Jun 1 2011

    Bookforum interviews Hervé Le Tellier

    Erik Morse

    Since joining the French literary society of the Oulipo (Workshop of Potential Literature) in 1992, Hervé Le Tellier, a former mathematician, food critic, and scientific journalist, has taken up the task of investigating what the influential novelist Georges Perec once termed the l'infra-ordinaire (the extremely mundane). A relative late-comer to the group (founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960), Le Tellier has, nonetheless, produced a copious catalog of work—novels, poems, and what some Oulipians cryptically refer to as “exercises”—all the while maintaining an avuncular public persona on France Culture's successful radio show Papous dans la tête and with Le Monde’s e-column “Papier de verre.”

    Long admired in France, Le Tellier’s work is now available in English. Two recently translated books, Enough About Love (Other Press) and The Sextine Chapel (Dalkey Archive Press), provide a marvelous introduction to the breadth of Le Tellier's writing style and thematic obsessions: sex, love, and cryptology. The former novel, composed in a relatively conventional format, follows a love “hexagon” of sorts, in which two wealthy Parisian women struggle between inamorato and spouse as they negotiate personal success, social mores, and middle-age. More recognizable as an Oulipian work, The Sextine Chapel consists of seventy-eight one-page vignettes, wherein twenty-six promiscuous characters (named from each letter of the alphabet) link and de-link in a complex, orgiastic la ronde, whose patterns double as a blueprint for a unique architectural “erection.”

    Bookforum recently asked Le Tellier to elaborate on his writing techniques, and his interests in love and the frenzy of urban life.

    Bookforum: I am intrigued by the novel correspondences between Enough About Love and The Sextine Chapel. In both, you took the themes of sexuality and coupling as central premises, but you went about exploring them using very, very different methods and structures. Were these novels intentionally written as a set or was it purely a thematic obsession (i.e. sex) that was translated into two completely different works?

    Hervé Le Tellier: Strangely, I think the themes are not the same in both books. The Sextine Chapel talks about sex, the sexual act, without love (incidentally, the book does not contain the word tenderness), while Enough About Love addresses the issue of love and desire. In The Sextine Chapel, I definitely wanted to put an end to the question of sex in novels, something that I often find to be a moment obligé. A novel composed entirely of seventy-eight sexual relationships is quite rare. Moreover, The Sextine Chapel seems more "trashy" in English than in French, where sexual language is less loaded.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find that Enough About Love portrayed a more sentimental depiction to character psychology, conventional plot structure, and pathos than what one thinks of the prototypical Oulipo “exercise in style” (to borrow the title of Queneau’s famous book.) Is there a constant difficulty for you to balance between the more conventional expectations of the novel and the non-narrative forays into Oulipo-inspired constrained composition?

    A difficulty? No. In my opinion, the narrative structure of Enough About Love does not preclude any of the tropes that make novels interesting: telling a story, describing the characters and how they live, the emotions that run through them. The constraint simply brings new and unexpected situations, which are themselves narrative surprises and sentiments that should be expressed. The example Exercises in Style that you give provides the answer to your question in its title. They are exactly that, "exercises." But the novels of Queneau, Perec, or Roubaud do not eliminate emotion.

    Can we talk a bit about the mathematical or spatial constraints that you established between the twenty-six promiscuous copulators in The Sextine Chapel? Did you first imagine this architectural motif (the floor and ceiling of the Sextine Chapel that is included in the back of the book), and proceed accordingly or did the image come as a result of the procedure? Looking at the blueprints I was reminded of the recurring use of Bataille in the narrative: “The sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space.”

    The Sextine Chapel is the most Oulipian of my novels, the most constrained, and also the most liberated. Sexual relations, as I quote from Barthes in the book's epigraph, are certainly repetitive, but who cares? We can make love a thousand times in the same way with the same woman, and it is always good. However, to describe them without boring the reader, I first decided to use three constraints that all relate to the number seventy-eight.

    First the ceiling: the twenty-six characters correspond to the letters of the alphabet and each character makes love to six other characters, each scenario unfolding according to a particular circular rotation.

    For the floor of the chapel: the number seventy-eight is the sum of the numbers of one to twelve, and from this I was able to construct a series of triangles within a larger triangle, with twelve triangles as its base. Every chapter (a small triangle) contained a element of reference (often well-hidden) to the chapter that surrounds it, another small triangle in the larger triangle.

    For the "stairs" that go from floor to ceiling . . . I used the sextine, a formal poetry of the troubadours, consisting of six stanzas of six verses, and ending with the “envoi,” composed of three verses. Or thirty-nine verses in all. In the sextine, the words at the end of the verses of the first strophe (1 2 3 4 5 6) turn like this, for the second strophe (6 1 5 2 4 3), and so on, five times. Two successive sextines equal seventy-eight lines in total.

    Contained within each "vignette" or "encounter" of The Sextine Chapel is a precise description of setting, whether at the level of city, neighborhood, street, landmark or interior. This emphasis on "place-ness" or atmosphere creates an odd intimacy (whether to everyday objects, images, domestic designs, etc.) that is often in direct contrast to the casual, and sometimes uneventful, interactions between the anonymous, copulating characters. In most of the scenarios, I came away imagining that I had peeped into a pornographic Joseph Cornell box of still-lifes. Do you think that a narrative dedicated to sex requires characters, or can descriptions of objects, places, and spaces be equally erotic?

    It's funny that Cornell’s boxes are what come to mind. I thought about it in terms of an entomologist's snapshots, or the photographic work of Edouard Levé's Pornography, where the models strike typical pornographic poses, but while wearing street clothes. If the settings are primary, it is because I want to inscribe the sexual act in the world, to secularize it. But, for me, eroticism is incarnated . . . necessarily in bodies, in the fantasy of their encounters, or in their traces (the pleats of a sheet, red lipstick on a glass, etc.)

    The Sextine Chapel's unique system of linking initially reminded me of Arthur Schnitzler's parable of disease, La Ronde. But the complexity with which you merge the calculus of names and the settings in which each couple appear quickly outpaced Schnitzler's rather linear efforts. Is this dense lattice of couplings some kind of commentary on the extremities of sex in the contemporary moment?

    Of course, one cannot help but think of Schnitzler. But I was much more inspired by Harry Mathews's Singular Pleasures, which is a model of humor and literary sophistication. Beyond the layout of The Sextine Chapel, I also wanted to affirm that sexuality remains the central issue of life, despite having lost its sacredness—through sexual liberation, the conquest of modernity, and its black pendant, pornography. Clearly, this creates tension and frustration between what can be seen and what is actually accessible, and the world tends to create a divide between those with access to sex and those without such access. The Sextine Chapel discusses this first world, in which sexuality is . . . vacuous. My characters make love like one plays tennis, seeking pleasure, and when they question themselves their questioning is rarely moral.

    You dedicated The Sextine Chapel to Mathews. I'd like to know a bit about your introduction to Mathews and the other Oulipo members, and how you came to join the group in the early 90s?

    I was invited by the Oulipo in 1991 as a guest of honor at the suggestion of my editor, Paul Fournel, the current president of the group. The patron figures Perec, Queneau, and Calvino had died, and I was unaware that the group still met. A year later, Paul called me and asked if I was interested in joining the Oulipo, and soon after I agreed, I learned that my candidacy had already been approved.

    For those of us who know of the Oulipo only through its legend and bibliography, can you talk about the activities and requirements of its members now? Is it somewhat accurate to call it a secret society? And have there been any major alterations in the group from its earliest days?

    The Oulipo is not a secret society. Researchers know it well, everything [about it] is available and open, and our archives occupy two rooms in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. I would not be able to say if there have been major changes. Of course, Oulipo is not a static cell that reproduces itself identically from generation to generation, but the spirit remains the same as that of its founders: creative writing, encyclopedic research. What links us is the principle of writing under constraint. I dare say that if certain Oulipian works were not already written (from Queneau's Hundred Thousand Billion Poems to Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies to Perec's A Void), some of the Oulipians could, in their own way, produce them today.

    In regards to secret societies, what kind of importance do you grant them in the progression of literary movements throughout the twentieth century? The Oulipo is part of a particularly French lineage of literary societies from the Société des Amis de Fantômas, the Surrealists, the Acephale, to the Situationists, all of whom stressed a certain amount of ritual and exclusivity as a pretense for the acceleration of knowledge and creativity. Why do you think this phenomenon has historically failed to take hold in America?

    You're right, there is a kinship between these groups, but this fraternal tradition is not specifically French. Long before the Oulipo, there were the Russian Zaum, the Dadaists of the Cabaret Voltaire in Geneva [and] the Surrealists were not only French but also Belgian, Spanish, Argentinean . . . . Certainly, there is an Oulipian rite: the monthly meeting, the agenda . . . and there are aspects that may seem sectarian, as in any group of friends or family. Ritual and friendship are not incidental to our survival. But the Oulipo is not related to an historical moment. It would be long dead if this were the case. What brings us together is a shared taste for form and game and an attraction to puzzles and experiments.

    What has always intrigued me most about the Oulipo methodology is that it confronts themes of boredom and everyday-ness from two extremely antithetical formats: 1) the relatively brief, easily consumable “vignette” novel, like Exercises in Style, Singular Pleasures, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris or 2) the rather laborious and dense encyclopedic novels [in the plural], as Perec would refer to Life: A User's Manual, including it, The Great Fire of London, and The Blue Flowers. What is it about the “ungraspable” experiences of boredom and everyday-ness (topics largely ignored in the Western literary tradition) that invoke such curious—and widely divergent—responses among Oulipo’s authors?

    Let me respond first on the co-existence of these very different “formats.” The Oulipo experiments and these experiences give rise to short forms that are either "demonstrations" (Exercises in Style), or "attempts" (An Attempt at a Exhausting Place in Paris), the first examples you cited. But the Oulipo is also a meeting of individuals. Each Oulipian produces very personal works and detailed texts such as Perec’s Life: A User's Manual. But your question relates to what we call the "infra-ordinary." One should not overestimate this concept, but it is true that for Oulipians, there is no such thing as minor material: trash (Ian Monk), chemistry (Queneau), lunch (Roubaud), the list [of subjects] is endless. There is something poignant and intimate in these abandoned objects that must be restored. A dignity. It is the vocation of art to return dignity to life.

    This doesn't mean that we are not humorous. In July 1964, Queneau noted in his Journal a phrase from the Epinomis, the last work that would have been written by Plato, which means “to joke and talk seriously at the same time.” It seems to me that this is one of the foundations of the Oulipo, and what allows it to exist today.

    —Translated from the French by Erik Morse and Haydee Bangerezako.