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