- Many 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.’
La Disparition is probably the best known of the works associated with the group of writers and mathematicians comprising the Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle, or Oulipo. Founded by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, the group devoted itself to inventing, analysing and sometimes applying constraints for the making of literature. The idea arose in the autumn of 1960 at a colloquium on Queneau’s work at Cérisy-la-Salle, and the initial members met officially for the first time the following November under the name Séminaire de littérature expérimentale. A month later they changed the name to Oulipo, in part, they claimed, because the word séminaire smacked too much of artificial insemination and of the haras (stud farm), and in part because they liked the way ‘ouvroir’ suggests at once a workshop and a sewing circle. Precursors include the Collège de ’pataphysique (with which both Queneau and Le Lionnais had been associated) and the Bourbaki collective, a group of mathematicians who published their excursions in set theory under the pseudonym Nicolas Bourbaki. One group that was not a model was Surrealism. As Le Lionnais put it in an essay on Queneau, the constraint he insisted they agree on from the start was that there be no ‘fulminations, excommunications or any form of terror’, alluding to André Breton’s tyrannical control over the movement he founded, and of which Queneau had first-hand experience. Le Lionnais, for his part, also had first-hand experience with tyranny: he’d been active in the French Resistance and survived the prison camp at Dora.
Far from being a strident break with the past, Oulipian practice is preoccupied with tradition. What they call ‘anticipatory plagiarism’ can be found in everything from Lasus of Hermione, the sixth-century BC inventor of the lipogram (from the Greek leipo, ‘to leave out’); the love lyric manuals of the troubadours; the Ars Magna of Ramón Llull; the concentric permutations of the sestina; Poe’s tales and critical essays (‘The Purloined Letter’ finds Auguste Dupin going up against a villain who is ‘both poet and mathematician’); Lewis Carroll’s chessic fantasias; and Raymond Roussel, whom Queneau praised for ‘uniting the precision of the poet with the madness of the mathematician’. Perec in particular constantly invokes Herman Melville: W’s narrator identifies not with ‘Ahab’s boiling fury’ but with the sober and scrupulous Ishmael; the puzzle-making central figure in La Vie mode d’emploi is named ‘Bartlebooth’, splicing together Valery Larbaud’s A.O. Barnabooth and Bartleby, the wan copyist who one day prefers not to go on making duplicates of legal documents; in La Disparition Anton Voyl’s recovered diary contains a retelling of the plot of Moby-Dick (a lipogrammatically altered Ishmael appears as Ishmail). There’s also a clear line of influence on the mathematical side. Queneau’s ‘Les Fondements de la littérature d’après David Hilbert’ treats Hilbert’s claim that instead of points, lines and planes you might just as easily say ‘tables, chairs and beermugs’ as an invitation to make a further move to ‘words, sentences and paragraphs’. Given that aspects of the Hilbert scheme led Alan Turing to speculate about abstract machines that carry out programmed instructions, it is not surprising that Oulipo has links to computer science and AI research. Italo Calvino used an algorithm derived from a Greimas square for the composition of his recursive novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller; a ‘Mathews algorithm’, named for its inventor Harry Mathews, consists of generating content by moving sets of words, sentences or paragraphs through serial permutations (a technique he used to derive the Montagnard tribe’s dialect for his novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium); and Paul Braffort worked with the Atelier de Recherches et Techniques Avancées (ARTA) on computer stories that ‘read’ with you through a branching decision tree.
The newest member of the Oulipo, Daniel Levin Becker, born in Chicago in 1984, opens his Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature with a description of a beau présent read at the funeral of François Caradec (an Oulipian and biographer of Roussel) at Montparnasse cemetery in 2008. A beau présent, or ‘beautiful inlaw’, is a version of the lipogram in which only the letters of the addressee’s name – in this case f, r, a, n, c, o, i, s, d, e – are used (in the inverse constraint, the ‘beautiful outlaw’, the letters of the person’s name are missing). Becker, an adroit renderer of constrained French into English, gives a version of one of the recited lines: ‘François caresses readers’ crania in a deep rose derision, in a fine ironic farce free of disdain.’ Another Oulipian trick, the S + 7, involves replacing every noun in a text with the seventh following it in a dictionary (the choice of dictionary of course plays a role here). Mathews, the only American Oulipian until Becker’s induction in 2009, put a few of these constraints to work in his 35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare. His lipogram in e for ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ yields ‘Almost nothing, or nothing – but which?’; an S + 7 leads to ‘To beckon or not to beckon, that is the quinsy’; a ‘snowball with an irregularity’ gives ‘I am all mute after seeing Hamlet’s annoying emergency yourstruly Shakespeare’ (the ‘irregularity’ presumably being in the made-up word ‘yourstruly’, devised to preserve the structure of the snowball – i.e. each successive word a letter longer than its predecessor). Another of the more celebrated Oulipian works, Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, is a set of ten sonnets with interchangeable lines, such that latent in the design are 1014 – or one hundred thousand billion – potential poems. Queneau said that if you read a sonnet every minute in eight-hour shifts every working day it would take a million centuries to finish the book. The original Gallimard edition isolates each line so that new poems are created by flipping the strips (the thorough and informative Oulipo Compendium unfortunately reprints Cent mille with perforated lines, in effect inviting you to cut up the book). And then there are works that have the feel of having been composed using constraints but haven’t been. This Paul Fournel calls the ‘Canada Dry’ effect: the ginger ale is bubbly but that doesn’t make it champagne.
Becker is careful to point out that Oulipo is not a school, not a political agenda, not a secret society, not a movement, but a collective devoted to exploring how constraints facilitate creation. As he puts it, constraints are about ‘stop waiting to be visited by the muse and just get to work using the structures literature borrows from language’; as if the introduction of arbitrary rules might, in the best instances, kickstart composition. An important distinction in the early phase of Oulipo was the difference between what they called anoulipism, devoted to discovery, and synthoulipism, devoted to invention. It wasn’t a hard and fast distinction: ‘from the one to the other there exist many subtle channels,’ as Le Lionnais put it in the First Oulipo Manifesto. Given the group’s concern with tradition, it is worth pointing out that the emphasis on potential rather than actual works is not at all a new idea. Borges is always imagining, even reviewing, potential works. Think of that wonderful list of Pierre Menard’s Nachlass with its Oulipian sounding experiments in French metrics and Boolean logic, essays on modifying the rules of chess, and ‘monograph on the possibility of constructing a poetic vocabulary … which would be ideal objects created according to conventions’ (this is not to overlook that astonishing exercise in potential literature where Menard, in copying out Don Quixote to the letter, ends up creating an entirely different work). In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov, another of Perec’s heroes, described a fictional country-house murder mystery which the narrator tells us is not so much about particular characters as about ‘methods of composition’. And in his sublime memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov compared the taste in the head he got from composing chess problems to ‘various other, more overt and fruitful operations of the creative mind, from the charting of dangerous seas to the writing of one of those incredible novels where the author, in a fit of lucid madness, has set himself certain unique rules’. That ‘potential’ may be the very condition of language becomes hard to ignore when you start thinking even a little about translation, a fact made vivid in Perec’s efforts at getting his friend Mathews’s work into French. After becoming hooked on Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (1962), a book of high Rousselian oddity, Perec signed on as the translator of his second novel, Tlooth (1966), rendering the title as Les Verts Champs de moutarde de l’Afghanistan.
Becker is aware that for some this sort of thing will seem tedious or precious or pretentious, and running through his book are many finessed caveats about how the Oulipo isn’t for everyone. Even the book’s dedicatee is the recipient of a pre-emptive apology: ‘For Elaine, who doesn’t entirely buy it but is willing to listen anyway.’ Alongside the tone of apology is a lot of unapologetic, even giddy praise. There is something disorientating about a book that sets out to tell the story of a group that uses constraints to bypass ossified habits in a voice that oscillates between exculpation and evangelism. The biographical and autobiographical parts of Many Subtle Channels tend towards a kind of preening geek chic – as when we hear of a lipogrammatic mix-tape the author made in high school, in which none of the song titles or artists’ names had e’s in them. In general, though, for anyone interested in Oulipian practice Many Subtle Channels is a reliable history of the Oulipo and a Bildungsroman-ish account of a young writer’s development into writerhood. At its best the enthusiasm is infectious, not just about the Oulipo (and Becker’s evident elatedness at having been made a member), but more generally about the pleasures of reading and writing.
Becker makes clear what is exciting about the Oulipo: the discovery and application of constraints; the annihilation of cliché; the setting up of encounters between literature, mathematics, music and computers; analysing and exploring, but also broadening and generalising, the dynamics of composition (Le Lionnais, Becker tells us, went so far as to devise the formulation ‘Ou-X-Po’ to stand for the way any practice might be submitted to constraints – OuCuiPo might be the name of a group of constraint-based chefs). Part of the praise involves stressing the way even the most rigidly constrained writing can unleash all sorts of unforeseen accidents and surprises. One of the most mathematically accomplished Oulipians, Jacques Roubaud, says that while constraints might be thought of as analogous to axioms, literary works undertaken in accord with such axioms generate consequences such that the axiom-theorem relation is more like a ‘metaphorical vagueness’. This can work in the reverse order too. As David Bellos notes in his biography A Life in Words, Perec achieves some of his most ‘startling effects by unseen adjustments to the rule’. If constraints make explicit the fact that writing has to begin somewhere, the wrangling of consequences made possible by the constraint still comes down to what will work and what will not, what a given writer decides to keep or ditch. Far from reducing composition to impersonal calculation, rules, as Becker says of Calvino and Perec, just ‘made them better writers’.
For the Second Oulipo Manifesto, Le Lionnais took his epigraph from Paul Féval: ‘I am working for people who are primarily intelligent rather than serious.’ The idea that indulging the analytic intelligence is a form of intense joy follows from one of the Oulipo’s lasting ’pataphysical habits: the mockery of pompous officialdom (Marcel Bénabou is currently the group’s ‘definitively provisional and provisionally definitive secretary’). The refusal to reduce the pleasures of analysis to furrowed-brow gravitas or the cogs of bureaucracy is at the same time an affirmation of the way the playful can get at the chaos of the everyday. Like his day job at Le Point as cruciformiste (maker of crossword puzzles), the ludic and the quotidian were for Perec bound like a chemical composition (most dazzlingly and exhaustively in the jigsaw systems of La Vie mode d’emploi). It is part of what makes Perec, as Becker nicely puts it, a ‘fundamentally generous writer’. What Perec called ‘personal’ Oulipian work was not only undertaken to tap the potential of the daily but to set out in search of the McGuffin of the self. In La Disparition, that missing e isn’t just a piece of literary gymnastics; sounded as eux, it becomes ‘them’, the disappeared, among them Perec’s parents, his father dead from a gunshot wound while serving in the French army, his mother put on a train to Auschwitz in 1943 (the adopted constraint prevents him from using the words mère, père, parents and famille). And the documentary non-voice that explains the clockwork Olympic Games of W slowly and terrifyingly reveals the games to be a description of a concentration camp (one way of getting at ‘le souvenir d’enfance’). It is with something more than a wink that Le Lionnais assures us at the end of the first manifesto that potential literature is ‘the most serious thing in the world. QED.’
 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.