Literature, it goes without saying, has many more tricks up its sleeve than rhyme, metre and the dramatic unities. Take the Book of Lamentations. Four of its five chapters are alphabetic acrostics, its verses beginning, in order, with the letter aleph, then beth, then gimmel, and so on through the Hebrew alphabet. (Chapter three, at sixty-six verses, triples the constraint: aleph, aleph, aleph, beth, beth, beth, and so on.) Alphabetical order is used here as a kind of creative scaffolding, the sequence of the letters determining what the poet is allowed to do. Acrostics have come in for some rough criticism – tiresome amusements, the mark of the superficial rhymester – but there is nothing whimsical about the Lamentations, a sustained howl of despair at the destruction of Jerusalem: ‘How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow!’ The formal constraint has unleashed, rather than restricted, the poet.
For the Oulipo, a long-surviving Parisian literary coterie, the Book of Lamentations constitutes a type of work they call, with tongue in cheek, ‘anticipatory plagiarism’. Unusual forms and, especially, difficult constraints have been the Oulipo’s stock in trade since the group’s formation in 1960. At its monthly meetings, which have run almost uninterrupted ever since, pre-existing examples of constrained writing are collected and considered, while new forms are developed and discussed. A laboratory more than a writers’ group, the Oulipo has nevertheless provided us with a number of major works, among them Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition (published in English as A Void), in which the author shuns any words containing the letter E, and Italo Calvino’s 1979 postmodern romp Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller), in which the sections are organised according to a complex algorithm.
Once semi-secret, the group is now very much part of the literary landscape. In Paris, it gives monthly readings (‘les jeudis de l’Oulipo’) at the Bibliothèque Nationale, while a large exhibition based on the group’s extensive archives ran at the library’s Arsenal site a few years ago. Even though the principles of Oulipian writing might not have changed much since the group’s ‘Second Manifesto’ appeared in the early 1970s, the label avant-garde no longer seems apt for this well-loved institution and its venerable old hands. The world, it seems, has caught up with the joys of anagrams and lipograms. And where once English readers could keep up with the Oulipo in collections put out by small presses, notably Atlas and McSweeney’s, now, as if to confirm the group’s move into the mainstream, we have The Penguin Book of Oulipo, a bumper anthology that pulls together a hundred works by members, imitators and those inadvertent advance plagiarists.
The catholic selection policy is striking. The group has been known to come down hard on writers who take its name in vain, and as a consequence critics often treat it with a kind of deferential pedantry. Philip Terry, the volume’s editor, should be applauded for not kowtowing. His anthology plays fast and loose with the term ‘Oulipo’: perhaps we should call the works here ‘oulipian’ with a small O, rather than risk deploying the proprietary capital.
So, alongside work by the group’s members, here we find extracts from Christian Bök’s extraordinary long poem Eunoia (spot the constraint in this retelling of the Iliad: ‘When she remembers Greece, her seceded demesne, she feels wretched, left here, bereft, her needs never met’) and from Joe Brainard’s I Remember. We get to sample Christine Brooke-Rose’s Next, with its twenty-six alphabetically named narrators and its avoidance of the verb ‘to have’, and George Herbert’s wing-shaped poem, ‘Easter Wings’.
When the performance poet Juliana Spahr delivered a piece at a conference dedicated to the Oulipo and its influences, one of the group’s members sniffed that it was ‘only very distantly related to the Oulipo’. So much the better, then, that Spahr is represented here, the editor claiming the role of gatekeeper for himself. Except… except, what then does small-O oulipian mean? The simplest answer, surely, would be work that is written according to some rule, or complex of rules, different (harder, perhaps) to the ones we’ve known for centuries, such as those governing the sonnet, limerick or haiku. But a few of the works here don’t quite fit even that loose definition. The scene Terry has extracted from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland gestures towards number play but isn’t based on it; Borges’s ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ imagines a type of branching narratology but doesn’t try it out; Rabelais likes a good list, but the unordered list here is the very opposite of constrained writing.
In the final reckoning, however, breaking the big-O Oulipian shackles is a bold enough decision to outweigh these quibbles. And there is real gold in Terry’s selection. From within the Oulipo, Jacques Roubaud’s ‘Queneau in November’, a poetic homage to his late friend, is the perfect illustration of the Oulipian balancing act of producing writing that is both wry and moving at the same time. Anne Garréta’s novel Sphinx, which withholds the sex of its principal characters by avoiding any of the grammatical markers of gender (gendered pronouns, adjectival agreement, past participles of verbs taking être), is an Oulipian achievement to rival those of Perec or Calvino. Another masterpiece is Gilbert Adair’s freewheeling translation of Perec’s E-less novel. The extract included here is Adair’s take on Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (‘Quoth that Black Bird, “Not again”’). It is all Adair’s own work – Perec’s original contains a poem by Baudelaire instead – but like Perec’s work, like Wodehouse’s, it is a reminder of how great comic writing can be exhilarating in its lightness.
At the end of his life, Calvino suggested an image for the new millennium: ‘the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness’. This, surely, more than anything, is the Kitemark of the truly oulipian work: the leap of the poet-philosophers, whoever they may be, who possess the secret of lightness. Happily, this new collection abounds in such leaps.