Potential Literature, Actual Reading: Regarding Oulipo in 2013

Raymond Queneau
Raymond Queneau

If you like your literature Francophile and theoretical, then the name Oulipo is one that likely resonates with you. And 2013 has already given us numerous reasons to think about this movement’s influence, history, and status: New Directions has released a 65th anniversary edition of Oulipo fouder Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, and Zero Books has published The End of Oulipo? by critics Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito. Each leaves the reader with much to consider: questions of legacy and influence; the ability of experimental literature to delight; the possible codification of experimentation. Both works are also deeply enjoyable reads, whether it’s experimental fiction or incisive criticism you’re after.

Queneau’s book is iconic: it takes one small interaction and reassembles it in a host of genres, styles, and linguistic experiments. (It’s also inspired works in other disciplines: Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story takes a similar approach to sequential art.) This edition features ten additional excercises, from writers as varied as Queneau’s Oulipo colleague Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Amelia Gray, and Ben Marcus. Gray’s “Viscera” is the most physical of the new contributions; Jesse Ball’s “Instructions” and Mathews’s “For zeu Frentsch” most directly emulate Queneau’s style. The continuum created by these new works, however, establishes a pretty direct statement of influence on a new generation of writers — a clear display of artistic lineage.

Elkin and Esposito’s book may leave readers feeling more ambivalent about the current state of all things Oulipo. It consists of two long essays: Esposito’s “Eight Glances Past Georges Perec,” and Elkin’s “Oulipo Lite.” Both are excellent examples of literary criticism: Esposito delves into Oulipo’s history and the current state of experimental literature to posit the idea that Oulipo’s greatest influence is on writers who do not themselves identify with the movement: poet Christian Bök and novelist Tom McCarthy, among others. Elkin’s essay focuses on Hervé Le Tellier, a French member of the Oulipo whose work has lately received abundant praise in the US, and whose work raises unpleasant questions related to gender and sexuality.

Early in the essay, Elkin notes Harry Mathews’s contention that Oulipo work must produce “valid literary results.” There’s an implied critique of Le Tellier in here — of work that doesn’t stand on its own without working knowledge of its structural configuration. Elkin’s essay also makes the case for an English-language publisher to translate Anne Garréta’s work; based on the descriptions of it found here, I’d certainly sign up to exchange cash for these editions.

For all that they’re skeptical about the current state of Oulipo, Elkin and Esposito do leave the reader with a lot to think about — and possibly a lot to read. The suggested reading list at book’s end contains both Oulipo-affiliated books by the likes of Perec and Mathews and stylistically resonant works such as Joe Brainard’s I Remember. Looking at this list, and at the contributors to the new edition of Queneau’s book, one gets a sense of the breadth of the Oulipo’s influence — may it continue to inspire and take on new permutations for decades more to come. And it’s possible that it will: at a recent appearance at 192 Books, Harry Mathews offered two conflicting accounts of how he had come to meet his wife, the prodigiously talented writer Marie Chaix. The effect was charming, subtle, and altogether compelling, showcasing the power that can come when a traditional kind of story is turned into something more mysterious.

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