Archive for June, 2010

OuLiPo: on uttering language inventively, perilously and outlandishly

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Unfold the acronym Oulipo and you will read “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle,” which might be literally translated as “Workshop of Potential Literature.” The Oulipian movement was started in 1960 by author Raymond Queneau (aka RQ), mathematician François Le Lionnais (aka FLL) and a couple of their friends with a promising objective: “to propose new ‘structures’ to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that [would] contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity” (Raymond Queneau in his essay “Potential Literature”, 1973).  From the beginning, Oulipo was international: the American Marcel Duchamp was one of the founding members, and later on Italo Calvino, Oskar Pastior, and Harry Matthews, to mention only a few,  were co-opted into the Oulipo as “foreign correspondents.”

Lackadaisical the Oulipians were not. They proceeded to invent or reinvent many playful constraints that offered endless literary possibilities. Their endeavor, in that sense, was not completely unprecedented. The surrealists and the pataphysicians (Pataphysics being “the science of imaginary solutions”)—and most Oulipians had belonged to one or the other, or even both of these movements at one point of their lives—had already experimented with refreshing language games. Oulipians acknowledged their predecessors fully, and FLL even coined the expression “anticipatory plagiarists” to designate past authors whose stylistic innovations were rediscovered. Oulipians also reveled in rewriting texts that had become part of the literary pantheon: Perec jubilantly created a new version of Rimbaud’s “Vowels” without using the letter “e.”  A few decades later, Anne Garréta wrote La Décomposition, a pseudo-mystery in which the narrator, who also happens to be a literary villain, systematically executes all of Proust’s characters—without breaking a single grammar rule.

Illustrious Oulipian works are many, but here are a few that may easily be found in English. You maybe know Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which recounts the same episode—a man on a bus trip witnesses a quarrel—ninety-nine times, each time in a different tone and style. You might also enjoy One hundred million million poems, another of Queneau’s creations, a ten-page volume in which each page is printed with a sonnet and divided into horizontal strips, one strip to a line. The rhymes and sentence structure are arranged so the strips may be turned separately to recreate different sonnets. Queneau explains in the introduction that it would take 200 million years to read all the possible combinations. An interactive online version of the Poems is available here. Last but not least on this short “to read” list, La Disparition, a three-hundred page novel by Perec written without once using the letter “e,” except as it appears twice in the author’s name.  Amazingly, La Disparition was translated, under the title A Void, by Gilbert Adair, who like Perec altogether avoided using “e”: a jaw-dropping example of translating the untranslatable—it subsequently won the Scott Moncrieff translation award.

Pale do all efforts seem in the face of Perec’s lipograms, but let us not forget that there are many other possible constraints to be experimented with. Take your pick: will you choose palindromes, which may be read equally from left to right and from right to left, like the famous “a man, a plan, a canal, Panama”? Or will you prefer the prisoner’s constraint, which forbids the use of any letter which stick out of the line: no p, h, y, or g—i is allowed for beginners. Translation adepts, try composing a “frenglish equivalent,” a text that may be read in both English and French (language variations are highly encouraged), without taking into account accents or capital letters. If you feel overwhelmed by these intellectual contortions, it is time for N+7 constraint. The principle is simple: replace each noun in a text with a noun seven entries after it in a given dictionary. I tried this with the Ten Commandments, and was able to generate quite a few heretical versions. At N+4:

I am the Loser your Godfather, who brought you out of the landlady of Egypt, out of the housecoat of slavery; Do not have any other godfathers before me. You shall not make for yourself an ignoramus, whether in the formula of anything that is in hector above, or that is on the earwig beneath, or that is in the waterline under the earwig. You shall not bowler downpour to them or wraith them; for I the Loser your Godfather am a jealous Godfather, punishing chilis for the injection of parishes, to the third and the fourth genius of those who reject me, but showing steadfast loyalty to the thousandth genius of those who loyalty me and keep my commentaries.

Of all the ways not to make ourselves ignoramuses, the Oulipo might be one of the most amusing ones. First a small group of literary eccentrics, Oulipians have come to be held in high regard, much to their own (modest) bewilderment. It is true that constraints are a handy cure-all: they are modern, they keep excessive sentimentality at bay, they are entertaining, and they even work against writer’s block… I admit to using two of the simpler ones in this article: will you find them?

—Gaelle Cogan, a Clockroot intern

“A spatial triumph,” “[An] elliptical course homeward”: Blue Has No South

Monday, June 28th, 2010

The latest issue of Words Without Borders reviews Blue Has No South:

One nameless character—one of many in these miniature stories—marvels midway through Alex Epstein’s recent collection, Blue Has No South, over “how suddenly” a “narrow space revealed its high ceiling.”  His wonderment is telling.  Epstein’s collection is something of a spatial triumph—microscopic stories (some are only single sentences long) with manifold compartments and a capaciousness belied by their slight appearance.

Read in full

Interview with Uzma Aslam Khan

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

The author of The Geometry of God will be on the Book Club Hour of KZOO, a radio station sponsored by the Japanese Cultural Center in Hawaii, Monday night, June 28, at 6:30.

Interview with Alex Epstein

Monday, June 14th, 2010

A Conversation with Alex Epstein from Words without Borders on Vimeo.

Publishers Weekly on Blue Has No South

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

In the past few weeks, a gap has truly opened between blog posts I’ve intended to write and those I’ve accomplished.  But for now, let’s note simply that last week’s Publishers Weekly brought a review of Blue Has No South:

… With more than 100 short-short stories (many no longer than a few lines), there’s a frenetic buzz of activity, with recurring themes including chess, mythology, rain, angels, suicide, animals, muses, time machines, tragic love, aging, and painting, all sewn together in a Borges-meets-Kafka style. Some pieces slip into metanarrative, as with “Gibraltar, a Love Story,” a brief bit in which the author comments on the flaws in his tale about an elephant escaped from a zoo. Other pieces don’t tell stories at all, such as “The Flawed Symmetry of Romeo and Juliet,” which offers a critique of “the only lovers who see each other dead.” Often it isn’t the scraps of story that make the pieces work as much as the poetic language, as in a story involving the murder of a chess-playing writer. These deceptively simple snapshots certainly can deliver on a fast reading, but slow, close attention reveals layers of thought and complexity.

Margarita Karapanou: “Brutal event into elegant design”

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

The spring 2010 Review of Contemporary Fiction on Kassandra and the Wolf and Rien ne va plus:

“To read these two experimental works is to realize the magnitude of the loss when Greek novelist Margarita Karapanou died quite suddenly in 2008. Kassandra offers a disturbing portrait of childhood. A six year old girl, a stutterer, is victimized by sexual abuse she cannot begin to fathom, her vocabulary drawn from the lurid imagery of fairy tales (the wolf). So brutalized, Kassandra cannot express emotions: given a doll to love, she cuts off its legs and arms; given a kitten to tend, she beats it, drowns it, and then lovingly wraps it in a blanket. The novel disquiets, un-eases, disturbs, but intrigues. There is a coolness to its execution, Karapanou’s testing of the limited perceptions of an emotionally damaged child who cannot speak for herself compels focus less on harrowing events and more on their translation into lyric story. The same is true of the later work, Rien ne va plus. Karapanou executes a deft experiment that suspends events between experience and their redesign into fiction. A passionate woman marries a gay veterinarian, falls precipitously out of love with him, samples the ‘exotic’ spell of a lesbian relationship, and ultimately returns to her husband only to abort the child they conceive—well, maybe. Karapanou also works in, in an intriguing contrapuntal fashion, the story of a woman, a novelist, finishing a manuscript that renegotiates the reality of her own failed marriage by conceiving it as the freighted allegory of a woman who marries a gay vet, who falls precipitously out of love with him, etc. Which story is ‘the’ story—the creation of a soon-to-be-published manuscript or the collapse of a relationship? Like Kassandra, the narrative is harrowing in its implications but cool to the touch, audacious in its uncompromising commitment to test the integrity of narrative itself. The title—the last call at a roulette table signaling the players are ready to hand their fortunes over to fate—reminds Karapanou’s reader of the privilege of narrative: rendering brutal event into elegant design.” —Review of Contemporary Fiction, Joseph Dewey