Oulipo in the UL

This November sees the 55th anniversary of the Oulipo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature. (Or the 5,500th anniversary, Oulipianly speaking – one standard year being equivalent to an Oulipian century.) The University Library recently received the catalogue for an exhibition held last winter at the Bibliothèque nationale celebrating the work of this group (2015.10.1106). The Oulipo is an association of writers concerned with the exploration of linguistic and combinatorial constraints in literature, and the seemingly paradoxical freedoms that can come from writing within them. Its members are, in the words of their co-founder, the novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau, ‘rats who construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.’

Bibliothèque Oulipienne, vol. 9 (735:01.c.13.9) - NW3

Bibliothèque Oulipienne, vol. 9 (735:01.c.13.9) – North Wing 3

Inaugurated in Paris by Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Oulipo’s original purpose was to study existing literary works ‘in order to find possibilities that often exceed those their authors had anticipated.’ There was also the ‘question of developing new possibilities unknown to our predecessors.’ Restricted forms including the sonnet and the lipogram were among the first to undergo investigation, while the second line of enquiry engendered such celebrated techniques as the S+7 method (where one replaces each noun in a chosen text with the seventh noun following it in a selected dictionary – equally applicable to other parts of speech and other ordinals) and, more recently, exercises like the Métro poem. (One uses the time travelling between Métro stops to compose a line of poetry in one’s head, and the few seconds at the station to write it down. Strictly no writing while in motion or composing while stationary. No revisions allowed following completion of journey.) In its early days members would bring to the Oulipo’s meetings examples of past or newly minted constraints and discuss their merits and potential for generating further texts. Since these meetings commonly took the form of extended drunken lunches with argumentative participants wearing inappropriate hats, progress was sometimes faltering, but usually constructive, and always entertaining.

The proceedings of meetings from the initial years are collected in Jacques Bens’s OuLiPo: 1960-1963 (700:1.d.95.307), and examples of the group’s work up to 1973 are gathered in Littérature potentielle-créations, re-créations, récréations (9700.d.4168). For many years the Oulipo has produced monthly publications of its work, limited on release to 150 copies, but which are now reaching a wider audience via the ongoing Bibliothèque Oulipienne series (735:01.c.13.1-9). The Atlas de littérature potentielle (700:1.d.95.234) and the Anthologie de l’OuLiPo (C202.d.5103) serve as useful introductions. For Oulipian material in English, the Oulipo Compendium (9006.c.9880) is particularly informative. Warren F. Motte, Jr.’s Oulipo: a primer of potential literature (735:43.c.95.332) reproduces many of the group’s theoretical texts. Many Subtle Channels, by Daniel Levin Becker (701:15.c.201.344), is a comprehensive yet resolutely uncomplicated guide to the Oulipo.

Meeting of the Oulipo in Boulogne, near Paris, on September 23, 1975, in the garden of François Le Lionnais. (© Archives Pontigny-Cerisy)

Meeting of the Oulipo in Boulogne, near Paris, on September 23, 1975, in the garden of François Le Lionnais. (© Archives Pontigny-Cerisy)

Along with Queneau, undoubtedly the most famous Oulipians (and also those best known to Anglophone readers) are the authors Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Over time the group has also co-opted, among others, the writer Jacques Roubaud; François Caradec, the biographer of Oulipian influences Alphonse Allais and Raymond Roussel; Harry Mathews, whose ‘35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare’ (in the Oulipo Compendium) illustrates humorously and succinctly many Oulipian constraints; and Anne F. Garréta, whose Oulipian novel Sphinx (9004.d.3614) has recently appeared in an English translation.

In recent years debate has increased over whether the Oulipo is coming to the end of its own potential. Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin, for instance, in their The end of Oulipo? (C207.c.5901), wonder if the group has exhausted its relevance. In fact, the Oulipo has always kept a close watch over its purpose and direction. At its inception the Ouvroir engaged in a lively discussion about what was meant by ‘Potentielle’, which by 1962 had moved on to finding a satisfactory definition of ‘Littérature’. In 1970 Le Lionnais distributed a questionnaire asking members whether and in what form the Oulipo should continue (for some excellent responses see Levin Becker, p. 208) and in 2001 a meeting was convened at which the Oulipo’s status as a ‘literary group’ and the primacy in its work of methods of constraint were debated. It would seem, happily, that these positions were resolved favourably, and have continued to evolve.

Les jeudis de l'OULIPO, January 2009.

Les jeudis de l’OULIPO, January 2009.
Photo by melina1965 (Flickr)

Roubaud’s later description of the Oulipo as an organisation aiming ‘to invent (or reinvent) restrictions of a formal nature and propose them to enthusiasts interested in composing literature’ neatly characterises the Oulipo of today: a group which gives a season of monthly public readings at the Bibliothèque nationale each year (the ‘Jeudis’), and organises workshops in writing within Oulipian constraints. Caradec, whose attitudes oscillated between those of the founders and the younger set, complained that these activities were turning the Oulipo from a ‘societé de littérature’ into a ‘societé de spectacle’. Roubaud identifies two strands in the group’s work which he calls ‘Oulipo ‘ard’ and ‘Oulipo-lite’, the latter referring to the kind of productions which lend themselves to performance and entertainment, such as the Métro poems. However, it remains unclear why or whether the distinction matters: after all in times past, long before the Oulipo existed, literature was written almost exclusively for recitation or staging, that is, performance. The group reflects and honours the intentions of its forebears just as much through these means as by writing or publication.

Mike Aston
Betty & Gordon Moore Library

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