Hound of Golden Imbeciles

John Sturrock

Cape Y2K once safely rounded, and we shall be faced in short order by 2002, a date that stands suggestively out to the numerological eye as a palindrome. We’re allowed only one of these amphisbaenic years per century, though we lived through the last of them a bare eight-some ago, in 1991. Lived through it and failed for sure to spare it a glance. In France, it was not so. There, the members of the Oulipo took due notice of a calendrical windfall and laid plans for some suitably reversible celebrations, such as inviting President Menem of Argentina to come and address audiences in the towns of Noyon and Laval, and ‘consecrating’ Léon/Noel, Eve, Anna, Otto, Bob and Ava as ‘given names of the year’. It was in keeping with the principles of the Oulipo that these should have remained as theoretical events, conceived of without any taking of steps for their realisation, for this ever-amiable groupuscule’s founding articles lay down that it should explore potentiality irrespective of whether reality can be managed so as to give it house-room: or as the Compendium has it, ‘it has been concerned not with literary works but with procedures and structures capable of producing them.’ Indeed, one of its two founders and chief manifesto-writer, François Le Lionnais, was an extremist who thought that the potential procedures and structures which members invented were diminished rather than validated by being put into practice.

That is to go too far, even in an age like ours when virtuality is pretty much the thing (an age of which the Oulipo might claim to have been shining precursors). The formal constraints on the poet or prose writer’s freedom of expression that Oulipians are asked to think up, as at once a hindrance and a resource for those who thrill to a spot of bondage when they write, can themselves be things of beauty, but it’s the total ingenuity that members often display when negotiating them that the rest of us go for, as when browsing in this Compendium, or in its treasurable pair of predecessors, the florilegia published years ago in French – Oulipo, la littérature potentielle (1973) and Oulipo, Atlas de littérature potentielle (1981) – where the virtuosity is such as to cast mere virtuality into the shade. Who is likely to forget, if we can stay with palindromes for a moment, the over-the-top example provided by Georges Perec for the 1973 anthology, which runs to more than five thousand characters, all the way from ‘Trace l’inégal palindrome. Neige. Bagatelle, dira Hercule. Le brut repentir, cet écrit né Perec’, to, a full five pages later: ‘ce repentir, cet écrit ne perturbe le lucre: Haridelle, ta gabegie ne mord ni la plage ni l’écart.’ Should we complain here that Perec has cut corners, that the punctuation isn’t palindromic? I think not. There can of course be no translating of palindromes, but, since they only just mean anything, that’s no great loss. Biglottal Oulipians have, on the other hand, had a go at creating palindromes in more than one language: e.g. Luc Etienne’s ‘Untrodden russet/T’es sûr, Ned dort nu?’; and it would be grudging not to salute in passing an English example cited in the Compendium, enterprising if a little short on stamina compared with Perec’s monster, from Alastair Reid: ‘T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: “Gnat-dirt upset on drab pot toilet.” ’

You are not logged in