The following are excerpts from The End of Oulipo? An Attempt at Exhausting a Movement. Released on Wednesday by Zero Books, The End of Oulipo? is a pair of essays authored by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito. As they write in their preface, Elkin and Esposito hope to “explain the Oulipo in order to give answers to the curious, to offer insight for those already in the know and to provide a point of access for writers who would like to be inspired by the group.” The first section comes from Esposito’s Eight Glances Past Georges Perec, the second from Elkin’s Oulipo Lite.
“Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long ago picked out.” — Georges Perec, “The Street”
“We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs, and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” — Tom McCarthy, “Stabbing the Olive,” an essay on Jean-Philippe Toussaint
When we think of the experimental French literary movement the Oulipo, we tend to think about a literature that’s all but totally divorced from realist writing. As the story goes, the Oulipo ignore reality in favor of strange new forms that their writing can inhabit. Their very reason for existence is to use seemingly arbitrary rules to force themselves to imagine these forms. They push the very limits of what can be novelistic—not exactly a recipe for Netherland, is it? Their mentor and co-founder, Raymond Queneau, wrote novels that were anything but realist, and they followed in his stead by writing, among other things: an elusive book about Marco Polo telling fantastic stories of impossible cities; poetry written according to obscure mathematical principles; a book featuring 60-odd scenes of masturbation; a book dedicated to “the enterprise of destroying my memory” that its own publisher calls “exasperating” and “daunting.” In other words, the Oulipo is commonly perceived as a group that did not aspire to add a few flourishes to the massive edifice of mimesis but to erect their own cathedrals to new conceptions of what could be novelistic. It would seem that the one thing that this very ambitious bunch does not aspire to is to depict reality in fiction.
But then look deeper. Look to the largest, most ambitious Oulipian book out there: Life A User’s Manual. In its purposeful plagiarism it beats Shields to the punch by a good 30 years. It also anticipates Shields’s use of a very artificial formal structure to get at reality: although Perec surrounded himself with a barrage of constraints through which he had to maneuver in writing his book, Life’s key ambition is “to exhaust not the whole world…but a constituted fragment of the world.” The constraints were the path to this fragment, and over the course of the 500 pages that it takes to get there Perec brings in more of the external world than all but the most ambitious novels.
Perec was elusive as to just what fragment of the world he was attempting to exhaust, but there are at least two good answers: the 100-room Parisian apartment house in which Life A User’s Manual takes place, or the book’s key adventure: an absurd quest by Bartlebooth, the central character out of a cast of hundreds, to paint 500 watercolors, have them made into puzzles, complete the puzzles, and then return them back to blank paper at the place of their creation. Taken together, the apartment and the quest form the axes of a coordinate plane on which the full glory of Life A User’s Manual is situated. Perec’s biographer, David Bellos explains just what can be found spread across that plane:
Perec shows that he can tell fairy stories, that he can construct a novel in letters, an adventure narrative, a business saga, a dream sequence, a detective story, a family drama, a sporting history; he demonstrates that he has mastered comic techniques, the creation of pathos, historical reconstruction and many non-narrative forms of writing, from the table of contents to the kitchen recipe, the equipment catalogue and (of course!) the bibliography and index.
The book is omnivorous as only the novel can be, devouring all those forms, and our world along with it. Life’s index is over 60 pages in length, with entries for items as diverse as Mark Twain, the Indian chief White Horse, the Treaty of Versailles, Siberia, OPEC, the Goethe-Institut, Albert Einstein, Punch the puppet, Annals of Ear and Larynx Diseases, compositions by Alban Berg, the film How to Marry a Millionaire and hundreds more. As Bellos implies above, the book is also filled with the sorts of things not catalogued in indexes: love, heartbreak, sex, drama, revenge, fear, pity, seduction, crime…really, just about every part of life that one might imagine. Surely there will be some aspects of life that Life does not treat (it is, after all, not Borges’s Library of Babel), but they will be very hard to find.
There’s no doubt that Life A User’s Manual takes an approach to depicting reality that is very different from the standard realist novel, which we have been conditioned to believe is the best and most-preferred way of representing our world. It’s a belief that has been abetted by some of the biggest names in literary discourse and has given rise, over the past decade or so, to a particularly robust discussion of just what constitutes the depiction of the real world on the page and how that relates to “realist” and “experimental” writing. Though not without its enlightening aspects, this conversation has generally fallen into a simplistic dichotomy, where realist writing is described as giving us the real world of everyday life, and anything other than realist writing is seen as directing its energies toward a vague something that no one cares to define very well. Writing in Harper’s in 2005, the experimental author Ben Marcus offered a good summation of the debate and its exasperating stupidity:
Anyone who has not been invited into the realist camp is slurred as being merely experimental, whether or not his or her language is a gambit for producing reality on the page. Calling a writer experimental is now the equivalent of saying his work does not matter, is not readable, and is aggressively masturbatory. But why is it an experiment to attempt something artistic? A painter striving for originality is not called experimental. Whether or not originality is a large or small myth, an outsized form of folly or a quaint indulgence, a visual artist is expected at least to gun for it. Without risk you have paintings hanging in the lobby of a Holiday Inn. But a writer with ambition now is called “postmodern” or “experimental,” and not without condescension. Traverses away from the inscribed literary style—even when they amount to freefalls down the mountainside—are either looked at snidely or entirely ignored, unless the work is traditional at heart but with enough surface flourishes and stylistic tics to allow a false show of originality, so that critics can dispense phrases like “radically innovative” and “a bold new voice,” when the only thing new is the writer’s DNA.
Marcus does an able job of making the dichotomy between realist and experimental books spearheaded by Jonathan Franzen (whom he argues with in the essay) look foolish, but the problem with this well-intentioned, enjoyable, and frequently insightful piece is that it never quite tells us what’s so good about “experimental” writing. Yes, writers should be gunning for it, like their painterly cousins, but why? To what end? On this Marcus is silent. It’s a pity. Toward the end of the piece he makes a gesture toward answers, briefly quoting everyone’s favorite “difficult” writer, Thomas Bernhard, and enthusing about how much he loves being exhausted by his “menacing” and “brutally controlling” novel Correction. (Challenging literature would surely get more readers if its erstwhile advocates stopped attempting to praise it by making it sound like a form of sadomasochism.) He only would have needed a few words more to make the case for the value of that gloriously grotesque work: Correction does what all good literature attempts, it embodies something “real” about the human experience. This, so far as I can tell, is what James Wood appreciates about good literature, no matter what form it takes, and is perhaps why he is frequently perceived as a defender of the conventional novel. I regard his 2008 book How Fiction Works as an attempt to promulgate this view, plus an attempt to “correct the record” in the public perception of his tastes. In correspondence he explained his preference for texts that have no aspirations to the kind of “realism” that was practiced by Emile Zola and George Eliot, his belief that these books are often much more capable of representing the real world as we experience it:
I see my task, then, as trying to explain how texts feel “real” (how they move us, stimulate us in the world, how they refer to the real, the human, what Henry James called “the present palpable-intimate”) without needing to be formally “realistic.” For instance, in “Endgame,” you will remember that the old parents, Nag and Nell, are on stage, buried in bins. There is a moving moment when Nag, having chatted earlier to his wife, raps on the lid of Nell’s bin. There is no reply. We infer from the silence that she is dead. There is nothing obviously “realistic” about this, and yet there is something real, even verisimilitudinous, about it. It is certainly the present palpable-intimate. We instantly feel a small loss: oh, she’s dead. It’s difficult to explain the human and aesthetic power of such moments, and, as I can tell, this desire to talk about “the real” or “the human” in my reviews constantly exposes one to the charge of being a fogeyish defender of “realism.” But I am no such defender of realism, and don’t wish to be.
Georges Perec pursued what Wood here calls “the human,” though only a few of his works of fiction could be construed as “realistic.” As such, he makes a perfect embodiment of the line drawn from Shields to Marcus to Wood. His early novel Things, for instance, has come to be regarded as a classic depiction of sixties counterculture in France, despite having little discernable plot and being written in the challenging first-person plural. Similarly, his novel W, or the Memory of Childhood is a bracing exploration of his loss of both parents to World War II, though it is made by way of elaborate descriptions of the sport rituals that occur on a fictitious island off the coast of Chile. What these novels remind us of is the commonplace and oft-forgot truth that all art—even so-called realist literature—rarely displays on its surface what it is actually about. Certainly Perec is “about” more than the elaborate word games and formal constraints that he has come to be associated with. His use of collage, plagiarism and non-literary genres to produce reality effects greatly anticipates the kind of writing that David Shields claims is most interesting right now—writing that pursues reality by recycling cultural detritus. And, in fact, Perec informs the work of writers who are currently pushing far beyond the style and aspirations that Shields claims are new in Reality Hunger.
Oulipo and Sexism
One of the things the Oulipo claims sets them apart from other avant-garde groups is that their movement isn’t meant to be political. And yet strong Oulipians, like Raymond Queneau, Harry Mathews, and Georges Perec, have wanted to interrogate the world we live in, largely through a disruptive use of language and a more conscious approach to the everyday world. Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro (1959) turns the map of Paris inside out; his heroine comes to the see not to see the sights but to see the Metro, and the sights she does see are all scrambled up, one swapped out for another (“Look! The Panthéon!!!” “No, no, and no, isn’t the Panthéon.”). Mathews has said that in titling his strange second novel Tlooth (1966) he aimed to disturb the very act of reading itself in order to “undermine any . . . hope of certainty that there may be in reading the text.” Perec, for his part, called for his readers to find what is significant in the quotidian: “Question your tea spoons,” he exhorted readers of “The Infra-Ordinary”.
Le Tellier doesn’t seem to want anyone to question anything. When he looks in his tea spoons all he sees in them is his own concave, upside-down reflection. Like the Surrealists he tends to see women as ciphers and archetypes—a sexism that’s latent in French culture (and avant-garde culture) in general. If Le Tellier were a writer on his own, this would be less important to point out; who has time to keep tabs on every single male chauvinist writer? But the Oulipo is menaced by the reactionary bourgeois element Le Tellier represents. This may be to some extent unavoidable; many avant-garde groups have seen their once revolutionary ideas appropriated by the mainstream, where they lose their trenchant edge. The Oulipo’s loopy experiments have indeed come to seem like reasonable literary experiments. But if the Oulipo hopes to avoid exhausting its potential, it is up to its members to stay outside of the mainstream, writing from the margins rather than from the comfortable center of official culture. If an Oulipian leaves the workbench and settles into a comfortable armchair, his worldview narrows, and his work’s potential diminishes.
A vulnerability to sexism was coded into the Oulipo’s DNA from the outset.
But ouvroir has some other, more feminine, connotations. It can refer as well to a long room where the young women in a community work on projects appropriate to their sex; or a charitable institution for impoverished women and girls who found therein shelter, heat, light, and thankless, ill-paid work, the result of which these institutions sold at a discount, thus depriving the isolated workers of their livelihood and leading them (as it was charged) into vice. Later, and for a short time only, ouvroir denoted a group of well-to-do women seeking to assuage their consciences in needlework for the poor and in the confection of sumptuous ecclesiastical ornaments.
Built into the term ouvroir, then, is a delightful condescension toward women: in the ouvroir, women do what is “appropriate to their sex”; it is a place where women who have been stripped of any power over their own lives have been sent to be exploited, or a place where overprivileged women can help the poor through the creation of needlework and basically useless ornaments. The potential for women within the ouvroir is restricted.
The Oulipo was founded by a group of men in 1960, though women were eventually allowed in: in 1975 Michèle Métail joined, though she has subsequently distanced herself from the group, the poet Michelle Grangaud twenty years later, in 1995, the novelist and scholar Anne Garréta (2000), the systems analyst Valérie Beaudoin (2003), and finally the mathematician Michèle Audin (2009). (The group seems to have decided, when appointing female members, to employ the constraint that they must be named some variant of Michelle.)
The Oulipians borrow from this last definition of ouvroir to claim that they are doing benevolent work, casting themselves in the role of these bourgeois women doing needlepoint. According to Queneau, the Oulipo “search[es] for new forms and structures which may be used by writers in any way they see fit,” tools which writers can use as handily as a needle, thread, and openwork canvas. This is why they protest that they are neither a school, nor a movement. They are a “research group,” Jean Queval has explained, adding to our body of knowledge of potential things; they even see themselves as a “nursery school,” according to François Caradec
But like most research groups, the Oulipo is indeed a métier d’homme. All that math. All that game-playing. It’s hard, as a woman, to what to know what to make of Oulipo or where we might fit in to its project. It’s not that girls don’t like math: some do. Girls also like games. And the idea of creating literature within certain constraints—why, women have been doing that for centuries. (Surely hiding the manuscript of your novel under your needlepoint and writing in jags when no one is looking constitutes an early Oulipian procedure.) Women writers are virtuosos at operating within constrained circumstances. But the Oulipo—particularly Oulipo Lite—can seem slightly juvenile and pointless. Even women who love the Oulipo get impatient with it: “Lots of men doing crosswords,” said one of my experimentally inclined friends in an anti-Oulipo mood.
The Oulipo has been previously criticized for being macho. At a conference in 2005, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young delivered their Foulipo manifesto, in which they critiqued the “masculinist tendencies of most constraint-based writing” through a manifesto which adopted some of that constraint-based writing. They wondered if the Oulipo was not “pehaps toubled by an uninvestigated sexism and thus not capable of being a pat of ou witing life in any way, a question we didn’t eally want to ask because we wee scaed of the answe and what it would deny us.”
A little dissent, perhaps. A little acknowledgment of their masculine privilege. I don’t think this is because women are inherently uninterested in games and constraints, but rather, through the work of Oulipians like Le Tellier, women are made to feel as if, time and again, we have no place as subjects and agents of literature; we are only its objects. Feminism and the Oulipo have more in common than one might think. Like Queneau and Perec, feminists have attempted to read life and literature against the grain. Critics like Rachel Blau Duplessis have argued that all existing poetic forms are fundamentally “male-gendered.” Feminist poets must address this formally: “Nothing changes by changing the content only.” The Oulipo, however, depends on pre-established (male-gendered) poetic forms like the sonnet and the sestina to provide a basic constraint. Other feminist critics from Barbara Guest to Adrienne Rich have proposed various degrees of rupture; insisting, as Kathleen Fraser writes, “on the primacy of reinventing language structures in order to catch one’s own at-oddsness with the presumed superiority of the central mainstream vision.”
This is what Spahr and Young were getting at in their manifesto: that the (masculinist) techniques of the Oulipo were considered still to have relevance while the (feminist) body-based arts which evolved at approximately the same time are now considered heavy-handed and narcissistic. This was not intended as a critique of constraint itself but rather of what the privileging of Oulipian procedure and the dismissal of body-based arts implied, what was “slenderized”
We did not feel this wok that uses constaint was ielevant, not to men no to women. We did not want to dismiss it. When we liked this wok by men we saw the eteat into constaint as an attempt by men to avoid pepetuating bougeois pivilege, to make fun of the omantic nacissistic tadition, of all that tadition of fomalism. But at othe moments we ween’t so sue that this was eally a feminist, antiacist self-investigation. While this wok diectly avoided emotional and pesonal expessiveness, it was mostly engaged with conceptual inventiveness, not an especially adical move post the tun of the centuy.
Whatever one’s methods, avant-garde art must stage a continual intervention in the status quo if it is to resist being co-opted, and defused, by the mainstream.