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.” ’
The Oulipo has been going about its palindromic and associated verbal business for almost forty years, having been launched by Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau in 1960, and having held monthly meetings designed for the convivial incitement of its members ever since. No sooner was it started than it was understandably co-opted as a ‘sub-committee’ of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, the droll institution that came into being in 1945 as a timely counterweight to the lingering seriousness of wartime and the pretensions of an ambient Existentialism. The Collège’s aim was to cultivate the wayward branch of knowledge, deriving at one or two removes from Alfred Jarry’s stage inflatable, the gross Père Ubu, of which one nebulous definition among several is ‘the science that lies as far beyond metaphysics as metaphysics lies beyond physics – in one direction or another’. The Collège, it appears, went into voluntary ‘occultation’ in the mid-Seventies but is to be restored to visibility at the millennium, which is good news for those of us who once enjoyed its sparklingly miscellaneous publications, while hoping that if we sometimes failed to get the point of them it was only because there wasn’t one.
The Oulipo is – potentially, but in action, too – a more focused and, dare I say, more serious institution than the Collège, inasmuch as the formal experimentation in which it specialises has fed in salutary ways into the literary zeitgeist, has, in other words, done its bit to undermine the sloppy, liberty-hall notion of writing that takes it to be something best done uncorseted and to draw attention to the bracing element of the deliberate and the impersonal that firms literature up. Far from wanting to ride with the avant-garde, Oulipians are reactionary in harking back to epochs – the late Middle Ages are a favourite – when the point of writing was not to give facile vent to the thoughts and feelings you had while you were doing it but rather to satisfy by the exercise of the intelligence the variously stringent demands imposed by a tight literary form. They are by nature escapologists, or, as Jacques Roubaud has it in his very graceful introduction to the Compendium (very gracefully translated by the Oulipo’s senior foreign member, Harry Mathews): ‘An Oulipian author is a rat who himself builds the maze from which he sets out to escape.’
A year after sharing in the foundation of the Oulipo, Raymond Queneau published what remains to this day the purest example of its intentions, a slim but potentially titanic volume entitled Cent mille milliards de poèmes, or, to turn it into English numbers, 100,000,000,000,000 poems. This is a sequence of ten 14-line sonnets any one line in which is replaceable, without the syntax cracking up or sense being altogether lost, by the corresponding line in any of the other sonnets, a scheme whose generative capacity is such that Queneau calculated that anyone reading the output for 24 hours a day would require close on two hundred million years to get through it. In the original edition of this high point of the ars combinatoria, the right-hand pages were slit into 14 strips, one strip per line, which could be lifted or dropped at will, to form however many fresh combinations of 14 lines the reader felt up to, or however many it took to convince them that Queneau’s sonnet-machine actually worked without collapsing into gibberish. The Compendium reprints Stanley Chapman’s delightful English translation, which was received by the original sonneteer, we’re told, with ‘admiring stupefaction’. (In the Compendium the pages come unsliced, though marked with dotted lines inviting intervention by the scissors of anyone too sceptical to take this virtual enormity on trust.)
The self-denying ordinance to which the members of the Oulipo are pledged has roots of a kind in Queneau’s own literary biography. For this was a man of secretive bent who had served his time when young among the Surrealists, but had then broken with them, rancorously, as was the tradition among André Breton’s quarrelsome flock. It was a wonder that Queneau had ever wanted to be part of it because his inclinations had always urged him towards the safely inexpressive realm of facts, of numbers especially, and held him back from putting too much of his inner life on unmediated public show, so that he was an unlikely recruit to the supposedly psychedelic joys of ‘automatic’ or other id-tickling modes of writing dear to Surrealism. In Oulipo circles, writing of any such undisciplined sort came to be unkindly referred to as ‘eructative literature’. There’s nothing remotely approaching eructation to be heard in the by now extensive library of Oulipian production, the items of which may have their makers’ names attached to them but are without exception scrupulously unrevealing of any psychic quiddity. The Oulipo’s few, hospitable rules, moreover, were drawn up so as to make it clear from the start that this literary grouping would be quite unlike the Surrealist chapel of which Queneau had once been an unhappy member. No one can be expelled from the Oulipo and no one can resign, not even by dying. There is one exception to this last clause, however; I quote Roubaud/Mathews: ‘One may relinquish membership of the Oulipo under the following circumstance: suicide may be committed in the presence of an officer of the court, who then ascertains that, according to the Oulipian’s explicit last wishes, his suicide was intended to release him from the Oulipo and restore his freedom of manoeuvre for the rest of eternity.’ I’ve not read of this thoughtful concession being as yet taken up.
A second, more acceptable model that the Romulus and Remus of the Oulipo had in mind, amateur mathematicians of quality that they both of them were, was the celebrated Bourbaki, the group of anonymous French mathematicians who set out in the late Thirties to do a Principia and refound mathematics axiomatically. The Bourbaki’s ongoing activities are described in the Compendium in a sequence that rapidly modulates, comma by comma, from respect into dismissal, as: ‘at once serious, admirable, imperialistic, sectarian, megalomaniac and pretentious. (Humour has not been one of its prime characteristics)’ – which last dig is a little unfair, remembering that the nom de guerre ‘Bourbaki’ was taken from that of a French general who, having once turned down the proffered throne of Greece, proved catastrophically unsuccessful in the guerre of 1870-71.
Any maths that the Oulipo goes in for is low-key compared with the exalted reaches of the subject theorised by the Bourbaki, and its members don’t have to be unnaturally numerate to be sent an invitation to join. Nevertheless, when you choose to set up shop somewhere near the interface between the verbal and the digital, it helps if you can do a bit more on the maths side than count, and a fair proportion of Oulipians are professionals – Jacques Roubaud for one, whose low opinion of the Bourbaki I’ve just quoted and who teaches maths in a Paris university. Queneau himself didn’t wait for the Oulipo to be in place before he set about exploring ways – overt in his poetry, where prosody and number have always gone together, clandestine in his novels, where mathematicisation is usually reckoned to go against the fictional grain – of using mathematical patterns as determinants of verbal structures. The proto or sub-Oulipian literature that he published before 1960 can but come under the group’s own ‘paradoxical and provocative’ heading of ‘Anticipatory plagiary’, which covers the production of such ‘paleo-Oulipian’ virtuosi as ‘Lasos of Hermione, author of the first lipogram; Ausonius, master of the cento; Arnaut Daniel, inventor of the sestina; George Herbert for his emblematic poems; Edgar Allan Poe (the Philosophy of Composition); Lewis Carroll; Raymond Roussel; Unica Zürn, sublime anagrammatist’.
Oulipianism, in short, is not cliquish: it demonstrates its generic credentials by being found to extend, backwards in history and outwards in contemporary space, beyond the official archive, contained as that notably is in the 101 volumes which have so far appeared in the Bibliothèque Oulipienne (detailed in the Compendium). The best known modern achievements of an Oulipian kind are too grand to have been squeezed into the modest format of the Bibliothèque. By that I mean La Disparition, Perec’s three-hundred-odd-page e-less novel (brilliantly and e-lessly translated a few years ago by Gilbert Adair as A Void), and his Life a User’s Manual, whose Oulipian underpinnings are spelt out in this Compendium, in the definition of the Graeco-Latin bi-square, a mathematical construct of some complexity that I’d rather someone other than me explained – in the event, Claude Bergé (‘a specialist in graph and hypergraph theory, topology and combinatorics’): ‘A Graeco-Latin bi-square of order n is a figure with n × n squares filled with n different letters and n different numbers; each square contains one letter and one number; each letter appears only once in each line and each column, each number appears only once in each line and each column.’ Small bi-squares may be a doddle to fill in but it was thought for two hundred years that a decimal one, where n = 10, was a potentiality beyond actualisation. In 1960, however, a solution was found and some ten years after that Georges Perec adopted it as a means of deciding the distribution of the stories, people, furnishings, attributes and, so far as I can see, well-nigh everything else in his wonderful novel.
Graeco-Latin bi-squares are rather too advanced for most of us, but others of the Oulipo’s devices are U-certificate and open to all. Take N + 7, designed to make mild and, with luck, engaging fun of existing pieces of literature. It involves replacing each noun in a given passage by the seventh noun following it in an appointed dictionary. According to whether the dictionary used is big, small or middling, the results should display lexical departures of varying degrees of absurdity: with a big dictionary, the Book of Genesis may, for example, be made to start off, ‘In the beguining God created the hebdomad and the earthfall’; with a middling one, ‘In the behest God created the heckelphone and the easement’; with one of those pocket jobs, ‘In the bend God created the hen and the education.’ When giving poetry the N + 7 treatment (and the rhyme-scheme and metre of the original are to be preserved), you may have to do more looking to find nouns that will fit the bill, as in the Harry Mathews version of Wordsworth here that starts: ‘I wandered lonely as a crowd/That floats on high o’er valves and ills/When all at once I saw a shroud,/A hound, of golden imbeciles.’
You might suppose that after forty years of committed efforts the Oulipo had thought of everything there is to be thought of by way of new or revised formalisms: that potentiality had no more to give. If potentiality has limits, however, we don’t know where they lie, and the Oulipo manages to go on inventing with consistent flair. There’s one potentiality at least that no one has yet managed convincingly to realise, though there may well now be computers running night and day in the race to crack it. This is the ‘isopangram’, itself a cross between the isogram, a piece of text in which no letter of the alphabet appears more than once, and the pangram, which includes all the letters, but some of them more than once. Thus the isopangram must contain all 26 of the little blighters once and only once. The Compendium gives two of the more nearly intelligible attempts so far made in English to scale this Oulipian Everest: ‘Cwm fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz’ and ‘Nth black fjords vex Qum gyp wiz.’ Which together show that it’s worth going on trying.
Inspiring, not to say addictive fun though the Oulipo’s sort of thing can be, I’d never have expected to learn, as I did from the Compendium, that during the Nineties this consummate if recherché band was commissioned to show the urban masses what it was capable of, first in Strasbourg and then in Paris. In Strasbourg, they were asked to provide texts for display at each of the 16 stops on the new city tramline; which they did, in stock Oulipian forms too diverse to be codified here. One will have to do, as an earnest of the general bright idea – a homophonic translation of the words ‘le tramway de Strasbourg’ that derives from a mini-narrative: ‘The fastidious composer of the Blue Danube Waltz owned a number of sea-birds. One day he left the door of their cage open. The birds followed democratic procedure in deciding whether they should escape. Only a small number voted approval.’ Which episode reduces to the words and to the promised homophone, ‘Les trois mouettes de Strauss: pour’. These are up-market games. In Paris, in 1996, the Oulipo were called in again, this time to ornament the façade of the new library at the St Denis arm of the University, with texts embodying some of their favourite constraints. An example: ‘Nine words, on three lines, in three columns progressing from three to five letters, and subject to the “prisoner’s restriction” ’ – this last being a form of lipogram in which, in order to economise on his shrinking stock of paper, the prisoner limits himself to using letters no part of which extends above or below the line.
Happy days. There’s small chance of our own authorities loosening up to the same extent, and commissioning the like esoterica as decoration for our public places. Nor, sadly, is it clear to whom they could apply to provide the verbal goods even if they felt a need of them. We have no known counterpart of the Oulipo, this country having, as the otherwise Anglophile Roubaud rightly says, ‘proved recalcitrant’. Given the right incentive, however, those here who have in the past tested Oulipositive might come forward; and what more immediate incentive could there be than Y2K, attached as it is to an as yet uninscribed expanse of architecture down in Greenwich. Why not a native competition, then, for the Oulipianisation of the dome, with texts composed exclusively of words containing a y and two ks: e.g. Reykjavik’s kakistocracy’s skylarks yakking, flykicking kinkily ... et cetera. Words fail me and it’s not hard to see why the Oulipo has gone down the path of collaboration.