By Jeff Bursey
For Canadian readers, let me dispatch your literary anxiety right off: yes, Christian Bök’s work is referred to, quoted, briefly explained and advocated in The End of Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement, by two writers from the US, the novelist Lauren Elkin and the critic Scott Esposito. You can now proceed with easier minds.
The End of Oulipo? is in six parts: Preface; Acknowledgements; Part One, by Esposito; Part Two, by Elkin; a chronological history of the Oulipo that looks with amusement into the future; and a list of books for further reading. (Unfortunately, there is no index, a striking absence in a book referring to so many writers. Just as regrettable is the fact that the text has sentences with dropped words and poorly formatted pages.) Elkin and Esposito are fond of the Oulipo and its fifty-three-year history, yet as much as they celebrate its achievements, they also set out explanations for why they believe its current state is imperilled. As with anyone enamored of a collection of people sharing similar interests that has seen more vital days, their disappointment with some of those now within the group at times turns into evidence-backed disgruntlement.
The book begins with a clear statement about the Oulipo’s origins in Paris in November 1960, and its aims: “The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated.” We may think of a sonnet’s rules that we follow. What about the rules of composition that unconsciously inhibit our thinking? Oulipians opt for knowingly taking on restrictions, and using them as organizing devices.
The Oulipo has two streams: anoulipo (research into what ways have been used, or could be used, as constraints) and synoulipo (production of texts using new forms or old forms). Early heavyweights were Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) and Georges Perec (1936-1982), based on past writing or writing done while part of the group, followed in the 1970s by Italo Calvino (1923-1984). Over time, similar-minded writers were brought into the fold—in keeping with the Oulipo’s freedom to do what it wants, writers can be elected, conscripted or co-opted—most living, some dead (like Raymond Roussel, considered a proto-Oulipian). Most are French, but other countries are also represented. There are two members from the United States: the respected Harry Mathews and, recently, Daniel Levin Becker, whose Many Subtle Channels: In praise of potential literature (2012) is well worth reading. Christian Bök is not a member, and that will be returned to.
The works that made the Oulipo well-known, or notorious, were Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (1961; One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), ten sonnets printed “on perforated paper so that each line of each sonnet can be ‘liberated’ from its original poem and substituted for its corresponding line in one of the other 9 poems”; Perec’s 1969 novels La Disparition (A Void in English; neither uses the letter e) and, especially, Life A User’s Manual (1978); and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979). Other writers whose works have reached a wider audience include Jacques Roubaud (b. 1932), Jacques Jouet (b. 1947), Hervé Le Tellier (b. 1957) and Anne Garréta (b. 1962).
Elkin and Esposito state that “[e]xhaustion is the necessary corollary to the Oulipian concept of potential,” and throughout The End of Oulipo? this comes up attached to specific works and to the group in general. A “constraint acts as a rubber band” that gets stretched to its limits. One can think of a novel written only in questions—Gilbert Sorrentino’s Gold Fools (1999)—or Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) that relates the same story in 99 different ways, as examples of books that could both exhaust a method and the patience of readers. The authors acknowledge the gamesmanship required to create such works and its possible effect on an audience: “The skeptical reader would be forgiven for wondering whether such games aren’t, after all, a little juvenile.” The point of willful constraints and a playful approach to writing is something Elkin and Esposito come back to, and depending on what author is under discussion the order of reasons change, but there is one major common thread: certain types of minds (almost all male, almost all European, many interested in math) pursue something to the end in order to find out what it will yield.
Esposito’s broad and wide-ranging essay, the longer of the two, has at its heart a hero, Perec, whose varied texts worry away at a situation or problem until it has little more in it, whether that be the relationship between a couple that embraces 1960s French culture (Things, 1965), the wearing out of the quotidian in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975), or devising, in Life A User’s Manual, a work that’s “omnivorous… devouring all [forms of literature], and our world along with it.” For Esposito, “Perec is without a doubt among the greatest avant-garde writers of the twentieth century…” He is appraised with appreciation (but not with the simplicity or boorishness of a booster) and his works are used to illustrate that claim.
A hero needs a villain, and Esposito assigns that role to Jouet, an Oulipian for whom he has a deep disdain. “His work shows itself to be more about mechanically filling in the blanks of a clever conceit than about marshaling the necessary perseverance to push said conceit into interesting, new terrain.” Levin Becker offers a dim view of the Jouet Friday workshop: “Most of the participants (and, to hear some other Oulipians tell it, most of Jouet’s readership) are adoring middle-aged women with varying degrees of poetical affliction.” Neither “mechanical” and “affliction” bring to mind the spirit of earlier practitioners.
Contrasted with Jouet are four non-Oulipians, César Aira (b. 1949), Tom McCarthy (b. 1969), Edouard Levé (1965-2007) and our own Christian Bök (b. 1966), whom Esposito believes should be included in the group due to their revitalizing ideas. Aira’s “authentically polemical spirit puts the lie to Jouet’s critiques from within the mainstream”; McCarthy’s choice to carry on with exploring the “unnamable” is a theme borrowed from Perec; Levé’s emphasis on exhausting “concepts” follows on from Perec wearing out what can be observed; while Bök’s “engagement with the English language” has led him into “the realm of the conceptual” with the invention of the Xenotext, practices “in which the Oulipo once innovated but has been lacking for some time.” (Despite the case made for it, Bök’s germ wordfare leaves me cold.)
For Esposito, Bök’s political criticism of the Oulipo is also important, yet we might draw a somewhat different conclusion if we turn, again, to Levin Becker: “Bök is particularly active in taking the group to task, under a slender veneer of admiration, for offering ‘solutions to aesthetic, rather than political, problems’ and for being… ‘impressive in its formal technique, but inadequate in its social rationale.’” The founders of the Oulipo cared little for politics, and Bök always knew this. One could conclude that his objections to a group that hasn’t invited him in are on par with the bruised feelings of a teenager who discovers he’s not been allowed into a party.
Esposito ends his essay with a grateful acknowledgement of what Oulipo has offered to the literary world, and a view on who has carried on their work: “McCarthy, Levé, Bök and others [offer]… ways of contemplating those evanescent structures that lie within the mechanics of perception…. It is, ultimately, work that will keep that uniquely omnivorous form known as literature new.”
Elkins essay bears a resemblance to Esposito’s summation, and its appeal, but comes at the topic of the future of the Oulipo in a starkly dire mode: “As the Oulipo became known during the 1980s for its particular brand of ludic literary experimentation, the way forward seemed to be through wit, humor and public performance. But today, as the Oulipo enters its sixth decade of existence, the moment seems opportune to reevaluate if that’s the best way for the Oulipo to continue.” This is on the first page of her thirty-three-page essay, so we suspect, having seen recent Hollywood and European biopics, that we’re at the twilight of a movement, with darkness about to fall after a recap of glorious summer days.
The act of performance through over-exposure on the festival circuit concerns Elkin, for it makes the Oulipo “vulnerable to exhaustion.” Equally bothersome is a growing cultivation of Oulipo light (or lite) instead of, in Roubaud’s phrase, “‘Oulipo ’ard’”; that is, fertile invention of new works that build on what came out of the 1960-1984 period, the works that made the Oulipo known and respected. “The younger generation,” states Elkin, “is hard put to come up with anything new—and they’re well aware of this problem.”
Chief purveyor of Oulipo lite is the “philosophically unserious” Le Tellier, who “sets himself only medium-interesting and often juvenile constraints, and plays it safe in executing them.” He is Elkin’s bête noir, and a long section of her essay is titled “69 Theses, Notes, and Observations on Why Hervé Le Tellier Matters,” a set of criticisms that’s delightfully sharp, crafted, I suspect, to shine an unflattering light on his faults and with the hope of prying him out of Oulipo through ridicule. Since he writes about sex quite a bit, Elkin’s choice of 69 statements is an amusing constraint that allows her to speak frankly. Here’s a random selection, addressing both Le Tellier and one of his books:
6. There’s something kind of feckless about his will to seduction that makes you want to overlook it. He’s just a harmless tombeur, isn’t he?
7. Tombeur, n.m. French for a man, usually older, who won’t leave you alone if you’re young, pretty and female.
33. Publisher’s Weekly wrote of The Sextine Chapel that it “seduces the reader with its wry wit” but that “the humor can be limp too.”
34. That’s a mean thing to say about a penis-driven narrative.
35. (Guess Le Tellier really isn’t writing Oulipo ’ard.)
55. I’m not sure Le Tellier would agree with my characterizing him as being at the center of anything; he presents himself as one of those nebbishly fragile-psyched beta-males who just want to be loved… and nebbish beta-males are in the habit of denying their masculine privilege.
One would think 69 items is enough, but Elkin goes on (exemplifying the act of exhausting something) to tear apart the presumed appeal of Le Tellier’s fiction, and what the Oulipo stamp on them signifies when it comes to sexism and the group’s blindness to feminist issues.
Her main concern is to point out the masculine, “macho” nature of the Oulipo, though I paused at that word, considering that in the previous paragraph she quoted an unnamed friend as saying the group was a lot of men “sitting around doing crosswords.” That’s hardly construction work or bullfighting. But she does make good points about most Oulipians needing to take into account “their masculine privilege.”
Anne Garréta is a new Oulipian who Elkin likes, as does Levin Becker. He describes her as “an extremely talented writer… [whose works are] politicized, at times almost militant; their composition is intense and tightly controlled, but the language that comes out often reads as fluid, florid, furtively romantic.” In Elkin’s view, the Oulipo “will be fine if it can shed this chauvinist inheritance, and if it can learn instead to promote members like Anne Garréta, who in her novel Sphinx (1986) eliminates all references to her two main characters’ genders… Sphinx is a very intense book; it is déchirant [painful], it rips itself to shreds.” Her essay ends with rhetorical questions: “Why should the Oulipo continue to be a métier d’homme – why not allow for it to become a métier de femme? Why not indeed?” This echoes the quest for rejuvenation Esposito calls for at the end of his piece.
From early on the writers seek to forcefully inject new energy into a group they love, and this results in a combative attitude. As in any meaningful relationship, hard truths must be spoken, and they come out in numerous registers. Esposito devises fierce gladiatorial contests—David Shields’ Reality Hunger versus Oulipo, Perec versus Thomas Pynchon, Jouet versus Georges Simenon, and so on—that serve to explicate past achievements, situate them in the current literary landscape, and draw connections between figures and themes. If someone’s carcass has to be dragged from the arena, so be it. In a display of critical writing that, thankfully, ignores conventional diplomacy, Elkin attacks Le Tellier’s anti-female books with restrained fury and humour, and she joyfully tells readers to “feel free to skip” some of his interview that she felt important enough to quote from.
It may seem heretical to suggest, despite the passion of the two authors, that everything come to an end, but their hopes would not perish so easily. They are acting, in the best way, for a cause, and in this vigorous work swing from enthusiasm and enchantment to anger, disgust and ethical outrage. Remarkably, there’s no discord between their separate essays; they are truly joined in what is, among other things, a literary polemic, one that makes judgments and lays out serious complaints, as well as possible solutions, for Oulipo today. The End of Oulipo? is effective, informative, highly entertaining, and essential reading.
The End of Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement, by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito | Zero Books | 118 pages | $15.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1780996554