Stefanie Sobelle

  • syllabi October 02, 2009

    The Oulipo

    Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, both writers and math enthusiasts, began collaborating in Paris in 1960. The duo quickly attracted a following, which became the Workshop of Potential Literature (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Oulipo). Inspired by their love for mathematics, the group devised rigid constraints for literary production, including such puzzles as bilingual palindromes, isopangrams (twenty-six-letter-long statements containing all the letters of the alphabet), and N+7 (replacing every noun in a text with the seventh noun down in a dictionary). Queneau once quipped

  • Curly Cues

    In 1945, Pablo Picasso was invited to illustrate the elegiac Le Chant des morts, a book of poems by Pierre Reverdy that contemplates mortality after World War I. Yet when the publisher sent him a sample written in the poet’s handwriting, Picasso thought it “almost a drawing in itself.” Inspired by the shape of Reverdy’s script, Picasso crafted bright red, fanciful calligraphic images for the book, offsetting the poems’ melancholy and calling attention to the material presence of the page itself—what art historian Irene Small refers to as “a registration of painting pulled into the physical

  • Amberville

    In 1968, Don Freeman wrote a children’s story about a department-store-dwelling toy bear named Corduroy, who wears green overalls missing a button and is finally taken home by a little girl undeterred by this damage. But what happened to Corduroy when he “grew up”? Was he added to a Death List, grabbed in the middle of the night by a wolf in a red pickup, and carted off to the woods for disposal? Such is the fate of doomed stuffed animals in Mollisan Town, the setting for the decidedly adult noir novel Amberville, Swedish writer Tim Davys’s delightful debut. Davys’s Eric Bear has little in

  • A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds

    In Mac Wellman’s universe, a radish can be used as an eye, a young girl can fall in love with a toucan, and some folks still use faxes. Best known for his experimental plays, Wellman has also published four volumes of poetry and three novels—works describing self-contained worlds that question our cultural preoccupations and assumptions. His latest book continues this practice: A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds is a collection of short stories—or, as the author would have it, an interconnected series of planetoids—that, while comically inventive, rings with the sound of our contemporary


    The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our soul from acting, consume our body.” Blaise Pascal proposed this notion in Pensées, his seventeenth-century postconversion writings, which provide the intertext for Lydie Salvayre’s The Power of Flies, originally published in 1995 as La Puissance des mouches. A Pascal devotee—a tour guide in the philosopher’s abbey at Port-Royal-Des-Champs—is on trial for the murder of an unidentified victim; as he narrates his life events in a disjointed coordination of personal anecdotes and literary interpretations, the novel unravels into a testimony of

  • Dresden, 1741: A count lies suffering from chronic insomnia. To soothe his misery, he orders a musician to play to him every night, a ritual that necessitates the composition of pieces for the young clavier player. The task is assigned, a set of thirty variations on a theme is written, and one of the masterpieces of Western music is born. The insomniac is Hermann Karl von Keyserling; the harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; and the composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. So goes the creation myth of the Goldberg Variations, a tightly assembled rotation of elements including canons, genres, and

  • Vain Art of the Fugue

    If a man in a hurry, carrying flowers, buys a ticket on a slow-moving streetcar bound for the train station, and the woman he’s meeting is on a fast-moving train that will arrive a few minutes late, who will get to the station first? This unanswerable word problem serves as the premise of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s Vain Art of the Fugue. Yet the aporia of this proposition is further complicated by the repeated references to Zeno’s Paradox—the notion that to get from point A to point Z, one must pass through an infinite number of halfway points. As Tsepeneag’s ticket collector says, “Any distance,