Two Oulipian Moments

Of Murder, considered as an Oulipian art

On October 1, 1968, Calvin Tomkins tells us in his recent biography of M. D. (a member of the Oulipo (a fact Mr. T is unaware of)), the Duchamps (Marcel and Teeny) had a few friends over for dinner at their pocket apartment in the Rue Parmentier (Neuilly). The guests took their leave, the Duchamps went to bed, and Marcel read Teeny some excerpts from a newly published book he had bought at Vuibert on the Boulevard Saint-Germain that same afternoon. Funny beyond description, a riot. They laughed.

Still laughing, Duchamp took the book with him to the bathroom. And there, died.

The book lying next to the corpse was a volume of the new edition of Alphonse Allais’ works, resurrected through the industrious and diligent care of François Caradec (a then yet-to-be member of the Oulipo).

Between the pages of the open book was found, according to some accounts, a postcard representing Rrose Sélavy’s Mona Lisa, inscribed with these words: “Ce n'était point lui; ce n'était point elle” [It was not him ; it was not her]. A Congolese pirogue bobbed in the bathtub.

A delightful moment

On January 19, 1966, Queneau “communicated” regarding a constraint he had proffered during the preceding meeting (December 26, 1965) and which he had abstracted, he would reveal to us years later as a way of bringing us (the then still recent additions to the Oulipo) up to speed, from a reading of Feydeau and Labiche plays and other vaudevilles. One of their recurring dramatic devices can be expressed as the following relationship obtaining among characters:

X takes Y for Z

In the LIPO, Claude Berge translated this relationship in the form of graphs, and presented a few of them:

- that of the “normal situation”: “each one takes himself for what he is and the others for what they are”

- that of the vaudeville: “each one takes himself for what he is and errs on the identity of the two others”

- that of the madhouse: three nutcases taking themselves to be Napoleon.

And a few more: graphs of the deadringers, of the oedipal situation, of the serial novel, of Cosinussean absent-mindedness …

He suggested their properties could be analyzed in terms of Graph Theory …

Queneau, whose bent was more of an algebraic one, called on Paul Braffort who had, on January 14 of that same year 1966, proposed to “represent the ternary relationship X takes Y for Z in the form of a multiplication: XY=Z.” He thus replaced Berge’s graphs with multiplication tables.

Queneau mentioned an interesting theorem: “The multiplication table of a group (Abelian or not) corresponds to the following situation: no one takes themselves to be what they are, nor takes others for what they are, with the exception of the unit element, which takes itself for what it is and the others for what they are.”

I immediately set down to work and composed, in the honor of RQ, a tale whose first chapter I read at the January 1974 meeting. The relationship I had picked was the following:

X plots with Y against Z

RQ proposed to publish the tale in the brand new Bibliothèque Oulipienne, right after Perec’s Ulcérations, which were read at the same meeting.

The remembrance of this moment has long been for me quite delightful.

A less delightful moment

It is with a slightly halfhearted inner smile that I read in 2002, in the Queneau Album published by the Pléïade, the following annotation excerpted from his Diary and dated January 10, 1974: “At the Oulipo [meeting] Roubaud read a very nice Christmas tale.»

As there is no mention anywhere of Christmas in the said tale, I have had to conclude that the benevolent approbation evidenced in Queneau’s decision to publish the piece in the BO did not preclude, — at least as far as I was concerned — a certain aloofness.

Anyway, in that same Diary annotation, RQ continues: “and Perec has brought forth another monstruous work, a performance equal to his palindrome. It is a heterogrammatic poem, Ulcérations.”

The remark immediately following finished disheartening me: “one of my concerns is the danger to which the Oulipo exposes young writers.”

All things considered, though, I will have enjoyed for at least 30 years the delightful, though mostly deluded, feeling of having seen my tale win the approval of the author of so many books I admire.