Almost all literature is written according to some form of convention or conceit. Such constraints are as old as literature itself, but it was not until the late 50s that a small group of (mainly French) writers arrived at the conclusion that these restrictions had been fully and terminally explored. The French poet and novelist Raymond Queneau had been quietly incorporating new structural techniques into his work for some time, culminating in his revolutionary 100,000,000,000,000 Poems (1960), but he too was eager to employ greater strictures in his writing.
On November 24, 1960, Queneau and fellow writer François Le Lionnais arranged a meeting with a small group of poets, academics and mathematicians, in order to explore the possibilities of incorporating mathematical structures in literary work. Their ultimate aim was to subject writing to severely restrictive methods, to leave nothing to chance, and to allow 'the continuation of literature by other means'. 1 Thus the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) was born, and it remains the longest surviving movement in French literary history.
Queneau was particularly enamoured of the author Raymond Roussel, hero of the Surrealists, whose imagination united 'the madness of the mathematician with the reasons of the poet'. 2 Queneau was especially impressed with Roussel's use of jeux des mots and homophones; techniques that Roussel had employed extensively in his masterful Impressions of Africa (1910). A good example is found in François Le Lionnais' Second Manifesto (1973). Lionnais, whilst standing transfixed before the monkey cage at the Jardin des Plantes, found himself muttering the first line of Keats' Endymion (1818): 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever'. Just another urban epiphany, until you consider the Franglais homophone - Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l'hiver (A beautiful monkey is a toy for winter). Bearing in mind Lautréamont's insistence that 'plagiarism is necessary - progress implies it', the Oulipians, realising that many of the key practitioners had lived hundreds of years previously, covered themselves by inventing the notion of 'anticipatory plagiarism'. 3 This term helped the Oulipo to identify those earlier writers who had created paleo-Oulipian texts prior to any formal recognition of the techniques they employed, which had existed in the French literary canon for some time. Failure to acknowledge the Oulipo was not considered a crime: Georges Perec would later trace the use of the lipogram - a piece of writing that excludes certain letters - back to the early 6th century.
The conceits invented and utilised by members of the Oulipo are myriad. They are by turns serious, audacious, foolish, impossible, pretentious; many can only ever be theoretical. Some Oulipian novels have achieved success in the mainstream (most notably Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, 1981) whilst others have languished, of interest only to their creators. It was not until the late 60s that one Oulipian in particular, Georges Perec, realised the full potential of many of the group's more daring and seemingly impossible constraints.
Perec used his background as a market research analyst as the inspiration for his first (non-Oulipian) novel Les Choses: Une histoire des anneés 60 (1965, translated as Things: A Story of the 60s, 1967) which was awarded the Prix Renaudot in 1965. He moved on to work as a research librarian specialising in neurophysiology, inventing a revolutionary cataloguing system which was still in use up until the mid-80s. His interest in systems and puzzles dates from this time, and he was later to become a celebrated crossword compiler for Le Point. Elected into the Oulipo in 1967, Perec soon became one of its most adventurous and radical associates. His first major achievement was the Great Palindrome (1969) - a short story containing over 5000 characters. As well as being a perfect palindrome (reading the same in each direction), it also contained within it many imperfect palindromes (having a different meaning in each direction). This piece occupies a unique position in literature but, for obvious reasons, has never been made available in translation.
With such a bright start to his Oulipian career, Perec was eager to rise to the challenge of something more technically advanced. His standing amongst fellow members of the group had been greatly enhanced by his proven ability to work within the narrowest of constraints, and after much discussion he chose to tackle something that had previously been considered impossible. The lipogram is, apparently, a straightforward constraint: the first sentence in this paragraph is, for instance, a lipogram in 'j', 'k', 'q', 'x' and 'z'. One of the interesting things about the lipogram is that the reader tends not to notice its existence unless the writer announces its presence. The difficulty of the lipogram is also entirely dependent on the letters chosen for exclusion. The single most important letter in French, as in English, is the letter 'e', and Perec's decision to write a lipogrammatic novel in 'e' reduced his vocabulary by 85%. Grammar also posed huge problems and to maintain a coherent narrative whilst also developing plot and characterisation was thought to be impossible by the staunchest Oulipians. Anyway, even if it were possible, what was the point? In the wider world of literary endeavour, was not such a conceit merely a pretentious exercise in navel gazing? But, for Perec, the restriction had a deadly serious purpose. In French, the letter 'e' is pronounced 'eux' - the word for 'them', as well as the equivalent of a questioning shrug. 'They' were the millions of Jews - including Perec's own mother - murdered by the Nazis. By omitting the letter 'e' Perec exposed the 'scandal of their silence' and performed a most spectacular linguistic balancing act. 4 He knew that a perfectly rendered lipogram in 'e' would probably pass unnoticed by the majority of readers, especially if the book in question were passed off as a straightforward narrative. He was right. The novel La Disparition (The Disappeared, 1969, translated as A Void) - a murder mystery in which 'they' had disappeared, no questions asked - was reviewed without comment on the missing 'e'. Perec had completed his first masterpiece.
He later wrote a short companion piece to La Disparition, this time a univocalic (a lipogram in 'a', 'i', 'o', 'u' - the only vowel permitted being 'e'). But Les Revenentes (The Reterned, 1972) is a minor piece which takes extreme liberties with language - the title itself is a misspelling of les revenantes (the returned) - and the freedom he was granted by the Oulipo to make such changes rather defeated the object. It was, as much as anything else, an exercise in questioning how far the writer could change a language before losing the reader. If the English translation (The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex) is anything to go by, then the answer is 'not very'.
While continuing to work on many different projects - contributing reviews, articles, complex word puzzles and all manner of lexical acrobatics to a range of newspapers and magazines - Perec remained true to his favourite themes of classifying and schematising places and objects (such as alternative methods for the 'art and manner of arranging one's books') - and he compiled lists. These ranged from a catalogue of all the different beds in which he had slept, to a detailed description of the evolution of the Rue Vilin over a 12 year period, and his notorious Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four (1976) - 'one thrush paté... fourteen cucumber salads... seven pigs' trotters... one chicken kebab... two guava sorbets... one Saint-Emilion '61... four Guinness'. 5 Another member of the Oulipo, Claude Berge, had proposed that a novel could be built around a theoretical mathematical structure known as a ten by ten Graeco-Latin bi-square, and Perec realised that by using this structure as a reference to a series of lists, such a novel would almost write itself. The bi-square and the lists would provide a starting point, but other criteria would be required in order to give the novel the structure and narrative necessary to be readable. Perec decided that four factors would be required:
1. The ten by ten Graeco-Latin bi-square.
2. The Knight's Tour. (Perec plotted the course that a knight would take around all the squares of a chess board without landing more than once on any one square. For the purposes of the novel he used a ten by ten chessboard.)
3. An architect's drawing depicting the front elevation of a Parisian townhouse
'I imagine a Parisian apartment building whose façade has been removed [...] so that all the rooms in the front, from the ground floor up to the attics, are instantly and simultaneously visible.' 6
4. A 'schedule of obligations' - the lists
This was the recipe that Perec used to create the great La Vie mode d'emploi (1978, translated as Life: a User's Manual).
Firstly, Perec overlaid the knight's tour onto the ten by ten Graeco-Latin bi-square. Each box in which the knight landed gave coordinates referring to the 'schedule of obligations'. These lists provided the objects, emotions, places and periods in time which would feature within each chapter. One movement of the knight equalled one chapter. Secondly, Perec superimposed all of this onto the drawing of the townhouse to determine the location where the action would take place. The result was a sprawling, panoramic history of the house and its inhabitants, past and present. At the heart of the story is the Rousselian character of Bartlebooth: an indolent beneficiary of a huge private income who decides, at the age of 20, to give his life a 'purpose' by dedicating it to an utterly futile and time consuming pursuit. He spends the first ten years of his adulthood learning the art of painting with watercolours. The next 20 years are spent travelling the world and painting a total of 500 harbour scenes. These are then mounted onto board and transformed by the craftsman Gaspard Winckler into maddeningly complex jigsaw puzzles. Bartlebooth spends a further 20 years solving these puzzles. As they are completed, the reassembled paintings are removed from their mounts, returned to the location at which they were painted, and bleached. After 50 years nothing will remain, Bartlebooth will be 70, and his life's work will be done. The novel is packed with word play, puzzles, contradictions, and hundreds of mini narratives and stories. As the title suggests, all life is here, from the ridiculous to the sublime, the bizarre to the mundane. La Vie mode d'emploi stands as Perec's greatest achievement, technically sophisticated and thoroughly entertaining.
His lasting accomplishment was to expand the remit of literature: proving that the possibilities of the form did not stop at the horizon; that the tightest restrictions - be they self-imposed or enforced by the vicissitudes of history - were also passports to artistic freedom and self-expression. While the Oulipo continues to this day, it is unlikely that it will produce another writer genuinely capable of lending true significance to its otherwise ponderous conceits.
1. Harry Mathews (ed.) and Alistair Brotchie (ed.), Oulipo Compendium, Atlas Press, London, 1998, p. 201.
2. Ibid., p. 219.
3. François Le Lionnais, Second Manifesto (1973), Reprinted in Oulipo Laboratory, Atlas Press, London, 1995, p. xxvi.
4. Georges Perec, W or the Memory of Childhood, Collins, London, 1988, p. 44.
5. Georges Perec, Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four (1976), included in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Penguin, London, 1997, pp. 240-245.