- 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.
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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.