The “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle” — the Workshop for Potential Literature — was founded in 1960 by two French polymaths who liked to play with words and numbers. Over a series of meals, the man of letters Raymond Queneau and the scientist and mathematician Francois Le Lionnais gradually gathered those similarly obsessed into a confederation that quickly became known by its acronym: the OuLiPo.
That early generation of Oulipians included the writers Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud and Harry Mathews. All of them wanted to explore how constraints, mathematical algorithms, strange literary techniques and new forms of wordplay might produce not just bizarre texts but also amusing and memorable stories, poems and novels. The most famous — notorious? — example of an Oulipian work is Perec’s “La Disparition” (“The Disappearance”), a novel written without any word containing the letter E. A tour de force, yes, given that E is the most commonly used letter of the alphabet, although it’s crucial to remember that E, in French, is pronounced the same as “eux,” which means “them.” One way to read the novel, then, is to see it as a meditation on the deaths during World War II of Perec’s parents. The book is, metaphorically, about the disappearance of “them.” He later wrote “Les Revenentes” (“The Specters”), in which the only vowel used is E.
People either judge these kinds of authorial limitations as virtuosically clever but aesthetically trivial, or they find them just incredibly cool. The young Daniel Levin Becker, now the reviews editor for the Believer, was so taken with Perec’s work that he traveled to France, helped organize the OuLiPo’s archives, interviewed its members and eventually was himself “co-opted” into the group. (The OuLiPo has 38 members, five of them women and seven non-French.) Levin Becker relates his experiences at the beginning and end of “Many Subtle Channels”; in between he presents a history of the workshop from its foundation to the present. The result is a distinctly intimate and exceptionally entertaining book.
Reacting, in part, against the surrealists who practiced automatic writing that drew its inspiration from the unconscious, the Oulipians advocated a calculated approach to creativity, based on extreme attentiveness to language and lots of cheeky cleverness. “An Oulipian constructs a poem or a novel the way a mathematician proves a theorem — carefully, methodically, embracing a set of rules.” But this doesn’t mean that the results can’t be mesmerizing (see Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”), sexy (see Roubaud’s three “Hortense” novels) or even simultaneously philosophical and adventure-packed (see Perec’s masterpiece, “Life: A User’s Manual”). If you enjoy crosswords, intricately structured mysteries a la Agatha Christie, puns, hypertext fiction, shaggy dog stories, Bourbaki mathematics, the games of chess and Go, or simply work that boggles the mind, then you really need to discover the OuLiPo.
Oulipians have composed texts written in the ape language created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for the Tarzan books, elegies that use only the letters from the name of the person being remembered and poems methodically composed while on the subway, one line per stop. They play guessing games in which an undisclosed book’s title is “translated” into synonyms (an easy example: “Dim blaze, wan flame, ashen inferno, sallow burn”: Answer Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”). They skew existing texts, as in “perverbs” that amalgamate two unrelated cliches: “A stitch in time gathers no moss.” Queneau famously wrote 10 sonnets, all with the same end rhymes, bound them together, one precisely on top of another, then partially snipped each line so it could be folded back, revealing the one below. In effect, he adopted the format of those board books in which the child-reader can randomly alter the heads, torsos or feet of various animals to generate humorous combinations. In Queneau’s case, the mix and match lines of “Cent mille milliards de poemes” (“One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems”) can generate that many different sonnets.
Most Oulipians are fascinated by homophones — words that sound alike but have different meanings (e.g. “wood” and “would”) — and by the opportunity for play that results. One central Oulipian text, Perec’s “Le Voyage d’hiver” (“Winter’s Journey”), has been amplified by supplementary homophonic titles, including “Le Voyage d’hier” (“Yesterday’s Journey”), “Voyage d’Hitler” (“Hitler’s Journey”), “Voyage du ver” (“A Worm’s Journey”) and others, all enriching the story of a lost poetry manuscript by Hugo Vernier, whose work was stolen by Baudelaire and Mallarme. In “Les Horreurs de la guerre” (“The Horrors of War”), Perec composed a short play in which the dialogue consisted of words that sound like the letters of the alphabet. The first line, “Abbesse! Aidez!” (“Abbess! Help!”) is pronounced just like slurred ABCD in French.
As Levin Becker underscores throughout, the OuLiPo’s techniques — constraints that liberate the imagination — are deeply attractive to all sorts of people and work well as group activities. “The point is to learn to write for yourself, for that thrill of doing things you didn’t know you knew how to do.”
Years ago, I reviewed a number of books by Perec, Queneau, Roubaud and Calvino, and was seduced into trying some Oulipian games of my own. For instance, I adopted Perec’s alphabetical dialogue for a little play in English called “Awful Bits.” It opens with a Cockney factotum glancing into the laboratory of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus. He says, “ ’Eh! Busy, Dee?” (that is, ABCD). The play proceeds through the alphabet — a replicant is referred to as an “effigy” (FG) — and then reverses itself and goes back from Z to A. Near the end, a Jewish prostitute solicits a sailor, in fact a “Seabee” (CB), then with shame recognizes her own brother “Abie,” (AB) at which point the dialogue begins another descent down the alphabet. Friends advised me not to do this sort of thing again.
While there are several anthologies of OuLiPo writings available in English (including a valuable primer by Warren Motte), Levin Becker’s book gives a sense of the real people behind all this linguistic exuberance. He relies on written documents and oral history for his portraits of the early Oulipians, but brings the current generation to idiosyncratic life. The outgoing Marcel Benabou, for instance, is the author of “Dump This Book While You Still Can!,” which is about reading and not reading, while Jacques Jouet has composed a poem a day since 1992. Jouet insists that an Oulipian should reveal his structural methods because knowledge of them increases the reader’s fascination and appreciation. In contrast, Harry Mathews refuses to demystify his work. “The problem when you see the constraint,” as his ally Perec once said, “is that you see nothing but the constraint.”
Levin Becker ends his book by discussing current offshoots of the OuLiPo, especially those concerned with music, painting and photography. I can affirm, utterly without constraint, that he makes an ideal guide to the ingeniously madcap wonderland that is potential literature and art.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room .