All entries for Wednesday 09 July 2008

July 09, 2008

The Land Where The OuLiPo Live

The OuLiPo At Play

Sometimes, the challenge to creative writing is not to make something final or assessable, but to make something potential, a kind of audition with language, or even a playful confection of words and letters—art for art’s sake; play for play’s sake. On the continent of writing, no citizens have as much fun as in the country where the OuLiPo live.

100,000,000,000,000 Poems consists of a sequence of ten 14-line sonnets by the French writer and former Surrealist Raymond Queneau (Editions Gallimard, 1961). Each sonnet has an identical rhyme scheme. In the original edition, the sonnets are printed on the recto side of each page, and the lines cut into fourteen strips. If a reader lifts one strip of line on any of the pages, except the last, a completely new sonnet is revealed. If they lift two strips, then another, and so on in all possible permutations until one reaches 1014 sonnet combinations, or one hundred million million sonnets, thus the title. The author calculated that someone reading the book 24 hours a day would require 190, 258, 751 years to complete it. They would also need to keep a careful note of the combinations along the way, and obviously be enthusiastic about the book. Queneau’s poem gave birth to an idea.

As war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, so The OuLiPo is the continuation by other means of literature. Writers, mathematicians and academics founded the OuLiPo or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) in 1960. Subsequent membership is by election, but that need not stop you from trying out their techniques, or inventing some of your own.

Their purpose was to find out how abstract restrictions combine with imaginative writing. They advocated the use of severe, self-imposed limitations during the act of creation. As Queneau put it, they are as ‘rats who construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape’. Two of its most famous members are Italo Calvino and Georges Perec (who wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e”). Still formidably active, the OuLiPo is now recognized as one of the most original, productive and provocative literary enterprises to appear in the past century.

They spawned related groups such as The OuLiPopo (potential detective fiction) with their array of methods for inventing and solving crimes; The Oupeinpo (potential painting); and The Oubapo (potential comic strips) devoted to finding new ways to combine drawing with text. All these groups have their rites: annual dinners, outrageous minutes of meetings, bizarre rules and manifestos and mind-bending techniques. However, their purposes are generous, despite closed membership. They seek to expand the variety of what literature might do, rather than dictate what it cannot do or should do. They are a positive, enlivening presence in the discipline of creative writing and students and new writers are urged towards The OuLiPo Compendium (Atlas, 1998) edited by Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie.

One of the best places for new fiction writers to start is Queneau’s tale Exercises in Style (Gallimard, 1947). On a crowded bus at midday, the author observes one man accusing another of jostling him deliberately. When a seat is vacated, the first man appropriates it. Later, in another part of town, the author sees the man being advised by a friend to sew another button on his coat. That is all there is to it. Except that Queneau retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the Alexandrine, “Ze Ffrench” and “Cockney”. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. It is a tour de force in stylistic demonstration, and teaches even as it pleases.

The playfulness of OuLiPo behaviour and ideas can be liberating, especially in a generative fiction or poetry workshop. There is nothing especially new about the practice of ‘restriction being liberation’. Certainly, in ancient poetry, as in mathematics, the art of numbers was the art of everything. It is a re-formalisation of a practice whose roots lie in rhetorical and compositional challenges that medieval teachers set for themselves and for their students, as we saw in Chapter One. It echoes the tight technical work of the troubadours, as well as the games with form played by

Elizabethan Court poets, and even highly popular Victorian parlour “word games” enjoyed in the world before television and cinema.

One of the more straightforward exercises for you to try (to gain an idea of what OuLiPo can offer you) is ‘N + 7’ or ‘NOUN + 7’. Take a pre-existing creative work, or one of your own. Read through the piece (it can be fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry) and note the position of all the nouns. Look up these nouns in a dictionary one by one, and then count forwards in the dictionary by seven nouns (not seven words) for every one. For example, taking the first stanza of John Keats famous Ode (NE2: 872):

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!

  Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

  For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Using a school dictionary, I counted forward seven nouns from the word ‘season’ and reached the word ‘sea-wall’. Every single noun is swapped by the serendipitous new word; a quite different ‘potential poem’ develops:

To Aviation

Sea-wall of mistresses and mellow fruitfulness!

Close bother fringe of the maturing Sunday-School;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With frustration the vintners that round the theatres run;

To bend with appointments the moss’d cotton trench,

And fill all frustration with ripeness to the cork;

To swell the governess, and plump the headache shelters

   With a sweet ketchup; to set budding more,

And still more, later fluids for the beggars,

Until they think warm deaconesses will never cease,

  For Summons has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cellulite.

The point is not to produce a new and great work of literature, nor is the purpose to subject existing work to ridicule. The point is to play, and to yield fresh ideas and connections. The approach is clever and charming, but it is not an ideology as some followers think; it is the opposite. The OuLiPo create thought-experiments out of a scrabble of letters and language. Nothing might come of it, but the potential is there, as in scientific and thought-experiment. One might do worse, for example, than write a poem that takes as its starting point ‘headache shelters’; or to write a short story that unfolds the reasons why the vintners are frustrated and why they might be running around a theatre; who is bent with appointments; and why the governess is pregnant.

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