People either judge these kinds of authorial limitations as virtuosically clever but aesthetically trivial, or they find them just incredibly cool. The young Daniel Levin Becker, now the reviews editor for the Believer, was so taken with Perec’s work that he traveled to France, helped organize the OuLiPo’s archives, interviewed its members and eventually was himself “co-opted” into the group. (The OuLiPo has 38 members, five of them women and seven non-French.) Levin Becker relates his experiences at the beginning and end of “Many Subtle Channels”; in between he presents a history of the workshop from its foundation to the present. The result is a distinctly intimate and exceptionally entertaining book.
Reacting, in part, against the surrealists who practiced automatic writing that drew its inspiration from the unconscious, the Oulipians advocated a calculated approach to creativity, based on extreme attentiveness to language and lots of cheeky cleverness. “An Oulipian constructs a poem or a novel the way a mathematician proves a theorem — carefully, methodically, embracing a set of rules.” But this doesn’t mean that the results can’t be mesmerizing (see Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”), sexy (see Roubaud’s three “Hortense” novels) or even simultaneously philosophical and adventure-packed (see Perec’s masterpiece, “Life: A User’s Manual”). If you enjoy crosswords, intricately structured mysteries a la Agatha Christie, puns, hypertext fiction, shaggy dog stories, Bourbaki mathematics, the games of chess and Go, or simply work that boggles the mind, then you really need to discover the OuLiPo.
Oulipians have composed texts written in the ape language created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for the Tarzan books, elegies that use only the letters from the name of the person being remembered and poems methodically composed while on the subway, one line per stop. They play guessing games in which an undisclosed book’s title is “translated” into synonyms (an easy example: “Dim blaze, wan flame, ashen inferno, sallow burn”: Answer Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”). They skew existing texts, as in “perverbs” that amalgamate two unrelated cliches: “A stitch in time gathers no moss.” Queneau famously wrote 10 sonnets, all with the same end rhymes, bound them together, one precisely on top of another, then partially snipped each line so it could be folded back, revealing the one below. In effect, he adopted the format of those board books in which the child-reader can randomly alter the heads, torsos or feet of various animals to generate humorous combinations. In Queneau’s case, the mix and match lines of “Cent mille milliards de poemes” (“One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems”) can generate that many different sonnets.