Reality’s Algorithm

Pierre Daniel Huet wrote Traité sur l’origine des romans in 1670, asked to do so by Segrais, nom de plume of Mme de Lafayette, author of what is commonly called the first French novel, La Princesse de Clèves, first published without the author’s name. The novel as a literary genre is born of confusion. For the French of the 17th century, the novel was a source of shame. It was writing for the masses, it corrupted morals, it was not edifying, its sources were common, its structure undefined. Novelists have battled back. How does the Oulipian novel, a contemporary phenomenon, remachine a genre whose footing is none other than loose?

Thanks to the novel’s flexibility anything is possible, which explains why it is the target of sustained criticism, theoretical dismantling, and constant overhauls. The Surrealist pretense was to liberate consciousness and ignite world revolution through poetry so they virtually rejected the novel. If, according to Surrealist pretensions, by performing tabula rasa with all previous literary endeavors, the depths of the ego, the id, and all dreams were to be gauged, then what will happen when the author-mathematicians (or any combination thereof) laboring in the Oulipian laboratory take on the novel?

The Surrealists failed to bring about world revolution, but left us with works of great beauty, perspicacity, wonder and human insight. Paul Eluard’s poetry and Dali’s clocks will not fade from our deep-seated images of time and psychic possibilities. In that vein, let us consider what inner imprints Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi has left on the mind. Placed next to André Breton’s Nadja, a novel it appears he could not avoid writing, stark differences appear. Nadja exposes the chance revelations, psychic and subconscious, of everyday happenstance. Perec disassembles the novel and connects its reconstruction to not only the narration of one’s life, but also to the actual spending of it. His novel leaves the reader with exactly what its title alludes to: a user’s manual for fabricating a life. It starts from the bottom up, from the deathly fear that life is meaningless and meanders through existence—time that is—to return to that original fear. Life is meaningless but that does not mean it can be avoided. All of literature, deftly woven into Perec’s novel, confirms the author’s premise.

What is crucial to recognize in Perec’s Life A User’s Manuel (David Bellos’ translation) is the extent to which the novel itself is dismanteled and resurrected. Perec generated, constructed and wrote a novel from mathematical grids and literary constraints that are unique. The novel looks behind the windows of a Parisian apartment house, whose façade is 10X10. Perec performs the mathematical feat of performing the Knight’s Tour, where the knight touches each square only once, of this enlarged 8X8 chessboard, and intertwines the lives of those who reside within. Not only is the order of the chapters generated by a mathematical combinatory, but each of the chapters contains key words, figures, objects, quotes, colors, themes, names and more, determined in advanced by Perec’s mathematical grids. It might well be the only chef d’oeuvre of the group Oulipo because, as Jacques Roubaud, a prominent member of the group, states, it is built on an “architecture of Oulipian constraints arranged oulipianlly.”

To connect life to the novel, how old is that? What may be less evident is the relationship between the novel’s evolving reconstruction and societal reconstruction. An interesting comparison to make here is between the theoretical writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, of nouveau roman fame, and that of Perec before becoming a member of Oulipo. For Perec writing had to react to the shock of post WW II France and to the burgeoning bourgeoisie. A social imperative demanded from art the fostering of new forms through restructuring. Capitalism had to be countered. Literature had a role to play. The future, for Perec, had to be built upon the past, not reduced to the platitude of its surface. What concerned Perec was to construct the present (future) through experimentation on the past. Stories and narratives, literature, point the way out of all of life’s impasses. The Oulipian novel does not only recount and enrich life, it actually messes with reality: it can be life’s manual.

Reality, it suffices to say, is more and more indecipherable. To decipher, the Shorter Oxford indicates, comes from the French déchiffrer, which puts us into direct contact with numbers. Reality, as incredibly varied, confusing and fluid as it is, cries out for order; how better to make something of it than to put it into numbers? To abstract reality is to clothe it in the most compelling and enveloping of robes: the universal language, mathematics. Such abstraction opens up so many possibilities as it crosses all borders, cracks all languages, deploys in all cultures. Although mathematics is not the only basis of Oulipian experimentation, it was here that the invention of many Oulipian constraints began.

Oulipo’s co-founder Raymond Queneau’s novel Le Chiendent (1933) is based on mathematical constraints just like Jacques Roubaud’s Hortense series of detective stories is based on the mathematics of the sestina. However, for an example of an Oulipian novel not based on mathematics, Jacques Jouet’s novel La Montagne R is based on different levels of language; that of the President of the Republic, a writer, or of woman interviewing her father.1 Hervé Le Tellier’s Le Voleur de nostalgie plays out the possibilities of the epistolary novel in contemporary Europe and its strategies, like those of Les liaisons dangereuses, are directly influenced by battle plans. At the same time, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler intertwines chapters about “you” the reader with chapters offering up only the beginnings of novels. Calvino based the novel’s structure on the figure of a square in which each corner represented the protagonists; as the novel progresses the number of squares per chapter increases, creating more and more intricate relationships. Anna Garréta, in Pas un jour, intelligently and delicately discusses her lesbian lovers based on the first letter of their last names, using the alphabet to order her autobiographical chapters. Yet herein lies the hitch: one of the chapters is fiction and yet again the reader of the Oulipian ‘novel’ is left wondering about the real parts of life.

Each of the above novels reinvents the genre without putting its existence into question. When reading these books there is no doubt they are novels. The reality they configure is often the one enveloping the reader at the time of reading; their reality is one of reading.

Roland Barthes writes in S/Z that the form of the classical text is “not unitary architectonic, finite: it is the fragment, the shards, the broken or obliterated network—all the movements and inflections of a vast ‘dissolve,’ which permits both overlapping and loss of messages.” The writing of the Oulipo is not classical; it is, in Barthes terms, “scriptible.” It demands deeper and deeper reader participation in order to reconstruct its past. The attuned consciousness of the Oulipian text recognizes intuitively the “obliterated network,” the “vast dissolve” and the lost “messages” of the classical text and in a piafian manner it ne regrette rien. The mathematical and linguistic rebuilding of the novel is by no means an end or a beginning, it is, as the group’s other co-founder François Le Lionnais declared in the first manifestos of the group, what literature does anyway.

Imagine, again, the possibilities. Imagine the novel abstracted, reconfigured and reduced to its algorithms. Imagine that this algorithm is a wiki, a website to which all have access and to which all can contribute, an equation that all can modify at their will. Imagine, you the reader, receiving such an algorithm as an attached file and trying to open it. Choose your software, click, and reality appears in a form yet to be conceived. Call it literature. It has always been there. Imagine.

Infants, future readers, are born into preconfigured spaces, preconfigured by the underlying architecture of culture. The life into which we arrive is a pre-fab. The books we read are the offspring of their parent books. Life and reading are the same. Where to go? We, readers and writers, owe ourselves and our offspring pathways that lead to somewhere other than the past. Reconfiguring the ‘genetic’ mathematics of culture’s algorithms can’t hurt.


  1. 1. See Warren Motte, “Jacques Jouet and the Literature of Exhaustion,” SubStance (96, 30:3) 2001 45-63.