Writing, and possibly everything, is at some level a game. Herbert Quain, one of Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional fictioneers, defines a game’s features as “symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium”; in another Borges creation, “The Library of Babel,” the game is unwinnable—unplayable, even: all books, all combinations of letters (even gibberish), already exist and are contained therein, but given the mathematically nightmarish vastness of the holdings, one cannot hope to locate anything meaningful. The work of the Oulipo, the Paris-based group of writers and mathematicians whose projects are described in this sumptuous Compendium, often seems Borgesian in spirit: cofounder Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Poems (10 sonnets with corresponding lines sharing the same end-rhym, affording 100 trillion possibilities) could be a game devised by Quain. The Oulipo, whose name abbreviates the French for “Workshop for Potential Literature,” is a language laboratory in the truest sense. Texts, words, even individual letters are subject to an array of stresses and distortions. Generally, the resultant chimeras are abundantly playful, undercutting the insanity that lurks in the corridors of the Library of Babel.
The Oulipo Compendium consists mainly of a small encyclopedia, equal parts spellbook and bestiary, presenting vivid personalities, jaw-dropping lexical acrobatics, and hermetic arcana (meeting minutes, small-run fascicles). It begins with “Abish, Walter,” a non-member whose antic Alphabetical Africa crams the frame (chapter A’s words all begin with a, B’s with a or b, and so on to Z—from whence the march back, proscribing one letter at a time until, again, as alone are admissible). After many lucid and ludic entries, the funhouse closes tragically, with another sympathetic spirit, “Zürn, Unica”—anagrammist extraordinaire, schizophrenic, suicide. (Perhaps the Borgesian whisper of madness is never completely abolished.) The listings themselves constitute a work of art: a convoluted policier, or a skeleton version of the Petit Norbert—the true Oulipian encyclopedia conceived of in 1991 that seems destined never to be completed. (This book appends sections on Oulipian practices applied to the mystery novel, painting, and other genres.)
The Compendium showcases the incredible. Some entries get by on sheer conceptual chutzpah and feature tortured nomenclature (homovocalism, in which only one vowel is employed; liponymy, in which any word can be used only once; threnodials, consisting of hard-to-maneuever anagrams of “threnodials”—a word containing the dozen most common letters). Some yield jokes: the N+7 technique replaces a noun in a source text with the one found seven dictionaries hence (e.g., “To be or not to be: that is the quibble”). And some resemble teratological freaks: Dallas Wiebe’s “left-handed lipogram” allows only letters on the left side of the keyboard, and the resulting tale, rebarbative with octothorps (subbing for unattainable periods and commas), is as sinister as the imagined accident that might render one manually halved.
In the best selections, the formal constraints and the content are wrapped up together, as in the work of the late Georges Perec. His astonishing 1,247-word palindrome tracesits own inelegance; La Disparition (nimbly Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void) is a novel written sans e, a lack that generates both plot and atmosphere; and his epithalamia restrict themselves to the set of letters created by the newlyweds’ names, so symbolizing the private language that marriage mints. Perec’s death brought Oulipian rememberances most affectingly Luc Etienne’s fugue in the key of the author’s name, “Ce Repere Perec,” a funerary ricercar setting every line in a grid formed by the title’s letters.
Queneau called Oulipians “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.” They are would-be messiahs who build their own crosses, ancient mariners gunning for albatross. (In a French twist on this scene, the Compendium notes the unusual collocation of four silent es in a line of Baudelaire’s “L’albatros,” a poem comparing the captured bird to the empyrean poet trapped on this drab planet—then trumps it by citing, with deadpan erudition, the existence of “the 64 types of alexandrine determined by the positions within them of 0 to 4 vowels.”) Cigarettes, Harry Mathews’s only “purely Oulipian” novel, features a literal cross. A callow, masochistic writer allows himself to be crucified and tortured—an inscrutable, perverse action that occupies the center of the book. But it is this burden-bearer—freed like an Oulipian by self-imposed constraints—who becomes a writer, the gifted narrator who has composed the elegant book we’ve been reading and who will have hidden the combinatorial machinery that one suspects underlies the book’s structure.
Practitioners of gematria, by assigning numbers to letters and transposing equivalent word-sums throughout the Torah, have made dubious progress in revealing God’s message. The Oulipo has more fun, but one can’t shake the suspicion that a spiritual quest is afoot. This might explain not only their permutations and dream alexandrines, their absent es and mute-in-es, but their happy survival of nearly 40 years. Their rage to order valiantly battles what Borges calls “leagues of insensate cacophony”: the awful, written din of the universe, a sound indistinguishable from silence (or perhaps the borborygm of too much contemporary “creative” writing). One finishes the Compendium abuzz and amused, eager to see what creatures will next emerge from such prodigious alembics.
—n.b. from The Reader’s Catalog*, Winter 1999
*I am not even sure what this was.