- BuyMany Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature by Daniel Levin Becker
Harvard, 338 pp, £19.95, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06577 2
Robert Frost’s crack about free verse – that it’s tennis without a net – might be modified to describe Georges Perec’s novels: they’re tennis with nets everywhere. His whodunnit La Disparition (1969), a lipogram, was written without the use of the letter e (it was translated into e-less English as A Void by Gilbert Adair in 1994). W, ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975) finds in the letter of its title both a cipher for a missing child thought to have survived a shipwreck, and a vision of a rigidly ordered polis on an island off Tierra del Fuego inhabited, as Perec put it in a letter to Maurice Nadeau, ‘by a race of athletes wearing white tracksuits emblazoned with a big black W’. The 99 chapters of his last and longest novel, La Vie mode d’emploi (1978), were arrived at through three interlocking constraints: the planning of a narrative around a cross-section of a Parisian apartment building; the use of a bi-carré combinatoire to derive each chapter’s ‘schedule of obligations’ (setting, decor, age and sex of characters, distribution of incidents and objects, literary and historical allusions); and, so as not to leave the chapter sequence to chance, a polygraphie du cavalier, or ‘Knight’s Tour’ chess problem, which is the pattern a knight makes when travelling to every spot on the board without revisiting a single square twice (Perec tweaked the 8 x 8 layout of the chessboard to accommodate the 10 x 10 layout of the apartment block). Asked, in an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1977, why he resorted to such contortions for the making of fiction, Perec replied: ‘Je me donne des règles pour être totalement libre.’
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 Dominique Bourguet programmed Queneau’s story ‘Un conte à votre façon’ for computer-aided reading, such that a computer presents a series of choices and then alters the narrative sequence based on the reader’s decisions. This is something like the Pompidou version of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I remember reading with excitement as a child (if you want to stay and negotiate with the robot turn to page 27, if you want to board the hot air balloon turn to page 35).
 Nabokov was briefly considered for induction into the Oulipo but the idea was scrapped, perhaps because, as he admitted in the preface to the screenplay of Lolita, there is ‘nothing in the world that I loathe more than group activity’. Paul Braffort nevertheless makes a case for l’oulipisme nabokovien, in part by considering Nabokov and Queneau’s shared love of Martin Gardner’s Scientific American articles on puzzles and logical paradoxes.