4 Extra Debut. Ben Schott investigates the influence of the French literary group that uses bizarre rules to foster creativity. From November 2009.
Writer and typographer Ben Schott investigates Oulipo, the French experimental literary group. Founded in 1960 and still in existence, Oulipo create work by imposing playful restrictions the way a text will be produced. Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, meaning Workshop for Potential Literature. In this humourous history of the French literary group, Ben discovers that recently, Oulipo have even made a bridgehead into English-speaking territory.
In November 2008, for instance, the Canadian experimental poet Christian Bok published a novel called Eunoia (meaning 'beautiful thinking'), consisting of five chapters, each highlighting one vowel. Bok, who has previously created artificial languages for Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, says his new novel pays direct homage to Oulipo.
Oulipo's President, Paul Fournel, describes how Oulipo was founded by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais as a reaction to the Surrealist movement to which Queneau in particular had previously attached himself. Instead of freely following the whims of the subconscious, Oulipians deliberately introduced conscious constraints, and discovered the results could be not only plentiful but also intriguing. Oulipians, according to Queneau, are 'rats, who build the labyrinth from which they will escape'. Queneau's works included Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes, or 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, in which each page contains a 14-line sonnet, split into 14 strips, which can be separated and re-combined in any order. Queneau thought it would take 190,258,751 years for someone to read every combination.
One of Oulipo's most famous members, George Perec, wrote an entire novel, La Disparition, as a lipogram, avoiding the use of the letter E. Translated into English under the title A Void, the novel is now required reading on some academic courses for computer programmers. Later, Perec devised a 'story-writing machine' based on the knight's tour of the chessboard, in the writing of his 1970 novel, Life: A User's Manual, which links every occupant in every room of a Paris apartment block.
Some other techniques used by Oulipians to generate work include the N+7 method (where every noun is replaced by the noun found seven entries further on in a dictionary), Cento (a poem patched together out of lines written by other poets), palindromes and multiple choice narratives.