Oulipo at 45

At the Château de Cerisy-la-Salle in the autumn of 1960, during a ten-day conference titled Une nouvelle défense et illustration de la langue française, dedicated to Raymond Queneau, the short-lived Séminaire de littérature Expérimentale (Selitex) was created, and would become the long-lasting Oulipo.

The idea of interrogating mathematics and the sciences in an attempt to develop new structures for literary works, which governed the birth of the group, initially belonged to the two accomplices Raymond Queneau and François le Lionnais. The first, a writer and mathematician; the second, a scientist by training and universal wonderer by vocation. For a long time they planned to get writers and mathematicians to work together in the field of literature — a response to surrealism and Sartrean engagement that was, at the very least, a bold one.

It will readily be said that the first members selected to embark on the Oulipian adventure composed a mosaic of characters worthy of a Queneau novel in vivo. In fact they are, for the most part, personalities rich in diverse potential and propelled by paradoxes that incline them to a transdisciplinary research: Jacques Bens is a writer, but he has performed studies in the “natural sciences,” Claude Berge is the great graph theorist, but also a sculptor and a specialist in the remote Asmat, Paul Braffort is an atomic engineer, but also a singer who will have his moment of glory at Olympia, Jean Queval is the absent-minded poet, but also the canny translator of Beowulf.… Add to that the fact that Noël Arnaud has lived through all the literary trends in play, Albert Marie Schmidt, who is familiar with the darkest corners of the French language, Jacques Duchateau, radio personality, Latis, the ‘Pataphysician who places the nascent Oulipo at the level of co-Commission of the Collège, Jean Lescure the cinephile poet, André Blavier, the Belgian Queneauphile, and briefly but significantly, Marcel Duchamp, linked to Queneau by audacity and Le Lionnais by chess.

All are united by the admiration they have for Queneau’s œuvre; all called him vous except for Le Lionnais and Lescure.

Queneau and Le Lionnais immediately establish a friendly atmosphere, full of laughter, but above all, hard-working, in which regularity plays an essential role. The meetings are monthly and take place according to an assiduous ritual that has not changed in the least. The undertakings of the early years are secret, since the proof is in the doing: the chance to solidify that which was no more than an intuition through examples and propitious discoveries. No doubt one may detect in these early stages the will to break with surrealist behavior (but certainly not with its intellectual heritage!), the hue and cry, the fits of rage, and the exclusions Queneau confessed to have suffered. It is still the case that the real balance between members is a major concern for the group’s internal life, as well as a respect for the moods, estrangements, silences, and changes of heart. This concern remained Queneau’s, until his death, since he had the de facto privilege of recruitment. It is therefore possible to say without risk of error that the second generation of Oulipians, whose recruitment began in 1966, is a Quenellian generation: Jacques Roubaud (1966), Georges Perec (1967), Marcel Bénabou and Luc Etienne (1969), Paul Fournel (1971), Harry Mathews and Italo Calvino (1973), Michèle Métail (1975).

With these new arrivals, the group leaves its hard-working silence and yields its first publications. Until then only published confidentially in Dossier 17 of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, Oulipian works enter the public sphere through the wide door of Gallimard’s collection Idées-poche: Oulipo, La littérature potentielle appears in 1973 and sees two further editions in Folio in 1988 and 1999. During this period the Bibliothèque Oulipienne also makes its appearance: fascicules in which collective or individual works are presented in print runs of 150 copies and later collected in volumes.

Beyond these works, which bear the group’s trademark, the individual publications of the group’s members will come to prove, in the course of this period, that Oulipian constraint can serve as a basis for major works that find a wide audience: Jacques Roubaud’s , Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi, Italo Calvino’s Si par une nuit d’hiver un voyageur, and Marcel Bénabou’s Comment je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres, to cite only a few of the most circulated titles.

At this point it is worth specifying that the role assigned to Oulipo is simply that of proposing a constraint, giving a model of that constraint, and thus, allowing it to meet the text that will take on its form. In this way, the Ouvroir is not a literary school in the classical sense of the term. There is no ideal Oulipian text. The proposed structure is like that of the sonnet, into which Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé may choose to pour their singular talent.

When it comes to their personal work, the members of the Ouvroir have differing attitudes with regard to constraint. Their use of constraint varies, ranging from shows of virtuosity to the greatest of discretion. The debate “Should one reveal one’s constraints?” enlivened the Ouvroir for a considerable time during the 1970s and 1980s, and responses to this question have been and continue to be diverse and paradoxical. From absolute mystery to partial revelation to total transparency, all the gradations have been put into practice, all reasoning validated.

When constraint is not manifest and does not constitute the core of the work, as it does in Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes or Perec’s La disparition, revelation appears to correspond, rather, to the author’s temperament: the mysterious Queneau leaves the task of deciphering the arithmetic in Le Chiendent to Claude Simonnet, the playful Perec does not lift more than a corner of the veil over one chapter of La vie mode d’emploi, the international Calvino does not reveal the structure of Si par une nuit d’hiver un voyageur to any but a few of his French readers. Harry Mathews, for his part, does not give away his constraint until it seems to him to be reproducible and reusable for further creations.…

For a long time, the idea that the presence of a constraint might cause readers to flee incited some Oulipians to maintain a prudent reserve that no longer has a place today.

After this period of consolidation and development comes the period of momentous disappearances: Queneau, Perec, Calvino, Luc Etienne, and François Le Lionnais. Of course, François Caradec and Jacques Jouet are recruited in 1983, but it is not until the nineties that the group emerges from its reserve and takes up its co-opting again with an eye toward maintaining the balance between mathematicians and writers, finding personalities rich in potential, establishing a growing space for women, preserving the general mood, and internationalizing, since it is certainly true that constraint does not recognize the borders of language. Pierre Rosenstiehl and Hervé Le Tellier joined in 1992, Oskar Pastior in 94, Michelle Grangaud and Bernard Cerquiglini in 95, Ian Monk in 98, Olivier Salon and Anne Garréta in 2000, Valérie Beaudouin in 2003 and Frédéric Forte in 2005.

It goes without saying that for these new members, the Oulipian project is noticeably different from the original project. It is no longer marked by the same doubts, and if it still aims to deepen the consideration of constraint, it is equally rich in new perspectives and new works. Oulipo has entered the world and its external life has taken on a breadth that does not delight all of the “elders,” but which no one can deny any longer.

The pedagogical efficacy of constraint has led to the development of training courses in which the public is confronted with the productive rigors of constraint and the appropriate use of form. These courses take place in every corner of France and around the globe, and have known a success that is not without a certain ambiguity in relation to the group’s initial objectives. Public readings have multiplied to the point that they have become regular events (“Oulipo Thursdays” held in Paris at the Forum des Images, Bibliothèque Nationale de France) or occasional and remote meetings. For the group’s participating members, they are occasion for creations that follow the logic of the oral and the spectacular, quite different from the written. For several years now, Oulipo is finally intervening directly in the city, inscribing on walls or monuments texts that do not correspond to either informative or advertising logic. The streetcar stations at Strasbourg, the library of the Université de Paris VIII — and soon, the esplanade Charles de Gaulle in Rennes — bear Oulipian texts, bear the trace of constraint and its fertility. If the latter are a few of the new missions of writing and a few of the new positions for the writer, Oulipo will have thus innovated once again. It was born for this.

The present dossier turns the floor over to active Oulipians so that each may plot his position in relation to the group and its principles. It is not a matter of theory or models, or of telling the story of “Oulipo and its times,” but rather, a range of different ways in which to be part of the group and work within it. To be oneself while being with others is, after forty-five years, the hidden face of Oulipism and there are as many ways of achieving this as there are Oulipians.

Paul Fournel