"Oulipians: rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape." - Raymond Queneau
L'Ouvoir de literature potentielle came into being on November 24, 1960 as a subcommittee of the Collège de Pataphysique. The two founding members were Raymond Queneau, a writer with an interest in science, and François Le Lionnais, a scientist interested in writing. Together they sought new structures and patterns for writers to follow. They were interested in combining abstract restrictions with creative writing in order to unlock literature's truest potential. Rather than inspiration, or experience, or even self-expression, creative writing was viewed as an exercise in constraint by members of l'OuLiPo.
Oulipians make no claims about what literature should be, but they do attempt to uncover what it can be. While they have employed long-standing constraints such as lipograms(1), and palindromes in their work, Oulipians have always sought new techniques, such as the Knight's tour of the chess-board or permutations, perhaps best exemplified by Georges Perec's La Vie mode d'emploi(2)and Raymond Queneau's Exercises de style(3) - both among the most famous works produced by the group.
Under the guidance of Perec (who joined the group in 1967) the invention of new constraints became the group's primary focus. Their proclivity for literary bondage is based on the idea that writing is always constrained by something. Rather than ignoring, or attempting to free themselves from these constraints, the Oulipians embrace them. According to Queneau, "Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery". Italo Calvino agreed, adding that, "What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing more than finding the right road empirically". Those roads can be found Calvino's Oulipian works Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore and Le città invisibili.
Lipograms appear throughout this collection. They were undoubtedly inspired by Perec's lipogrammatic masterpiece La Disparation, which did not contain the letter E. The fact that the novel did not contain the most common letter in the French language went completely unnoticed during an early review of the novel. Rachel and I debated full disclosure of the constraints used within for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with l'OuLiPo. We weren't the first to have this debate (and we won't be the last!) Harry Mathews does not reveal the constraints he employs, while mathematician Jacques Roubaud believes constraints are the focal point of any truly Oulipian work. Georges Perec felt that once the reader saw a constraint, (s)he would no longer see anything else at all.
In the following pages you will find examples of Jean Lescure's N+7 technique, lipogrammatic tips of the hat to Georges Perec and the Oulipian belle present. You will also find classic forms of rhopalic verse and homophonic translations, constraints all from the clear to the complex. Whether you find the work of l'Ouvoir de literature potentielle familiar or foreign I hope you, as readers and writers, appreciate the challenge! To each contributor, and to all those who made the attempt, I say Thank You.
Perec once said, "I set myself rules in order to be totally free". This echo of Queneau's reference to Oulipians as rats who construct the labyrinth from which they intend to escape reveals the very heart of Oulipian thought. As one writer so eloquently (and accurately) phrased it, "Once the Apollonian structure has been circumscribed, Dionysus can work his magic." (O) Oulipians sought a system that guaranteed writers would not exhaust innovative formal possibility. According to Queneau, the creation of new 'structures' for writers, new artificial or mechanical procedures that would aid creativity and contribute to literary activity were the primary goals of l'Oulipo.
Our hope for this issue of Sein und Werden was that writers would embrace the challenge, experiment boldly, and (most importantly) have fun building and then playing on the fields they themselves created. With that in mind, this issue of Sein und Werden is dedicated to (the brilliant) Norman Conquest, Matt Leyshon, Esther Greenleaf Murer, Hugo Vernier, Dominy Clements, Teri Lee Kline, Patrick Cosgrove, David McGroarty, W.C. Bamberger, Aja Bamberger, Martin Rose, Susan Oke, Allen Ashley, David Turnbull, Benjamin Robinson, Wayne Clements, Philip Terry, James Davies, Mark Lewis, Tom Jenks, Paolo Brito, Charlie Loudowl, Daniel Galef, John Shire, Dan Morey, Rachel Rodman, Dave Drayton, and (of course) the wonderfully talented (and extremely patient) Rachel Kendall.
Jason E. Rolfe
March 22, 2014
(1) Georges Perec traced the origin of lipograms to Lasos of Hermione, a Greek lyric poet of the 6th Century BC. The Suda attributes one of history's more remarkable lipogrammatic works to Nestor of Laranda, a Greek poet of the 2nd Century AD. Nestor's Ilias Leipogrammatos employed the following lipogrammatic technique: The letter denoting each book's number did not appear in its text. The first book, for example, did not include the letter alpha (a), which was used to denote the numeral 1. Perec himself penned his novel La Disparation without the letter E, a tribute, no doubt, to Ernest Vincent Wright's 1939 novel Gadsby, which contains more than 50,000 words not a single letter E.
(2) The setting of La Vie mode d'emploi is an apartment building at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier. Perec describes the apartment block as if the entire façade were removed and every room exposed to the viewer. The narrative then moves like a knight around a chess-board, one chapter per room, detailing a single moment in time for each of the apartment's residents. Perec created a complex system which would generate a list of items, references or objects that should appear in each chapter. This became known as Perec's "story-making machine".
(3) Queneau's Exercises de style contains 99 iterations of the same story, each in a different style. It is perhaps a tribute to the 16th Century rhetorical guide (chapter 33) Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style by Desiderius Erasmus wherein the author illustrates 195 variations of the sentence Tuae litterae me magnopere delectarunt (Your letter pleased me greatly).