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The End of Oulipo ?
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B : solid pieces considering the (possible) exhaustion of literary experimentation (and the Oulipo)
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
[Disclaimer: While I actually met Scott Esposito in person for the first time when he handed me this book, we have of course long been in contact in our Internet-related capacities (dating back to the litblog co-op) as well as in the course of the judging-debates (we've both been judges) for the Best Translated Book Award these past few years. Similarly -- if to a far lesser extent -- I have long 'known' Lauren Elkin online as well. I like to think this doesn't affect my judgment, but readers may think it is relevant. (Note also that I am quoted twice in Elkin's essay in The End of Oulipo ?)]
The Oulipo -- 'Ouvroir de littérature potentielle', or 'workshop of potential literature' -- was founded in 1960 and became one of the best-known literary movements of the twentieth century, famous for the games, both subtle and obvious, they play with their literary creations, using a variety of self-imposed constraints in the writing of their texts.
Prominent members include [membership apparently does not expire with death] co-founder Raymond Queneau, as well as Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, Oskar Pastior, Harry Mathews, and Georges Perec.
Queneau's Exercises in Style pre-dates the group, but offers a classic example of the forms of repetition and variation that Oulipians would embrace; in their Preface Elkin and Esposito suggest Queneau's near-infinite variation sonnet-series, Cent mille milliards de poèmes, as typical of: "Oulipo's aspirations: a great Oulipian work is both a statement of what it knows and a gesture toward something infinitely larger than itself".
Perhaps the best known-as-an-Oulipian-work is Perec's La disparition (translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void) -- a novel written entirely without the vowel e -- while more widely read modern classics such as Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler and Perec's Life A User's Manual are also -- if not necessarily as immediately obviously -- Oulipian through and through.
Can potential literature outlive its potential ? Is the inevitable progression of an avant-garde group from fringe to mainstream ?The Oulipo embraces potentiality in its very name -- but can that be exhausted ? In the case of the Oulipo, the question is compounded by its tendency towards literally exhaustive works: from Queneau's near-infinite sonnet series to Perec's Life A User's Manual (which, Esposito notes, David Bellos called a novel that exhausts all forms) -- or, of course, Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. It suggests the possibility of totality and finality, a point where the exercise has run its course, with nothing to be gained from continuing. Indeed, as entertaining as the lipogrammatic novel La disparition may be, surely there's no need to repeat that exercise in other variations (a-less, i-less, o-less novels ...) (Or is there ? This exhaustive novel alone has already engendered no less than three English renderings: Gilbert Adair's A Void is the only generally available translation of Perec's book in English, but fellow Oulipian Ian Monk as well as John Lee have reportedly also completed their own versions.)
In making their case that there are signs the Oulipo is in danger of exhausting itself (or, more pointedly, that it's become a group dominated by rather tired old men (or at least tired old-men thinking)), Elkin and Esposito tread on somewhat dangerous ground in noting, early on:
None of the Oulipian works that have made their way into English in the past decade (with the possible exception of Jacques Roubaud's "great fire of London" project) can rival the best work published during the group's staggeringly successful run through the 1960s and 1970s.The problematic limitation in this statement is of course that of considering only 'works that have made their way into English', as if that were the measure of all (or any ...) things. For one, it must be noted how very little Oulipian work gets translated: yes, Hervé Le Tellier had a banner year in 2011, as Elkin points out, and Dalkey has published several Jacques Jouet works in the past few years -- but, in fact, English-speaking readers have seen relatively little Oulipian work over the past decade, and very little recent work: of the four Jouet titles published in English the most recent was originally published in French in 2003, for example, and while lots of wonderful little Georges Perec translations have been padding Oulipo-in-English totals ... well, the guy died in 1982. So also the last book from Roubaud's fascinating project to appear in English was Mathematics: -- published in 2012, by Dalkey Archive Press -- but that book came out in French in 1997, and Roubaud has since published at least four further volumes in the series, all of which are still inaccessible to English readers -- not to mention all the other books he has published.
Only a selection of the French titles by Oulipo authors (and the majority of the Oulipo's output remains French) have been translated into English in the past decade -- and very few of these were originally written in the past decade.. Dalkey Archive Press has dominated the field (which means that the editors there have also shaped the English-language perception of the Oulipo, in deciding what is made accessible to readers), with a smattering of other work brought out by the University of Nebraska Press (works by Marcel Bénabou, for example) and Other Press (Le Tellier), as well as small presses that have brought out works by Ian Monk, and dug up all those old Georges Perec texts, for example. On the other hand, significant contemporary Oulipians -- first and foremost Paul Fournel, I would think, but also, as Elkin notes, women such as Anne Garréta -- have gone largely untranslated. While Esposito might be correct in his assessment that there is not much more to Jacques Jouet's work, there certainly is much more of it than the four thin works that have been translated (and it's probably worth considering his work as whole before judging too severely ...).
Elkin does address some of the untranslated work, Esposito by and large does not (Perec's Je me souviens is of interest, but the omissions that are more glaring are, of course, of the more recent work), and this makes for an incomplete picture of the movement and, in particular, where it is currently at: Esposito's piece takes Eight Glances Past Georges Perec -- so its title -- but tellingly the glances more often rest on those outside Oulipo (while the Oulipo has now lasted longer sans Perec than it did with him (indeed, an active (in this case: living) member only between 1967 and 1982, his career -- stellar though it was -- only covers a long bygone chapter of Oulipian history)). Elkin helps fill in some of the contemporary blanks, but for all their disappointment in the post-1970s Oulipo work there is too little (and certainly too selective a) discussion of it.
(Naturally, Esposito and Elkin are drawn to what is accessible to their (English-speaking) readers, whereas a more representative (of the group) starting and reference point would surely be the Bibliothèque Oulipienne. As to the written-in-English works, Harry Mathews' My Life In CIA seems likely to be a lasting one (by an Oulipian, from the last decade) -- if not quite in the highest ranks. Oddly, neither author addresses the problems with most successful written-in-English text by an Oulipian in recent memory: Daniel Levin Becker's much-mentioned Many Subtle Channels. Surely, it's not without significance to the point they're trying to make (as well as being revealing about the state of American publishing and what sort of titles a major publisher (Harvard University Press) is willing to back) that the first book published by this freshly-anointed (co-opted) Oulipian is something as tame and tired as a history-cum-insider-account of the movement. Yes, it's creative non-fiction, but it's still emphatically non-fiction and certainly doesn't take literary potential very far. Gossipy as much as it is analytic, it surely isn't much more impressive as a literary text than many of the works that Esposito and Elkin criticize -- and shares the fault of being oriented towards what the reader might want rather than what the text (and its constraints) demand or allow, a focus and emphasis that seems decidedly un-Oulipian. (Admittedly, a very large amount of Oulipian work has always been, beyond just introspective and self-referential, expository -- the Oulipo trying to explain itself -- and Levin Becker's book is a welcome addition to the literature about Oulipo -- but it is a book about Oulipo, much more than it is of Oulipo, and I suspect that, just like me, what Esposito and Elkin are after is writing that comes from ... within, so to speak (the group, the constraints, the tradition, etc. (and in opposition to all these as well)).)
The first of the two essays in The End of Oulipo ? is Eight Glances Past Georges Perec by Scott Esposito. Interestingly, he opens his piece with a reference to David Shields' 2010 book, Reality Hunger, suggesting it is: "the closest thing we have to a mass-consumed literary manifesto for our times" -- and noting that, for all that (and for all the "several hundred writers he proceeds to plagiarize") Georges Perec (and, indeed, the Oulipo in general) is entirely overlooked by Shields -- a rather glaring omission. It's an interesting observation -- but its meaningfulness depends on Shields being considered an actual sort of literary/cultural authority (as opposed to just being widely read, or at least mentioned), which it is not clear to me he is.
(In a follow-up, How literature saved my life, Shields lists: "fifty-five works I swear by", and it, too, is Oulipo-less; while he does include Joe Brainard's (Perec- and many others inspiring) I remember and David Markson's Vanishing Point, as well as some other formally creative works, his interest clearly seems to lie in writing that is extremely personal ("The only books I care about strip the writer naked") and he presumably finds Oulipian constraints a barrier to the viscerality he is seeking. It's worth noting, however, that the two post-Perecian Oulipian works Esposito seems most enthusiastic about -- Roubaud's 'great fire of London'-project and Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels -- are essentially personal texts of, at least in part, self-examination (the Roubaud more so that the Levin Becker) -- and, indeed, it's hard to imagine Shields wouldn't be fan of, for example, The Great Fire of London (in which Roubaud writes: "I've devoted myself to the enterprise of destroying my memory") if he were aware of it.)
If Shields is our guide to what literature now is, or can be (or should be), then this seems a valid starting point -- but Shields' seems a very narrow, if not outright blind, alley to go down. Oulipo arose out of a different culture -- and, indeed, the most interesting question Shields' omissions raise is whether or not it has a place in this culture (whereby for Esposito, and even more so, it seems, for Shields, this is specifically contemporary American culture).
To return again to the issue of what is available in English: the picture of the Oulipo here in the English-speaking world is one that is necessarily refracted through the editorial decisions of a small number of publishers and the availability of a limited and select number of books (dominated by old-guard Perec, and then the not-quite-seen-as-solely-Oulipian Queneau and Calvino). In other words, the American image of Oulipo is of it as decidedly fringe and a bit old(-fashioned) -- while something like Shields' work passes for more cutting-edge experimental (at least in that peculiar American mainstream-accepted-way). So also, for example, as Elkin discusses at greater length (and as is also described in Many Subtle Channels), in France the Oulipo has become much more performance-oriented, reaching and engaging with the public in an entirely different way -- something that is clearly missing in America (despite the occasional Oulipian show that is put on there).
(One final note regarding the marginalization (or ignorance) of Oulipo in the English-speaking world and literary-manifesto-like pronouncements: two recent books by (conservative, Marxist) literary critic Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature and How to Read Literature (2013), do mention many of the same authors Esposito notes Shields plagiarized -- Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Naipaul, Samuel Beckett -- but Eagleton also sees fit to entirely ignore the Oulipo.)
Moving on to Perec and his work, Esposito is on firmer ground in suggesting what the author tried, and accomplished -- most notably with Life A User's Manual. Specifically, Esposito suggests of Perec:
His is a way of looking that is governed by very precise rules, the most fundamental of which is exhaustion. Quite simply, exhaustion is inscribed in everything Georges Perec ever wrote.And:
Even in his first attempts at literature, Perec created complex formal systems which he then attempted to exhaust.But Perec always liked to work within carefully circumscribed parameters -- at its most fundamental in the crossword puzzles he regularly wrote (something Esposito does not make much of). Even in what may seem the most obviously exhaustive of his works -- the ones which are, essentially, just lists (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is just one of many of such exercises) -- Perec was surely also aware that the subject-matter cannot be truly exhausted: as in the Borgesian map, ever-more detailed, there truly is no end; it's always possible to go further and to list more. Indeed, I'd argue Perec's great achievement, and the key to his popular success, was in creating works that intimated exhaustion but also achieved a sense of completion -- most notably with Life A User's Manual (but also tantalizingly suggested in the unfinished 53 Days).
Esposito seems to want to hold up the Oulipo to a Perecian standard of exhaustion. The appeal of the "totalizing scope" of Life A User's Manual is understandable, but is that what Oulipo (and Oulipians ?) aspire to ? The vast majority of Oulipian work consists of very short works that are, in fact, 'exercises in style' (and not just ones in the original, Queaneauian sense): attempts to see what working with specific constraints allows for and leads to, but often not pursued in particularly exhaustive fashion). So also at one point Esposito suggests: "Oulipo is best construed as an attempt to develop new forms that can withstand the strains of being made novelistic", which seems flat-out wrong: a vast amount of Oulipian work centers entirely around poetry and verse; Esposito seems much more drawn to the larger prose works of the Oulipians, but the poetry is surely as significant.
Esposito suggests as a counter-example to Perec
The Oulipian who today most energetically rebuts the idea of one gigantic, career-girding mega-work is probably Jacques Jouet.Esposito mentions Jouet's 'metro poems' -- a rather silly-sounding exercise (and, as Esposito quotes Levin Becker as noting, of dubious Oulipian value, in that their constraint is unverifiable) that nevertheless surely has some validity: perhaps not more than the 'automatic writing' the Surrealists once practiced, but nevertheless (and surely also not really that different -- if perhaps less accomplished -- an exercise than Perec's own An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris). If Jouet has (thus far) not tended towards a 'career-girding mega-work', he nevertheless has repeatedly returned to 'the Republic' in his fiction (it features in a sizable selection of his large output); English-speaking readers can get a taste of that with Mountain R, but that's only a small part of it. A more interesting chapter is the massive La République de Mek-Ouyes -- serialized and also broadcast, another attempt at real-time engagement with his audience and his surroundings that Jouet seems to be particularly interested in. (In writing about Jouet, Warren Motte suggests: "La République de Mek-Ouyes insistently questions its own terms and the conditions that enable a serial novel. For example, what is the relation, it asks, between the episodic rhythm of composition and the interrupted rhythm of reading ? What are the specific uses of a serial novel ?" -- which seem like interesting (and worthwhile and valid) questions and surely makes for an interesting exercise, and surely suggest that there's more to Jouet's 'Republic'-books than their merely being: "pedestrian satires of political excess" (which is how Esposito appears to dismiss them, without a closer look)). Harping on the 'metro poems' (and taking advantage of how little of Jouet's work -- including these -- is accessible to English-speaking readers), Esposito doesn't seem to do him (much less his work) justice.
Esposito is more enthusiastic about Jacques Roubaud -- or at least his "great fire of London" series (oddly, he ignores the larger body of Roubaud's work available in English). A more unwieldy 'gigantic, career-girding mega-work', he notes that it's a useful counter-example to: "the fallacy of requiring unity in literature"; as a far-more contemporary Oulipian work, it might also have served as a better anchor for an essay wondering about the end of Oulipo than Perec's work of yesteryear.
In looking towards other authors that may be fulfilling Oulipian aspirations -- towards exhaustiveness and completeness -- Esposito then also (or especially) looks beyond the Oulipo. The work of César Aira, he suggests, "offers an example of what Jouet's aspirations might look like" -- which doesn't seem quite fair to either author; nevertheless, Aira -- though hardly Oulipian in the basics of his approaches -- is certainly producing a fascinating body of work. Tom McCarthy's Remainder is another excellent example Esposito draws into his discussion -- yet even while amusingly suggesting McCarthy be co-opted into Oulipo (in a timeline-postscript to the book), Esposito gives a suspiciously wide berth to McCarthy's less satisfying (certainly for this model) later novels.
Esposito also suggests Edouard Levé may be the recent French author who best: "exemplifies Georges Perec's philosophy of exhausting a subject"; certainly the brilliantly conceived Œuvres -- a work of exhaustive potentiality -- is entirely in the Perecian spirit (though, sadly, also not yet available in English). But, of course, the attempts to exhaust an idea in works such as Autoportrait or Amérique (another very clever concept-book of photographs of American cities that share the names of better-known cities elsewhere (à la Paris, Texas)) are also, in a sense, inexhaustible: what Levé presented was a (not quite arbitrary) selection -- deeming it complete when he had had enough of the idea, rather than when he had truly exhausted it.
The work of Christian Bök is an appropriate culmination to Esposito's essay -- Oulipian alternatives that are exhaustive (and feel more cutting edge -- DNA !). It also neatly bookends with the first-page mention of Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes, returning also to poetry (which doesn't count for much in the rest of Esposito's essay, beyond the dismissive treatment of Jouet's 'metro poems' (as even something like Jouet's 107 âmes goes unmentioned)).
There is, of course, more to Oulipian-type exhaustion: some more titles are listed in the bibliography, from Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (endless, in one of its readings) to Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood. Missing are mentions or discussions of closer-to-home works such as Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa (exhaustive, too -- but also with those slight imperfections that Perec could only dream of ...) or a more popular works such as Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea.
These many examples -- both the ones Esposito mentions and many beyond those -- suggest (unsurprisingly, surely) considerable remaining potential to Oulipian ideas and ideals, both within and outside the movement. Esposito is convinced of the potential -- even as he sees it happening largely outside the movement itself -- and so in a sense his answer to the titular question does not see an end to at least the larger Oulipian ideal (though he seems to have considerable (if underdeveloped, since they're only based on a very limited sample of work) reservations about where the group itself is headed.
Lauren Elkin's Oulipo Lite sees the Oulipo faltering in an entirely different way, and her critique is much more closely based on the group's composition and current work. Recognizing the difficulty of coming up with anything truly new, the Oulipo is somewhat mired in the past, much of its work now performance-based (whereby it should be noted, however, that the 'workshop' aspect has been in the name ('ouvroir') from the beginning). Beyond that, however, she's particularly annoyed by the work of popular (and successful) Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier, and what it represents. She considers (correctly, in my opinion) Le Tellier's work: "diverting but, on the whole, philosophically unserious".
The publication of four Le Tellier works in English translation (even if one, The Intervention of a Good Man, was only made available in e-formats) in 2011 certainly was remarkable -- for an Oulipo author, or indeed any foreign author -- and warrants a closer look. Why him ? Why, of all the untranslated Oulipian works (and there are mounds of it), these ?
Elkin is particularly bothered by the latent sexism that pervades his (and so many French authors' ...) work, and is concerned about the shadow it casts on Oulipo itself -- a larger shadow, given Le Tellier's success as it now also moves abroad.
It's a valid and important point -- and also returns us to the question of what Oulipo works get translated into English. The four Le Telliers were published, two each, by Dalkey Archive Press and Other Press. Dalkey remains -- by a wide margin -- the leading publisher of post-Perecian Oulipo works in English; as noted, for example, by Ruth Franklin in a piece at The New Republic about the gender bias in books reviewed in literary periodicals, it's also among the most sexist (or at least one-sidedly-male-authored-books-publishing) publishers out there, women authors making up, at her count, at that time (2010), only 10 per cent of all the books Dalkey published. It's unclear whether Dalkey might be drawn to Oulipo works specifically because they are likely to have been written by men (as Elkin then discusses at greater length, the Oulipo's female output has been limited until recently), or whether it's just a coincidence; regardless, it's something to think about.
(Readers of this site should note that it, too, is pervasively and shockingly consistently sexist: as I've frequently mentioned and discussed, historically (and very consistently) only about 15 per cent of all titles reviewed at the complete review are authored by women. It's not (consciously) intentional, and it can be partially explained by the imbalance in what gets translated (unlike books written in English, translations into English are still skewed to a predominantly male authorship, albeit not as badly as the review-skew found here) -- but there's clearly a fundamental sexism at work here. (Again raising the question of what leads to what: a lot of Oulipian titles are reviewed here (and only one from that list is authored by a woman); a lot Dalkey Archive Press titles are reviewed here (at over a hundred, few publishers are better represented here) .....)
Elkin's look at the place of women in the Oulipo is devastating, beginning with the simple fact of how few women members there are (and how long it took to admit them). Disturbingly amusing asides include the observation:
The group seems to have decided, when appointing female members, to employ the constraint that they must be named some variant of Michelle.But the real point and question is why the Oulipo hasn't been more welcoming and inclusive. Is it the maths ? The male-club-environment (Elkin suggests: "like most research groups, the Oulipo is indeed a métier d'homme" -- or at least certainly likes to behave that way) no doubt plays a role. But as to the essence -- well, as Elkin cleverly puts it:
Women writers are virtuosos at operating within constrained circumstances.Dissecting the four Le Tellier works -- and they nicely lend themselves to that -- Elkin suggests:
The Oulipo will be fine if it can shed this chauvinist inheritance, and it can learn instead to promote members like Anne Garréta, who in her novel Sphinx (1986) eliminates all references to her two main characters' genders. [...] Garréta's work is wide-ranging and provocative; Dalkey or Other would do well to publish her in English.Again, it's impossible not to return to the vexing question of what gets translated: readers may not be aware of it, but Garréta got her PhD from NYU, and she currently teaches at Duke (i.e. she's a longtime US resident), who -- one might imagine -- would thus be better placed to place her fiction with an American publisher than most of the Oulipians ..... Fat chance, apparently .....
[In one of the unfortunate typos in The End of Oulipo ? Elkin lauds McSweeney's for having published Garréta's "wonderful piece ''On Bookshelves' in 2007"; in fact, the piece is the more beautifully (and Oulipianly)-titled On Bookselves.]
Oulipo Lite offers a welcome push against a sexism that is too casually overlooked and brushed off. It may not seem the obvious introspection Oulipo should be aiming for, but Elkin makes a good case for shaking things up a bit in this way, to help the group move out of what has become a complacency that extends beyond sexism. Certainly, encouraging more female perspectives seems a promising way to move forward, and out of what may have become, in some ways, an Oulipian rut.
The End of Oulipo ? also includes an amusing postscript-timeline, 'A by no means exhaustive potential history of the Oulipo, in the form of a timeline', that not only covers the Oulipo past but also suggests some of what lies in the future ("2014 - Hervé Le Tellier, helped by Anne Garréta , Michelle Grangaud, Valérie Baudoin and Michèle Audin, writes a feminist manifesto"). Perhaps a bit premature with Roubaud's Nobel (2015), some of the other predictions are quite amusing -- and it's a fun idea. A bibliography of 'Further Reading' feels a bit thin, but as a basic starting point will certainly do.
The End of Oulipo ? doesn't suggest it's all over for the group, but rather finds that the group has bogged down a bit and perhaps gotten a bit off course. Esposito sees more promise elsewhere, while Elkin thinks revitalization from within has ... potential. Both essays raise important issues and questions; in Esposito's case the Oulipo per se is perhaps not the ideal hook for his essay -- too much Perec (who died more than thirty years ago) and too little (awareness of) more recent Oulipian work distract from what is otherwise a fairly well-argued thesis. Le Tellier is a gift to Elkin, and she makes an example of him with practiced, near-deadly ease in a piece that's also very entertainingly conceived. The authors don't come close to exhausting their subject(s), but The End of Oulipo ? is well worthwhile for anyone interested in engaging with contemporary literature.
- M.A.Orthofer, 5 June 2013
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American author and critic Lauren Elkin lives in France.
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