LIFE, A USER'S MANUAL By Georges Perec Translated from the French by David Bellos Godine. 581 pp. $24.95 OUR BEAUTIFUL HEROINE By Jacques Roubaud Translated from the French by David Kornacker Overlook. 207 pp. $17.95 CIGARETTES By Harry Mathews Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 292 pp. $17.95
IF EVERY CLOUD is another man's poison, it might also be said that sleeping dogs spoil the broth, at least according to the proverbial wisdom of the Oulipo, a Paris-based group of writers and mathematicians. Founded in 1960, the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litte'rature Potentielle, Workshop of Potential Literature) was conceived as a collaboration of interests between two old friends, French novelist Raymond Queneau and chess wizard Francois Le Lionnais. In light of the whopping 300-year success of the alexandrine, arbitrarily organized around the number 12, their idea was simply to take up where the rhetoricians of the 16th century had left off.
The Oulipo (whose international group would eventually count among its members Marcel Duchamp, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud) proposed to create a working laboratory for structures divorced from any content, which would utilize all kinds of mathematical formulae to generate new forms of literature. Queneau, for example, wrote a book of 10 sonnets titled Cent Mille Milliards de Poe`mes (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) in which all of the pages are slit into 14 mobile strips that can be flipped back and forth to yield 10
possible poems at one's fingertips, and two million years of potential reading.
Other Oulipian experiments include Georges Perec's record-breaking poetic palindrome of more than 1,200 words that can be read in both directions (like ROMA-AMOR) and his archly comic 312-page novel, La Disparition, a lipogram, in which the vowel e, the most frequently used letter in the French language, is entirely absent -- a formidable detail overlooked by readers and critics alike when the book was first published in 1969. And as if to prove the reversibility of such a constraint, Perec adopted the counter-formula in his next racy novel, Les Revenentes ("Those who return as mischievous spirits"), where e is the only vowel permitted.
But these alphabetic acrobatics are only one type of vertiginous exercise with language. If one accepts that every literary work is essentially the mirror of another, then all writing is, by definition, a game of "plagiarism by anticipation," to employ an Oulipian term. Consequently, any existing literary passage can be "prepared," gutted like a chicken, emptied of its nouns, verbs or adjectives and "stuffed" with new vocabulary from another known work, as demonstrated by Harry Mathews when he rewrote the text of Keats' poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" with a recipe for cauliflowers and tomatoes. In the Oulipian "S+7 method," every noun can be replaced with the seventh noun that follows it in the dictionary; or, as in Mathew's Selected Declarations of Dependence, tired proverbs may be sliced and spliced into a new breed of possible fables ("Lucky at cards, but you can't make him drink.")
One might object that these self-imposed strict rules of writing appear to be entirely gratuitous, and the Oulipians would tend to agree. Declaring that it is neither an esthetic movement, a pedagogical institution, nor a literary school, the Oulipo also shrugs off being categorized as a group of "serious" scientists, although certain members are indeed affiliated with universities. How would they describe themselves? Like "rats who must construct a labyrinth from which they then propose to escape" or, as one member of the group summed it up: "Every writer is in a cage; the difference is we just choose our own cages."
But why should any author voluntarily put himself through the conundrums of such a task? Paradoxically, the demands of a constrictive form only serve to liberate the imagination, since one is obliged to write in a way that one would never do otherwise, thereby eliminating sticky problems of ego or divine inspiration. ("He who is truly inspired is never inspired, he always is," quipped Queneau.) Writing for the Oulipian becomes a process of discovery, an ever-expanding puzzle, a solution to a problem that is all in the storytelling.
IN GEORGES PEREC'S Life A User's Manual, the most obvious game plan of the novel is based on a Parisian building without a facade, such that every room and stairway is simultaneously visible. Although everything takes place within the architectural framework of the imaginary 11 rue Simon Crubellier in the XVIIth arrondissement, Life A User's Manual not only tells of its past and present tenants but develops into a massive catalog of stories within stories and inexhaustible lists of objects and activities. In addition to the 99 chapters (in which 167 characters are at one time present in the 100 rooms of the building), there are meticulously documented bibliographies and footnotes from the "editor," not to mention chronological guidelines, indexes and capsules of certain episodes.
Yet, regardless of the variety of staggering constraints (geometric formulas, moves of a knight across a chessboard, plagiarized bits from other literary masterpieces), what is so utterly compelling about this Oulipian tour de force is that it is also a mosaic of endearingly eccentric characters and life's little dramas.
Take, for instance, Percival Bartlebooth, an English millionaire, indifferent to power, women or his own fortune, who confronts the incoherence of the modern world by engaging himself in a lifetime project that is founded on a completely arbitrary premise. Bartlebooth studies art for 10 years with his neighbor Serge Vale`ne so that during the next 20 years he may travel to 500 seaports all over the world to paint one picture every two weeks. Each new port scene is promptly expedited to a gifted artisan, Gaspard Winckler (also a tenant of the same building), who glues the watercolor onto a block of wood and then cuts it into a 750-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Upon his return, Bartlebooth plans to spend the next 20 years holed up in his apartment, reassembling the 500 puzzles, which no longer depict an image because once the pieces have been cut, a special solution is applied to dissolve the paint, leaving only white surfaces. When Bartlebooth mysteriously dies holding the last piece of the 439th puzzle, the joke may be on him, but perhaps on the reader as well, which is all part of the fun. For those who enjoy the occasional little narrative trick, Perec's sly craftsmanship invites us to grope for clues, discover hidden games, realign discrepancies and ultimately carve our own zigzagging itinerary in the novel.
Not so in the case of Our Beautiful Heroine, a zany and surprisingly sexy detective story where the reader is warned at the outset of the terrible traps that may lie ahead. Here the "Author," Jacques Roubaud, poet, mathematician and Lewis Carroll enthusiast, frequently interrupts the musings of his first-person narrator (one of the characters) as well as considerately providing the reader with rest stops, three "between-two-chapters," where vital questions such as "what's going on here?" and "where are we?" are raised.
Set in a typical and thinly-disguised Parisian neighborhood (Roubaud's own, le marais), the novel unfolds as a crime story in which the celebrated Inspector Blognard tries to nab "The Hardware Store Horror," a statue-stealing terrorist from Plodevia who systematically strikes nearer and nearer to 53 rue des Citoyens (where most of the characters live) and signs his dirty deed with a black silhouette of a man urinating.
But this enigma soon becomes intertwined with a love story that focuses on the nubile Hortense, a budding student of philosophy who breezes down the streets in transparent summer dresses, under the lascivious surveillance of grocer Euse`be, a professional tourist ogler, and the unblinking gaze of Alexander Vladimirovich, a major figure in the intrigue who just happens to be a cat. At the same time, for those who care to look through the spy glass, this mad-hatter mystery is quintessentially Oulipian. A direct tribute to Queneau's mathematically structured novel Pierrot mon ami, from which Roubaud joyously "plagiarizes" names and places, Our Beautiful Heroine is also an etude in sextuple obsession -- there are six parts in the book, six Poldevian princes, 36 hardware stores attacked, and so on.
Numbers and unsolved riddles also abound in Harry Mathew's Cigarettes, but cloaked under a brilliant Jane Austen-like social comedy on the unfathomable nature of human relationships. Mathews, Oulipo's sole American member (as well as a friend, collaborator and translator of the late Georges Perec), brings the action closer to home. In the space of 14 chapters, we meet 13 people, alternately paired off, who belong to the wealthy New York art, business and racehorse set. In place of a puzzle, here life is a carefully choreographed quadrille of changing partners, based on Mathew's own algorithm. Men and women are strangely interconnected by strong sexual, familial or power-motivated ties of love and hate, further complicated by a treasure hunt for a missing portrait. It may sound perplexing, but once the dance is over, beyond the formality of Oulipian constraints, the reader will find it difficult to squeeze himself away from the grip of these captivating and realistic characters, who, like Perec's and Roubaud's odd assortment of scholars and screwballs, all vie for our compassion and play the numbers with our hearts.
Lanie Goodman, a translator and professor of French at Baruch College/CUNY, organized a November "Writers of the Oulipo" literary colloquium.