On the face of it, there is a great deal in this book to baffle even the most open-minded of English-speaking readers. It is essentially an account of the life and times of the Oulipo group, a Paris-based coalition of writers, mathematicians and artists that was set up in 1960 with the express intention of making life difficult for its members and readers. The clue to the real nature of the group is in the acronym ‘Oulipo’ – which, when unpacked, stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature. This is meant to describe the practice of Oulipo members, who deliberately set themselves constraints on their writing. These can include palindromes, lipograms (excluding one or more letters), the snowball (a poem in which the first line is a single word, the second two words, and so on) and other myriad forms of self-imposed difficulty. The big idea is that if you set off to write, let’s say, a short story by deliberately forcing yourself to replace every seventh noun in the text with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary then you are bound to end up somewhere unexpected. Hence the term ‘potential literature’. From this point of view, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is no more than a particularly mirthless form of linguistic trickiness for its own sake; a kind of highbrow Gallic version of Scrabble or indeed the quiz show Countdown.
This book admirably demonstrates that this is not the case. Daniel Levin Becker was a student of French literature at Yale when he encountered the works of the Oulipo in the course of a standard review of twentieth-century French literature. He describes his first reaction as fascination, intrigue and then,