home vs not-home, the ambivalence between two different modalities: feeling at home, connected to a place, and feeling not-home, in a place that has to be conquered each time
- map streets on an x axis and level of alienation/mood on a y axis
Oulipo in Denmark
In 2015 Oulipian Jacques Jouet (article) sent 101 poems to random residents in Aarhus over the course of nine days as part of Fresh Eyes 2015. The poems were published in book form at Fresh Eyes 2016 (På…/En…; event | review | another | yet another).
Jouet (RU sure that’s yr name?) is also known for his Poèmes de métro (Subway poems), and once spent 16 hours in the Paris metro on a route taking him through all 490 stops – the CPH metro is rather more limited, however fans/emulators include Martin Larsen (CPH Metrodigte), Danish artist books curator Thomas Hvid Kromann (see arkiv uden titel, ditto in Paris) and Christian Yde Frostholm, author of Paris en brugsanvisning (2013; inspired by Life…) and translator of Espèces d’espaces et al (2016).
In Eight glances past George Perec, his essay in The end of Oulipo?, Scott Esposito is cutting in his critique of the metro poems:
the least pleasurable kind of automatic writing…of little literary value; the quality is so middling that I find it all too believable that Jouet hurriedly jotted them on the train…his conceits are simple, beguiling creations that enable his followers to believe that they too can create literature, just like he does…the only grounds on which the metro poems might be interesting as art is as conceptual art