In Quest of the Oulipo
Harry Mathews

The Oulipo, or Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, is a Paris-based group of writers and mathematicians that explores the uses of writing of constrictive form. Because Raymond Queneau, one of the group’s two founders, attended Kojeve’s lectures along with Lacan, in fact he assembled the lectures on the PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT; because Queneau attended some of Lacan’s seminars; because the group’s insistance on following specific procedures, we find their relevance to Lacanian theory fertile ground for exploration..

Literature and game playing, literature as game playing... The words evoke a weedy figure: the playful writer.

The playful writer, probably male, never young (although often juvenile), sauntering nonchalantly down sunny boulevards... Faber ludens—a little ludicrous, too; hardly dangerous; hardly serious.

Another image of game-playing: a six-year-old girl playing hopscotch, in dead earnest.

How much has the Oulipo mattered to me, and why? It is hard to answer simply, because its influence has been gradual, because I had strong non-Oulipian feelings about three of its members, because my devotion to the group involves much more than its ideas.

Was I an Oulipian before the fact? I long thought so. I used to claim that the Oulipo had only favored and not changed the course of my writing. (After all, I had written my first three novels without even hearing of it.) I was not yet aware of what the Oulipo was in fact changing: my understanding of the act of writing. This has been an insidious process.

My non-Oulipian feelings concerned Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec. Towards Queneau and Calvino they were literary (I had met Queneau once or twice): the two were exemplary modernists at a time when the founders of modernism had become museum pieces. Queneau’s writings in general showed what originality might now look like; Exercices de style provided an instruction manual. Calvino’s inventiveness in the domain of fiction gave me hope of not seeing my own work automatically condemned to an idiosyncratic backwater. Perec was my best friend. When he brought me to the Oulipo, I followed not out of conviction or even curiosity, but because I trusted and loved him.

All the same, through the Oulipo, Queneau became for me an intellectual arbiter, benign and beyond appeal, who authorized my adventures in writing. Through the Oulipo I came not only to know Calvino but to understand a new side of his work. And if I followed Perec somewhat heedlessly into the group, he knew what he was doing: putting me where I belonged.

Finally, my allegiance to the Oulipo expresses much more than an esthetic choice. If I attend its monthly meetings as assiduously as circumstances allow, it is because my attachment is social: it is the best of clubs. Its witty and knowledgeable members are friends who sustain me in the life I lead. They incidentally validate work done and projects for the future, Oulipian or not. This is done affably, undemandingly, undogmatically. The support has no clear connection with the group’s concepts, but I have never even heard of any other group that is, like the Oulipo, as generous as it is rigorous, and altogether free of sectarian rigidity. (Jacques Roubaud attributes this to the foresight of its founders when it was established.)

My quest for the Oulipo began in an obsessive early hope that literature would deliver me from an incompatibility with the world to which I felt doomed. In adolescence I became obsessed with poetry, both reading and writing it. To someone feeling hopelessly confined in well-to-do Protestant society, in those years aggressively sure of itself, poetry offered the prospect of another society, the chance to become- someone else. (At fourteen I wrote in one week poems in the manner of Keats, Milton, Spenser, and Swinburne: vigorously condemned by teachers and peers, the experiment intoxicated me.)

Full of romantic confusion, I searched for remoter othernesses. I discovered practices beyond the curriculum of a classical education: more important even than modernist poetics was the revelation, in music, of the uses of structure. The music that concerned me, contemporary or medieval, provided my first “Oulipian” procedures: the serial method of Schoenberg, Stravinsky’s ordering of phrases by metrical manipulation, the isorhythmic melodic lines of 14th century counterpoint.

Much later, I tried writing poems using musical techniques: a long poem in sonata form, a shorter one in canon canzicrans (a line palindrome). Too timid to follow this promising path, I had to wait for John Ashbery’s liberating presence (we met when I was 26) to realize that I was free to anything I liked and so continue such experiments (a bidirectional sestina, antonymic poems, collage poems, a poem following Poe’s instructions for the composition of “The Raven”).

Accepting the Oulipian view of writing is a commitment to materialism and relativity, against finality and transcendence. Engaging in Oulipian work subverts any fantasy of the absolute.

Also thanks to Ashbery, I read as a would-be novelist the work of Raymond Roussel, which led me out of the realist illusion in which I had floundered. It taught me what the encyclopedic transformations of Ulysses could not: the stuff of fiction can be wholly imaginary.

How can the fictional imagination escape from the cage of representation? Roussel’s answer was to create narrative through methods comparable to rhyme and metaphor in poetry; also, and more approachably, comparable to pun-making, as in—to give Ulysses its due—The Rose of Castille = the rows of cast steel, where an opera title turns into a railroad. To make up a story, combine a number of such linguistic implosions, set one hour in a medium oven, and serve cold. The method is obviously preposterous and also genuinely mad, especially when it invests the respectable object called the novel. The madness is that of writing in or Spenserian stanzas: it is the exhilarating madness of poetic invention laying claim to the realm of fiction. Roussel’s methods inspired me to devise others no less mad for my own use. I then began my first completed novel (The Conversions); the book wrote itself.

My first three novels depend on a nonsystematic Oulipism, if such a phenomenon exists—a combination of techniques of variation and substitution that often determine the nature of narrative materials as well as their use. In The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, the accumulation of these procedures has become an omnipresent “table of obligations” (Perec’s cahier de charges): The text is, to put it mildly, overdetermined. From the Conversions to Odradek, the use of “justifying myths” in the manner of Joyce and Eliot yields to that of “noncertifiable” materials organized in quasi-systematic ways—a tendency pointing eventually to a complete Oulipization. Appropriately enough, I had by then discovered the Oulipo itself.

Two short works I had already written were Oulipian by any definition: a homophonic reading of the alphabet, and what was later called a transplant—a lexical exchange between two texts, where each is rewritten with the vocabulary of the other. My original transplant combined a poem of Keats with a cooking recipe. From it I learned: I) Once a problem is set, I must solve it. 2) No matter how absurd, a problem once tackled quickly convinces me that a “true” solution exists. 3) Finding any solution can be excruciatingly difficult. 4) To pursue such activity, I might well be, if not insane, perverse to the point of perversion. Being welcomed into the Oulipo made me feel like someone who has been denying a shameful habit only to discover that it is perfectly honorable.

One immediate privilege the group offered was being able to pursue these experiments not only systematically but independently of my other writing. They were an object of research to be happily pursued for its own sake. This separation of experiment and practice was of course illusory; a sense of innocence, however, averts the anxious gaze of conscience. I exercised my new freedom on a small scale, exploring possibilities of lexicons and letters, only gradually realizing how it was leading to the resolution of problems thought insoluble—for example, how to write works in French. Eventually, and by then almost naturally, I decided to use an Oulipian method of my own invention to compose my next novel, and writing Cigarettes definitively proved to me the validity of the Oulipian idea. It brought me full circle to my beginnings as a novelist. I had then been psychologically trapped inside the society that I wanted to portray; I thought I could only do so in its own literary terms. That society now still supplied the context of my narrative but, approached with the indirectness of abstract procedure, it became an imaginary object, and so accessible. I was no longer its creature but its inventor.

Comme les masques sont les signes qu’il y a des visages, les mots sont les signes- qu’il y a des choses. Et ces choses sont les signes de l’incomprehensible. —Marcel Schwob

During a recent stay in Berlin, I became friends with the poet Oskar Pastior, no Oulipian but nonetheless addicted to combinatorial stratagems. Each of us proposed methods unfamiliar to the other: I sestinas, he anagrams. We began exploring their possibilities. The projects I then undertook were ferociously hard: a three-part composition based on anagrams of our two names distributed according to 3 x 24 permutations; a sestina consisting entirely of anagrams of its six end-words. I ate frugal, hasty meals; slept little; neglected my friends. During those long hours, I have no doubt that, to an unobtrusive observer, my face would have manifested the oblivious intentness of a six-year-old girl playing hopscotch.



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