“OF COURSE, HE'S NOT a composer,” Arnold Schoenberg once said of John Cage, “but he's an inventor — of genius!” Likewise, the Oulipo — whose name derives from the French phrase “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” (commonly translated as “Workshop for a Potential Literature”) — is a Parisian literary cadre, initially composed equally of writers and mathematicians, that see themselves as much as inventors of elaborate literary challenges as composers of the works themselves. Where Cage advocated surrendering to chance, the Oulipo wanted to run it out of town — along with such tired concepts as inspiration, self-expression, and the unconscious. The Oulipians were “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape,” in the famous formulation of co-founder Raymond Queneau, and they wrote more in the spirit of the crossword puzzle than, say, Rousseau’s Confessions. The Oulipians strove for diamantine wonders, not psychological enigmas, and sought to tighten the bolts on “creativity,” if only to find a new, fresher freedom at the other end.
Some of the works from the Oulipo have come to be recognized as literary masterpieces. The best known might be Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a detective novel written without the use of the letter “e,” masterfully translated into English using the same constraint by Gilbert Adair as A Void. (In fact the Oulipo didn’t invent this particular form: writing a text without the use of a particular letter is called a lipogram, and it’s been in use since the time of the ancient Greeks.) Another highlight of the Oulipo oeuvre, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller…, requires an elaborate chart to plot all of the intersections of story, character, and incident, one which he doesn’t supply. (Again, this is not as novel as it might seem: Dante didn’t provide a guide to his Hell, either.) Queneau’s sonnet sequence One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems is actually ten sonnets published with the request that you cut the pages horizontally along each line of each poem, such that you can make up your own sonnet by folding back individual lines and leaving others exposed, like in a children’s book. Calling it a sequence rather than a random poetry generator emphasizes the speculative, “potential” aspect of the Oulipo project: it would require you 200,000,000 years reading 24 hours a day to experience Queneau’s work in full.
Despite their solid grounding in literary history, the Oulipo have lately been given credit for any number of unprecedented discoveries, from anticipating the role of the computer in everyday life to crafting the perfect literary form for the age of recombinant DNA. Though their impact was not nearly as immediate as earlier French avant-garde literary movements like Surrealism or the nouveau roman, their influence has steadily grown, and, some fifty years after their founding, it’s safe to say that the Oulipo have had a substantial influence on North American letters. Mark Z. Danielewski followed his sprawling, multi-genre cult hit House of Leaves with the maddeningly self-reflexive Only Revolutions, a 360-page novel with exactly 180 words on each page, 90 facing one way telling the story from the h...read more