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 that the group’s devotees were “rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.”

The Oulipo’s methods have produced some of the most inventive, comical, and incisive literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a radical alternative to the status quo of literary creation. In 1961, Queneau experimented with the sonnet, constructing ten poems whose lines can be interchanged without disrupting rhyme scheme or meter. The result is his Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes (100,000,000,000,000 Poems).

The Oulipo continue to this day, concocting a variety of formal restrictions as well as rehabilitating old forms to new ends. Included here is a reading list of both foundational and contemporary Oulipian titles available in English—a small sampling from an abundant array.

Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie

This volume is the requisite starting point for readers interested in learning more about the Oulipo. Organized alphabetically, it is a who’s who and what’s what of writing games, Oulipian titles (including a translation of Queneau’s sonnets), and key players. It also highlights writers like Walter Abish and Gilbert Sorrentino, who were never officially inducted into the group but who were avid users of related generative devices. Best of all, the Compendium gives you a chance to try writing with an eodermdrome, and it may just inspire you to create your own constraints.

Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, edited and translated by Warren Motte

Before there was the Compendium, there was the Primer. Warren Motte, an early champion of the Oulipo and a scholar of French literature, compiled this indispensable collection of writings about writing by various members of the workshop, including pieces such as Marcel Bénabou’s “Rule and Constraint” and Jacques Roubaud’s “Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau.” In his essay, Roubaud insists that the Oulipo’s work is “anti-chance” and that it bears only a slight connection to structuralism. The Primer also includes some useful background material on the early years of the group.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright

This 1947 work predates the Oulipo, properly speaking, but epitomizes the group’s project. The story is simple: A man has a minor altercation with an annoying passenger on a bus. Queneau retells this episode in ninety-nine different styles, including “Alexandrines,” “Zoological,” and “Cockney” (“Vulgaire” in French), until its variations become more than mere exercises; the protagonist’s nonadventure takes on increasing significance with each iteration—a small victory of form over content.

Writings for the Oulipo by Ian Monk

In this concise but rich collection, Ian Monk ingeniously introduces and analyzes various Oulipian forms while also taking them to task. Of particular import is his lipogrammatic critique of Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s La Disparition (as A Void), an insightful meditation on the problems of translation. These pieces serve not only as an explanation of the Oulipo but also as an introduction to Monk, a wonderful writer and translator in his own right (after reading Writings, check out his 2004 book of poetry, Family Archaeology).

Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos

Perec wrote the Oulipo’s most notorious work, La Disparition, a novel about a disappearance composed entirely without the letter e. Euler squares, Knight’s Tours, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, historical and literary allusions, linguistic permutations, and French architecture are only some of constraints Perec employs in his magnum opus, Life: A User’s Manual. He organizes the narrative according to a system of chess moves across a game board, which he models on the cross section of a Paris apartment building—each apartment correlates to a square. Through stories both ordinary and fantastic, Perec explores issues of class relations, romantic love, urban development, and spatial memory. Although the Compendium offers a lucid explanation of Perec’s strategies, Life is a masterpiece whether or not one is aware of the rules of the game.

The Great Fire of London (translated by Dominic di Bernadi) and The Loop (translated by Jeff Fort), by Jacques Roubaud

These are the first two works in Roubaud’s extensive Proustian series, an experiment in memory and forgetting governed by a strict set of writing rules: “I am not aiming to acquire . . . a certitude about the truth of what I state as true in memory,” muses Roubaud, a mathematician and a translator of Lewis Carroll. “All I need to do is remember at the moment when, remembering, I wrote what I remember.” Published in English almost two decades earlier than its successor, The Great Fire of London is a haunting meditation on writing composed after the death of Roubaud’s young wife. The failure to write a great novel is presented as the central theme followed by “interpolations” and “bifurcations,” which the reader can read in any order. The Loop, similarly organized, continues Roubaud’s fascination with the relationship between time and human experience.

The Conversions by Harry Mathews

This oft-neglected book (published in 1962, before Mathews became an official Oulipo member) is one of the funniest and most playful novels of American postmodernism, its setting part New York society and part Indiana Jones. The narrator is invited to a dinner party at the home of enigmatic Mr. Wayl, who, after a series of parlor games, awards him an antique golden adze. When Mr. Wayl dies, the mystery of the adze takes hold; in order to inherit a rather large fortune, its owner must undertake a quest to answer three enigmatic questions, as stipulated by Mr. Wayl’s demanding will. Codes, then, drive both the novel’s plot and its construction—a dense layering of allusions, wordplay, and languages (both real and invented). An invitation to the reader to decode alongside the narrator, this book could change your mind about what constitutes great literature.

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

This novel seems like a collection of first chapters, each written in a different style, which are cut off before the narrative can fully reveal itself. “You,” the novel’s protagonist, are reading a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler and soon realize Your book is flawed. You go to the shop and replace it, only to find that the next copy is also flawed (albeit differently). The third time You return it, it happens again, and so on. Meanwhile, You meet a woman with whom You become embroiled in a series of literary escapades, until the end of the book when, to Your surprise, You’ve completed reading a novel after all.

Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books by Marcel Bénabou, translated by David Kornacker

In this charming and ludic work, its title spoofing that of Raymond Roussel’s alleged tell-all tale of textual tricks, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Bénabou denies the writing process while partaking in it: “What we have here is a novel whose hero is a writer . . . stricken with a curse: he knows that the end of his life will coincide with one of his books . . . [and so] has imposed upon himself the constraint of never bringing any of his literary projects to term. . . . Perhaps you . . . do not like allegories . . . ? So let’s just pretend I didn’t say a thing and move on to something else.” Amusing on the surface, it is also deeply literary—Bénabou is a professor of ancient history, and throughout the work he includes references ranging from classical mythology to Don Quixote to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Bénabou’s book is a must-read for any writer who has agonized over the blank page and is a gripping novel in its own right, one in which a writer is the hero. Stricken with a curse . . .

“The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo,” from McSweeney’s 22

This 2006 issue of the American literary magazine highlights recent or recently translated Oulipian work by a variety of writers who are underread in English, including new pieces by Monk, Hervé Le Tellier (whose naughty excerpt from “The Sextine Chapel” is not to be missed), and, at long last, some of the Oulipo’s fierce women members, such as Michelle Grangaud and Anne F. Garréta. Unlike other, dustier French isms from the avant-garde heyday of the twentieth century, the Oulipo is still going strong.

Stefanie Sobelle, a regular contributor to Bookforum, teaches at Gettysburg College.