Harry Mathews, the experimental poet, fiction writer, and charismatic English-language ambassador of the French literary society Oulipo, swept into town last week to flog his new book, the Oulipo Compendium (Atlas, $19.99). A bearish man with the slightly addled manner of a dadaist Garrison Keillor, Mathews kicked off a two-week festival of Oulipian readings, workshops, and parties before a capacity crowd of poetry fans at KGB, many of whom, until recently, have had little exposure to the deliriously intricate linguistic experiments for which the Oulipo is known.
Founded in 1960 by the novelist and polymath Raymond Queneau and the mathematical historian François Le Lionnais, Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature) is a motley organization of writers and mathematicians who use fiendishly elaborate arithmetic formulae as vehicles for the composition of poetry and fiction. Sonnets, pangrams, and palindromes are a walk in the park by comparison to some of Oulipo’s far-fetched language games, from left-handed lipograms (a lipogram is a text that omits one or more letters; a left-handed lipogram is composed using only the keys on the left side of the typewriter) to N + 7, a literary algorithm in which every noun is replaced by the seventh noun that follows it in a dictionary. It’s a stricture that yields such gems as “To be or not to be: that is the quibble” and, in a phrase that doubles as an Oulipian manifesto of sorts, “And God said, Let there be limit: and there was limit.”
Every month without fail for the last 38 years, the members of Oulipo have assembled privately in Paris to ponder ever more complicated devices with which to straitjacket their writing. Minutes of these largely male gatherings, whose docket of activities suggests a Rotary Club meeting on LSD, are among the highlights of the Compendium. “French intellectuals, when they gather, are apt to be transformed into high-school kids out having a lark,” Mathews explained after his reading at KGB. He was quick to stress, however, that serious business lies beneath the fun. “It’s a working group that concerns itself with discovering new procedures and methods. One thing that has made it so durable is that we’re not involved in the public arguments about writing. It truly is a laboratory, not a literary movement.”
Some of the work that has emerged from this laboratory has met with international acclaim, helping to bring the group to the attention of such writers as Susan Sontag and Paul Auster, who calls the Compendium “a late-20th-century kabala.” Italo Calvino’s magisterial metanovel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller subscribes to Oulipian principles, as does Selected Declarations of Dependence, Mathews’s recently reprinted collection of fiction constructed from perverbs (statements formed by crossing two proverbs). Oulipo’s profile on these shores rose significantly with the publication three years ago of A Void, Gilbert Adair’s dazzling translation of George Perec’s rollicking, lipogrammatical 1969 whodunit, La disparition, which he wrote without recourse to the letter e. (Perec also wrote a sequel to La disparition called Les revenentes, which uses no vowels other than e.)
Oulipo isn’t likely to become a household word anytime soon, because its literary hijinks sometimes prove so convoluted as to be virtually unreadable. Mathews’s own invention, the
bananagram, for instance, is an anagrammatic reordering of letters with one restriction: no actual words can be used. When Mathews describes his mission, in a characteristically Oulipian aphorism, “You put on chains to be free,” it’s hard not to think of this as merely a masochistic enterprise, or fancy gimmickry masquerading as serious writing. (“It’s a great way to beat writer’s block,” he admits.) The Compendium shares some of those limitations. It’s less like an encyclopedia than a chaotic Joseph Cornell box, stuffed with various bric-a-brac. Its pages teem with different typefaces, grainy photos and maddening cross-references. The reader is not encouraged to read front to back or left to right, but to plunge into the Oulipian labyrinth and ferret one’s way through its illogical logic. The book is nevertheless an invaluable guide to Oulipian trivia, procedures, and personalities— even those of the group’s hapless literary forebears, like Lewis Carroll, who are dubbed “anticipatory plagiarists.”
Long known for its feats of obfuscation and camouflage, Oulipo has finally emerged from the shadows of the Rive Gauche, with Mathews serving as its high-spirited evangelist. Asked what he hopes publication of the Compendium will accomplish, Mathews declares with deadpan immodesty: “To transform the way language and writing is perceived in the Anglo-Saxon world. How’s that for a lofty ambition?”
Harry Mathews will read with Olivier Cadiot on November 11 at 8 p.m. at Poetry Project, St. Mark’s Church, Second Avenue and 10th Street; on November 12 at 8:15 p.m. at Maison Française, 16 Washington Mews; and with Andrew Levy and Ruth Danon on November 17 at 6:30 p.m. at NYU’s Ireland House, 1 Washington Mews. Coinciding with Mathews’s readings is an exhibit at the MOMA Library marking the 50th anniversary of Oulipo’s parent group, the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, which runs until November 17.