‘The absence of limitations’, Orson Welles once announced, ‘is the enemy of art.’ Considering Welles’s life-long fury towards anyone who attempted to restrain his manic flights of invention, his comment is, in some ways, perverse; limits for him were things to be tickled, merrily forgotten or obliterated completely. But Welles was correct. Limitlessness can lead to indulgence, which can turn quickly into despair. All artists – be they ice skaters, basso profundos or writers – know all too well the anguish of becoming bored by their own work or, worse, repulsed by it: the stylistic tics, the awkward-but-entrenched choreography of certain sentences and morosely performed rituals. Used correctly, proscriptions and strictures do not mean yet another, more formalist way of becoming hidebound: they can be elegant methods of dispossession. How else can you escape?
In Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (first published in French in 1947), one of its 99 sections is entitled ‘Awkward’. In cadences eerily reminiscent of one of Peter Cook’s comic characters, blank and bewildered by existence, it opens: ‘I’m not used to writing […] I’d quite like to write a sonnet or an ode but there’s the rules. They put me off.’ These lines are sly and knowing. Queneau was a mathematician, literary scholar and soon-to-be-founder of an artistic collective for whom rules were magical things: the engines of art. The recent reissuing of this slender book by New Directions, masterfully translated by Barbara Wright, means we can survey its contents and the operations of the peculiar institution he helped establish once again.
Oulipo (‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’, or Workshop of Potential Literature) was founded in Paris in 1960 by Queneau and French poet, chemical engineer and mathematician François Le Lionnais; its members eventually included Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and ‘foreign correspondent’ Marcel Duchamp. Good Oulipians are contortionists who adore their agony and are thrilled by the thought of things forbidden (the same is true of their translators who must be especially gifted, attentive and masochistic creatures). Involute processes and fiendishly difficult games provide rules they strictly adhere to because their various interdictions will lead to a playfulness and inventive capacity they would not have reached alone. Queneau (who died in 1976) once described himself and his confrères as ‘rats who build the labyrinths from which they will try to escape’. The most famous example of their many feats is Perec’s 300-page carnivalesque mystery novel written entirely without the letter ‘e’, La Disparition (1969, A Void in Gilbert Adair’s astonishing translation which upholds the original’s restriction). A typically exotic passage features ‘a soprano singing, in a monotonously droning fashion, as if in a clumsy imitation of plainsong, a fantastic, florid oratorio about a Blank King and his vanishing act’. Sly and knowing writing again, for what a grand vanishing act this work is, the author a magician who makes a vowel disappear.
Unofficial Oulipian Walter Abish wrote Alphabetical Africa (1974) around a dizzying restriction: the first chapter contains only words beginning with ‘a’, the second ‘a’ and ‘b’ and so on across 26 chapters until the entire alphabet is accrued; then the process is run in reverse for 26 more, and ending at ‘a’. The first chapter commences: ‘Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an anarchic African affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist. Ahh, atheism!’ In 1916, Duchamp – who was invited to be a member thanks to Oulipo’s admiration for the artist’s ‘texticles’, his pieces of perverse language and obsessive punning – wrote The, in English, wherein asterisks are scattered throughout the strange prose, intended to be replaced each time by ‘the’. ‘It should be smilable’, he writes, ‘to shut the hair whose the water writes always in the plural, they have avoided the frequency meaning mother-in-law.’ Duchamp’s desired result for this peculiar, ten-line piece, which is permanently on the brink of coalescing into commonsense language before drifting away again, was something which ‘could be read without any echo of the physical world’. Again and again, the consequence of constraint and process is not an impoverished or attenuated writing but something rich, strange and often hypnotic. These are artfully damaged, inscrutable objects, sometimes so odd or compulsive that the rule or limitation is almost subliminal, and might go unnoticed by the reader. Oulipo’s domain is a kind of meticulously undertaken mischief, performed with as strict a logic as the scenes in the other side of Alice’s looking-glass, which bewilder as much because of their stringency as their strangeness.
Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), has been counted alongside the doomed French dandy Raymond Roussel – who wrote Locus Solus (1914) and Impressions of Africa (1910) according to the formal constraints of homonymic puns – and a certain ‘Hermione of Lasos, author of the first lipogram’ as ‘creators of paleo-Oulipian texts’, performers of ‘anticipatory plagiary’. In his essay ‘The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art’ (1991), Oulipian Jacques Roubaud honours these departed innovators. Using that unique pitch of absurd grandeur reserved for manifestos and cerebral literary communiqués, he declares ‘without a time machine at its disposal, the Oulipo has been unable to rescue from the limbo of the past those writers lamentably unaware of its existence.’ (Like many movements from the Surrealists onwards – of which Queneau was a member until he tired, as many did, of André Breton’s wrath – Oulipo scours history for texts that foretell its coming, as surely it maps out the literature of the future.)
The huge Oulipo Compendium (1998) includes numerous feverishly drawn diagrams for possible language systems, snapshots of owlish Oulipians in grey rooms, Perec smiling through long-gone sunlight (he died in 1982), and the technicolor weirdness of John Ashbery’s ‘patchwork verse’ ‘The Dong With The Luminous Nose’ (1998) offered in homage; every line is taken from a different poet, from T.S. Eliot to Edward Lear to Shakespeare: ‘Near where the dirty Thames does flow / Through caverns measureless to man / Where thou shalt see the red-gilled fishes leap / And a lovely monkey with lollipop paws.’ Elsewhere in this volume there’s the definition of a ‘Canada Dry’ constraint which, like the drink, ‘may have bubbles but isn’t champagne’ and has ‘the taste and colour of a restriction but does not follow a restriction’. A record is provided of an Oulipo meeting on 1 July 1963 (another echo of the Surrealists: the group assiduously document all its activities) where its members outlined a potential literature under the grouping of ‘animal language’ in which there are poems that ‘can be understood by various animals. There would be poems for dogs, crows, foxes etc.’
This is comic but also strangely unsettling – how seriously is it being discussed? What form would these poems take? Much of the Oulipo’s work amounts to a serious kind of aesthetic provocation, a conceptual art made out of language, twisting and deforming it, taking it into new, hallucinatory spaces. What can be done with language, how it might be disturbed and led astray, is its fascination. The Oulipo, full of fun and games, is not merely a frolic but a purposeful attempt to experiment with literature.
Nowhere is this more concentrated than Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The constraint is simple and powerful: the author takes a brief scene and repeats it 99 times, each time in a different literary style. The scene itself is comically inconsequential, like some immediately forgotten anecdote, a parodic echo of an episode from a realist novel. An aesthete with unusually elongated neck (a dreamlike detail of unknown significance) steps onto an overcrowded bus, argues with a passenger whom he accuses of treading on his toes, almost has a fight, but calms down when he discovers a seat. Later, the narrator sees him receiving sartorial advice from an equally dandified friend. All drama is carefully resisted, psychological interior removed, all depth closed off. Like all of the best Oulipian texts, it is ludic but astonishingly obsessive: the incident provides Queneau with a palimpsest to gleefully scribble over again and again in virtuosic display of his skills. Everything loops, like some Groundhog Day orbiting around almost nothing at all – and for some readers, the book might feel similarly purgatorial – replaying as a criminal interrogation, a mathematical formula, a ‘Hellenism’ (beginning, ‘in a chronia of meta-rush, I was martyr to this micro-drama’) and 95 more equally ingenious forms. It is the fullest incarnation of what Gustave Flaubert fantasized about in a letter nearly a century earlier: ‘a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, a book held together by the internal strength of its style […] a book about almost nothing.’ And in Queneau’s book the subject is style itself, nothing else, modulated 99 times. Not a parody, a piece of airless formalism or a symptom of encircling psychosis, it inaugurates one of literature’s strangest, most inventive institutions whose library is a labyrinth of intoxicating intricacy. Escape was never the aim to begin with and means very little. For the Oulipo, the labyrinth is home.