A Necessarily Unfinishable Novel: The Oulipo’s Constraint

by David Winters

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature,
by Daniel Levin Becker,
Harvard University Press, 352pp.

For over fifty years now, the (mostly) French phenomenon known as the Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’) has been baffling and enthralling readers everywhere with its array of opaque literary techniques. Founded in 1960 as a subcommittee of the even more enigmatic Collège de ‘Pataphysique, the group has included such luminaries as Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau. The latter coined a phrase that has caught on as a précis of what oulipian writers do: they are, Queneau claimed, ‘rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.’ In other words, such writers work within self-imposed ‘constraints,’ submission to which encourages their creativity.

The Oulipo is partly about puzzles. From palindromes to lipograms and other linguistic devices, oulipian texts are crafted with what one member calls ‘the finest sort of needlework.’ A well-known example would be Perec’s novel La disparition, written without the letter ‘e’. Here I’ll come clean: I don’t always see the appeal of these games. From what I’ve read of the Oulipo’s output, I’m a bit ambivalent. A case in point would be Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual. I first read this book completely naively, unaware that its plot was modelled on a sequence of chess moves mapped by a mathematician. I enjoyed it immensely. But as soon as I knew how it had come about, it lost its allure. I couldn’t read it without being reminded of what seemed like an annoying authorial trick, a self-congratulatory gimmick. Of course, the fault was entirely mine; my reading of Perec was weighed down by my own presuppositions about how literary works should behave. But it’s worth being clear, when it comes to the Oulipo, that I’m neither an expert nor necessarily a believer.

Fortunately, Daniel Levin Becker is both. This young American writer has been a member of the Oulipo since 2009. Moving to Paris on a scholarship after college, he was enlisted by the group as an esclave (literally ‘slave’), and commenced an apprenticeship organising its official archive, the fonds Oulipo. Before long he was invited to join. His book clearly benefits from his scholarly work with the group’s ‘paper trail’ – its meeting minutes, correspondence, and other obscure apocrypha. More than this, it benefits from his insider’s perspective, meaning not merely his membership, but his vivid way of conveying his lived experience of the group. Many Subtle Channels is a book about the Oulipo, but it’s also about what the Oulipo means to its author. It’s a personal appraisal.

In trying to understand the Oulipo, the first problem one faces (if trying to understand it isn’t already a problem) is how to grasp the group as a collective entity. Levin Becker’s descriptions are by turns deflationary and elevated: in his hands the Oulipo is first ‘a sort of literary supper club’ and then ‘a hallowed echo chamber for investigations of poetic form and narrative constraint and the mathematics of wordplay.’ What he’s getting at is that it’s somehow both. Indeed, he subtly captures his subject’s capacity to be silly and inconsequential and, at the same time, scientifically serious. Put simply, the Oulipo is serious without being self-serious. Levin Becker traces this tendency back to the group’s early years, when ‘pataphysical pranksterism got mixed up with the mathematical methods of the ‘Bourbaki’ collective. The result was a characteristic cocktail of rigour and irreverence.

Daniel Levin Becker

Does it make sense, then, to call this conceptually slippery affair a ‘movement’? The question is complicated by the Oulipo’s own attempts to accrue all the hallmarks of one; the trappings, if not the internal coherence. For instance, it has actively fabricated a history for itself, focusing on what co-founder François Le Lionnais called ‘anticipatory plagiarists’ – pre-oulipian prototypes from Lewis Carroll to Gottfried Leibniz. Added to this, the group asserts its identity not just in its acts, but also in an obsessive inventorying of those acts. The Oulipo comes out of Levin Becker’s account looking like a distinctly bureaucratic organisation. Actually, that’s not right. Rather, it’s a performative parody of bureaucracy.

Of course, this is something it shares with many avant-garde movements (like Tom McCarthy’s ‘International Necronautical Society’, to take one of today’s examples). It also shares an ethos of imitativeness: as Levin Becker notes, ‘a reliable indicator’ of a technique’s oulipian merit ‘is whether or not it inspires riffing from other members.’ Crucially though, unlike most modernist movements (especially its key precursor, Surrealism) the Oulipo is avowedly unprogrammatic. Levin Becker again: ‘it is concerned with literature in the conditional mood, not the imperative… it does not purport to tell anyone what literature should or must be.’ In this respect, maybe it’s less like a movement and more like what some members believe it to be: ‘an unwritten, collective, and necessarily unfinishable novel’ starring its authors as characters.

The Oulipo’s main contribution to literary history is its central concept of ‘constraint,’ which lets writing arise out of paradoxically productive rules and restrictions. One consequence of constraints is that they free writers from a romantic ideal of spontaneous creativity. Levin Becker quotes Gilbert Sorrentino on this: ‘constraints destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”’ Indeed, Levin Becker argues, the Oulipo was ‘designed to discredit’ writers’ and readers’ fondness for a false impression of literature as a matter of ‘ecstatic intuition.’ The latter sounds suspiciously like what I was disappointed to see disappear in Perec, once I knew what his rules were. Maybe I wasn’t ready to have my romanticism demystified.

But this discrediting of aesthetic dogma does seem full of fertile possibilities. One of Levin Becker’s many striking character sketches deals with Jacques Jouet, of whom the Oulipo scholar Warren Motte once said, ‘he writes to pass the time.’ Levin Becker’s Jouet appears engaged in a near-revolutionary conflation of art and everyday life. Sat on a train composing his ‘metro poems’ (one line per stop, and transcribed only when in a station) he breaks the barrier between inspiration and what has to be one of modernity’s most uninspiring routines. In this way, Levin Becker says, he ‘extends the range of potentially potential activities,’ making life itself as anti-utilitarian as the best art. Again, this is very much an avant-garde staple: life as art, as unprincipled play. In this sense there’s something almost Situationist about Jouet, and perhaps about aspects of the Oulipo.

Yet Jouet’s poetic method is only suggestive of a Situationist politics. The Oulipo has signally failed to follow such political tendencies to the end of the line. On this score, Levin Becker cites the Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök, who claims that oulipian constraints are themselves constrained to producing ‘solutions to aesthetic, rather than political problems.’ The potential which oulipians exercise is essentially apolitical. One critic Levin Becker doesn’t mention is the Cambridge academic Alex Houen. For Houen, the whole idea of literary ‘potential’ is freighted with revolutionary resonances. He regards potency as utopian, a force aimed at making things possible. For this reason his rich study of the subject, Powers of Possibility, totally excludes the Oulipo, and rightly so. Yet Levin Becker reminds us that, after all, Perec and co never attempted to gild their work with political pretensions: ‘these were never the terms that the Oulipo set for itself.’ To be sure, it’s admirable that the group has avoided ‘the pitfalls of the party line.’ But perhaps oulipian practice is problematic insofar as it’s only interested in writerly, readerly, purely procedural revolutions.

There’s a tension, too, between this autotelic aspect of the Oulipo and the accessibility that Levin Becker asks of it. He would like, he asserts near the end of the book, ‘to make these ideas belong to everyone, not just littérateurs.’ For him an oulipian approach is as applicable to life as it is to letters. Removed from the hermetic realms of reading and writing, an oulipian mindset might ‘give us the tools’ to unpick the aesthetic patterns embedded in everyday existence, renewing the cognitive novelty of ‘newspaper clippings and restaurant menus and radio traffic news.’

Psychologically, such acts of pattern recognition also speak to a search for security. Levin Becker suggests as much, when he concludes that under all its conundrums the Oulipo’s essence is the ‘less sturdy but more human’ archetype of the ‘Quest.’ On this model, to live your life like an oulipian is to ‘move through it with the purpose and security that come from knowing you hold the tools to give it shape and meaning.’ This is an uplifting thought, although it risks being read as narcissistic: an annexation of the Oulipo’s energy to a kind of West Coast existentialism, where ‘potential’ would be reduced to self-affirmation and self-fashioning. If we’re to learn life lessons from literary practices, why not make them less individualistic, more politically committed? But in any case, Levin Becker’s heart is in the right place. His personal perspective is compelling, and his book is beautifully written. So wonderfully written, in fact, that it’s entirely worth reading even if, like me, you remain unconvinced by the Oulipo, an outsider looking in.

About the Author:

David Winters is a literary critic living in Cambridge, UK. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, The Millions, The New Inquiry and others. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine. Links to his publications are at Why Not Burn Books? Twitter: @DavidCWinters