Thirty years to the day after the death of Raymond Queneau, I am in an ornate reading room at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, a massive eighteenth-century edifice hulking on Paris’s near–Left Bank behind a twisted metal sculpture that allegedly represents Arthur Rimbaud. Along with bookbinding curiosities, medieval manuscripts, and prison records from the Bastille, Arsenal’s holdings have recently grown to include the archives of a literary collective called the Oulipo—Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Workshop for Potential Literature.” Tonight’s mini-gala is intended to commemorate not the opening of those archives to the public—they are still not consultable today, except by special permission and prolonged maneuvering through the Kafkaesque labyrinth of French library bureaucracy—but the idea of their at least being kept someplace august and official, rather than at the ninth-arrondissement apartment of Marcel Bénabou, the Oulipo’s definitively provisional and provisionally definitive secretary.
Besides the two dedicated champagne-pourers in the corner, everyone in the room is swirling around in varying states of hobnobbery: library undersecretaries, branch curators, and nearly all the living members of the Oulipo, about half of whom I am meeting for the first time. There is Bénabou, a former history professor with owly eyes; Paul Fournel, a diplomat and cyclist and the workshop’s current president; Jacques Roubaud, an endlessly venerated poet who still states his profession on paper as “mathematician (retired).” There is Anne Garréta, an unrepentant postmodernist who wears a leather bomber jacket; Hervé Le Tellier, a newspaper wit who is never on time for anything; Olivier Salon, a high-school math teacher who looks like a good-natured pirate or a twenty-second-century librarian, depending on whether he is wearing his glasses. There is François Caradec, a literary biographer whose eyebrows and mustache make him look like a well-dressed shih tzu; Paul Braffort, a computer scientist from before personal computers existed; Michelle Grangaud, who once published a book consisting entirely of anagrams made from the names of Parisian metro stations; and Jacques Jouet, who once spent fifteen and a half hours composing a poem by visiting every station in the Parisian metro system at least once, writing one line per stop. (He then did it again a few months later, with the route reversed.)
There is Paulette Perec, the widow of Georges Perec, author of La Disparition (A Void), a 311-page whodunit that recounts the disappearance of the letter e from the world—without ever using the letter e. Hearing about La Disparition in a French-lit survey course during my freshman year in college was my first exposure to the Oulipo, and its impact on me was immediate and visceral, not least because a year and a half prior I had made myself a mix tape of songs whose titles and artist names did not contain the letter e either.1 Perec’s gesture—his “commendably futile literary contortion,” as Ben Schott put it—appealed to me not only because it suggested that writer’s block could be circumvented by treating a text like a puzzle to be solved, but also because it hinted at a theretofore unsuspected population of people who thought the way I did about language, who probably also edited graffiti in public bathrooms and jeopardized romantic relationships by correcting inconsequential confusions of which and that. To my retrospective relief, I do not know that Paulette Perec is Paulette Perec while I am chatting with her, so I do not tell her any of this.
For the most part, I know the people around me solely as literary figures. I have come to Paris on a research grant to apprentice myself to them, somehow or other, and in so doing to learn about who they are as actual people—whether to consider them harmlessly fascinating weirdos or, as I have both hoped and feared since the moment I learned about Perec’s e-less exploit, kindred spirits. So far I have been to only one of the Oulipo’s monthly readings, where the woman seated next to me learned I was American and told me that personne n’est parfait—nobody’s perfect—and to two readings by individual Oulipians, at the first of which I introduced myself to Bénabou and promptly mispronounced the name of the street onto which I had moved that afternoon. And now I am at Arsenal, knowing little more than that the Oulipo has recently moved its archives here, and that it may be in the market for a slave—its word choice, not mine—to help put them in order.
Raymond Queneau, along with chemical engineer and all-around polymath François Le Lionnais, created the Oulipo in 1960 as a research group to investigate the history of experimental literature. In the decades that followed, thanks largely to the influence of later inductees such as Perec and Italo Calvino, its central focus evolved from analysis of the mechanics of interesting poetry—
Queneau, for instance, demonstrated that Mallarmé’s sonnets were sufficiently redundant that one could remove all but the rhyming parts at the end of each line and obtain a faithful and arguably more elegant version—toward the creation of texts according to rigid formal rules. Those rules can be simplistic or complex; La Disparition sits on one end of the spectrum, opposite Calvino’s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), which intertwines the first chapters of ten different novels with the story of you, the reader, in an adventure whose twists and turns are plotted out by a sophisticated hidden algorithm. In either case, the use of rules and the derring-do around them are meant to prove the hypothesis that the most arbitrary structural mandates can be the most creatively liberating.
The Oulipo, which nowadays has little interest in being precise or literal about what it is, is nonetheless firm on what it is not: a movement, a school, an –ism. The group was founded roughly thirty years after Queneau parted ways with the surrealists, whose embrace of randomness as a compositional tool quickly became an important antithesis to oulipian endeavor. André Breton’s authoritarian leadership had also been a turnoff: although the workshop has strict membership policies—asking to join the Oulipo renders one permanently ineligible to join the Oulipo, but, once inducted, one cannot leave, whether by dismissal, resignation, or death—it is pointedly non-prescriptive about its methods. It does not purport to tell anyone about what literature should or must be; it tells anyone who cares to listen, by speculation or by demonstration, about what literature could potentially be.
As for positive definitions, take your pick: the workshop’s second president, Noël Arnaud, described it as “a secret laboratory of literary structures.” The Independent described it as “a mysterious if not clandestine organisation that has long been a deliberately oblique part of French culture”; Martin Gardner, in Scientific American, as “a whimsical, slightly mad French group.” A snooty communist in Harry Mathews’s novel My Life in CIA described it as “a gang of cynical formalists”; Philip Howard of the London Times as “the French avant-garde coterie famous for its masturbatory and literary experiments”;2 and Michael Silverblatt of the literary radio program Bookworm as a band of “chessmasters who have lost their boards.” The only concise description the Oulipo has ever endorsed is “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”
After all the Oulipians present (minus Le Tellier, who has already dashed off to another engagement) sign a document attesting to the historic nature of the evening, we are led through various back channels of Arsenal and down a rickety staircase to a small ground-floor room whose door says architectes on it. Behind it is a narrow office, lit meekly by a couple of halogen lamps and enlivened by a potted plant doing a pretty good job of staying alive. There is a table with a computer, an armoire and a file cabinet, a few feet of books, a handful of videos, and a retired Florida vanity license plate that says oulipo. The lateral walls are lined with metal shelves beginning to accumulate books and spiral-bound manuscripts and archival boxes filled with sheaves of yellowing paper waiting to be inventoried and organized. There is nothing impressive or imposing about this room or its contents, nothing that would even begin to rival the personal library of anyone on the tour. It looks exactly like what it is: a space not yet moved into, where a lot of work remains to be done.
It is worthwhile, if not surprising, to note that a library is a matterof no small consequence to an Oulipian. Books in particular are mythical, sensuous things, and an entire subcategory of oulipian thought could easily be devoted to novel approaches to their care and feeding. An essay in Perec’s Penser/Classer—recently translated by his biographer, David Bellos, with the lovely title Thoughts of Sorts—offers some “Brief Notes on the Art and Craft of Sorting Books”: by binding, format, color, date of purchase. Anne Garréta spends a delightful essay called “On Bookselves” outlining her suspicion that books are alien species who multiply and evolve by thwarting our attempts to categorize them; she concludes by proposing ten alternative bookshelf-organizing principles, from books that do or don’t contain the word book to books that have crossed an ocean to books that contain at least one sentence you know by heart. In a monograph called Les bibliothèques invisibles, Paul Braffort assembles a bibliography of real books owned by fictional characters and of imaginary books cited in real works of fiction. La bibliothèque impossible, a mural created in 1984 by Jacques Jouet and an artist named Bertin, is devoted to the latter category: a bookcase looming over a lonely street in Paris’s fourteenth arrondissement, filled with titles from Pierre Menard’s Quixote to the collected memoirs of Sir Francis Haddock, distant ancestor of Tintin’s boozing, blustering sidekick.
Some months later, during my first round of interviews with the Oulipians, which is as much an excuse to snoop around their libraries as anything else, I will begin to see how this sense of biblio-adoration works at a personal level rather than a public one. Salon and Braffort have entire wall-dominating Oulipo-only bookcases; Fournel has a side office and Mathews an upstairs annex just to corral everything from books I’ve read to books I’ve never even heard of but whose nonexistence I immediately find unimaginable. I will find it odd, even scandalous, to see only a handful of books in Le Tellier’s living room the first time he receives me at his apartment, down the street from Sacré-Coeur, although of course I will realize on my next visit that the real books are kept elsewhere. My reveries of the time will primarily involve spending an afternoon nosing around in Perec’s library, or Calvino’s, or Queneau’s—or a week in Le Lionnais’s, which is said to have contained over three thousand books about chess problems alone, provided I am allowed to leave without doing any filing.
But for now I content myself with Arsenal’s holdings, which by the time I start have been sorted into a handful of categories: one dossier for press clippings about Oulipians’ publications and readings, one for posters and photographs from their public appearances, one for ephemera from workshops where they school the uninitiated in poetic forms and constrained-writing techniques. There is also a dossier inclassable, for things to deal with later, to which I add regularly but whose size never appears to change. In each dossier, I categorize and catalog, organize and shuffle and inventory. I move pieces of paper between folders and folders between boxes; I remove rusty wire paper clips and replace them with plastic ones. I wonder at one point whether a shelf of books from Le Lionnais’s private collection is arranged according to some arcane oulipian filing system—like the POURQI alphabet, adopted briefly in 1961, according to the order in which letters appear in an unrelated treatise by one of the founding members—before concluding that it’s just been really poorly alphabetized. Construction outside drags on in that globally indefinite way, blocking off the archive’s direct access, which is itself a dubious side door so far from Arsenal’s main entrance that it hardly seems to belong to the same structure. Every so often Bénabou brings over a few new unsorted boxes, and slowly but surely the room fills up, but the collection never becomes huge or exhaustive—certainly not compared to the Perec archive next door, which contains translations of La Disparition into languages that don’t even have a letter e.3
Not that there is any shortage of curiosities to mull over. For instance, I learn that Jacques Bens, the group’s first secretary, wrote a couple of soft-core erotic novels under the pseudonym “Gwen Treverec,” a name notable not least because it contains only one vowel. I learn to recognize the handwritings of different Oulipians and, moving forward through the decades, their preferred fonts. (Comic Sans! Et tu, Salon?) I catalog a card on which Calvino has written his Paris phone number and committed a minor error of French grammar, which I find immeasurably comforting.
In the correspondence dossier: a letter inviting the Oulipo to participate in a project involving stochastic generation, clipped to a diplomatically scandalized response from Bénabou on Oulipo stationery (“The Oulipo loathes randomness and leads against it a struggle which literary historians will not fail to recognize as one of the fundamental axes of the group’s work”). A photo-postcard from Latis, a particularly contentious member of the founding circle, that seems to have been sent for no other reason than to show off his cactus collection. A request from Michèle Métail, who was inducted in 1975 and managed to estrange herself in the 1990s, that her name be replaced on the Oulipian roster with an ellipsis (request declined). A wisp-thin carbon copy of a typewritten letter from Le Lionnais to Marcel Duchamp (who joined the group in 1962, though he never participated actively) at each of his three known addresses: don’t be a stranger to the Oulipo, and, P.S., do you still find much time for chess?
There is also fan correspondence, scholarly or polemical or dripping with obscurely misplaced reverence. Of the scores of like-minded offerings from Oulipophiles worldwide, most are mundane and boringly formalistic; it’s nice enough that they’re not summarily thrown out, but it seems doubtful that the senders would have sent them at all had they known their best-wrought sestinas and spoonerisms would elicit phthbtt noises, years hence, from a couple of archivists. Conversely, a few unsolicited texts are inspiring examples of inventively applied constraint, ruined only by the sender’s request to be considered for membership in the Oulipo.
The pride and joy of the archives is the collected minutes from every monthly meeting since the mid-1960s. Each session has an agenda, generally established during a prolonged aperitif, that dictates the order of contributions and discussion points; there is also a narrative-ish account of the proceedings, recorded with more or less lyrical digressivity by the meeting’s secretary. (Oulipo meetings have been described in the Village Voice as “largely male gatherings, whose docket of activities suggests a Rotary Club meeting on LSD.”) The first section of the agenda is création, for texts written or forms developed since the last meeting, without at least one of which the session cannot be called to order. The second is rumination, which the British Oulipian Ian Monk describes as “a safe section for new members who often eagerly announce some brilliant idea they think they have just had, only to be told that Georges Perec had already thought of it years ago.” Third is érudition, which serves chiefly for presentation of newly discovered anticipatory plagiarists—the group’s term for authors who used oulipian forms and techniques before the Oulipo existed. (Raymond Roussel is the granddaddy of proto-oulipian writers, but unwitting precedent has been attributed, relatively convincingly, to everyone from Ramon Llull to Lewis Carroll to Gottfried Leibniz.)
Sorting through the oldest meeting dossiers is like a documentary tour through a bygone era: elaborate letterheads, illegible notes on NASA stationery, handwriting that no longer exists except on expensive wine bottles. I find a wish list of poets whose works should be “perforated” by a computer in order to facilitate lexical experimentation, and dot-matrix printouts of computer-generated sonnets—this from the time when computing was roughly as accessible to the layperson as, say, electron microscopy. I find a sheet of paper on which Perec has attempted to write pangrams—sentences with all the letters in the alphabet—shorter than the status quo. (In French portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume [37 letters] is the standard, like our the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog ; his plombez d’onyx vif ce whig juste quaker  is the equivalent of our pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs .)4 There is a handwritten addendum apologizing for the spots, halfway down the right side of the page, where Perec’s cat attacked it.
Some evenings I leave Arsenal feeling defeated, by the regress of oulipian history or by the drudgery of the day’s work, and go back to my apartment, between the Moulin Rouge and the Sexodrome, to flop down with the easiest, lightest, most secular book I can lay hands on. Other evenings I leave to find the outside world enchanted and encoded, whispering sweet anagrammatic nothings to me from billboards and bakery windows, an accidental alexandrine gleaming in every phrase I overhear on the metro. I feel my mental patterns changing, gently, being primed along oulipian lines, though I can’t tell whether this is the understanding and excitement I came to France looking for or just a different kind of defeat. On the better days I am instinctively aware of the potential literature of my own thoughts; on the slow days it’s all I can do to inventory and categorize them—criticisms, compositions, the inclassable—in the hopes that I can read some sense into them later.
As far as the minutes go, the archives suggest that business and prattle have remained in roughly constant equilibrium throughout the workshop’s evolution. In 2001, a convocation from Bénabou announces that the next meeting will broach certain issues about where the Oulipo is and where it is going:
• Where are we vis-à-vis the
notion of the constraint?
• Have we become a “literary group”?
• How should we resume contact with mathematicians?
It’s hard to miss the resemblance of these questions to the three Jacques Bens included in the minutes he circulated after the very first meeting, on November 24, 1960:
• What should we expect from our explorations?
• Where will they lead us?
• Where do we want to go?
It’s no accident that the second and third questions have been distinct from the beginning. It would be foolish to think that various avant-gardes hadn’t already had their way with our ideas about art by the time the Oulipo came along, but in 1960 structuralism and postmodernism weren’t the household discourses they are today, and the conventional understanding of literature was still that it just sort of happened. Inspiration was far from debunked or dethroned as a creative model; experimental, in the art world, was more of an epithet for the unbecoming and the unclassifiable. That the Oulipo’s explorations were conceived as experiments—i.e., testing hypotheses in the pursuit of good solid data—was legitimately radical, even ill-advised from a certain artistic perspective. Artists master the muse and go where they decide to; experimenters, whether with the human genome or with the Roman alphabet, don’t always have the luxury of ending up where they initially expected or wanted to.
If the founders embraced this difference, it was mostly in making it clear that the desired endpoint of their explorations was not literature but a better understanding of the structures inherent therein. When he illustrated the redundancy of Mallarmé’s sonnets, Queneau explained to a radio critic in 1962, he did not feel he was creating literature; he felt he was doing an experiment. (For empirical credibility, he pointed out that the same manipulation didn’t work on Victor Hugo.) The original sonnets were not the important part—they were mere fruit flies—and neither were the haikuesque poemlets that resulted from stripping them down. The operative value of potential was in the stripping-down itself, the demonstration of a process by which language dressed up as literature could be poked and mutated and crossbred and still be called literature. “If you like, a new literary school could emerge and use the things we’ve clarified and experimented, in a more or less gauche way,” Queneau told the critic—but he maintained that this wasn’t the point.
Not yet, anyway. Half a century later, when anyone who’s heard of the Oulipo is bound to know more about its flagship literary works than about the methods that generated them, it seems appropriate that the Oulipians continue to grapple with the issue of being a “literary group,” with whether or not this was where they wanted their explorations to lead them. The three-point courses of self-examination above differ with respect to the mathematical underpinnings of oulipian work, which has become somewhat scarce in recent years, but this is a superficial distinction compared to the curiously reassuring reminder that the group is still asking itself the same questions several decades hence, still answering them one text at a time.
This is, near as I can tell, the spirit in which the Oulipo guards its archives so preciously. Not just for the obvious pleasures of self-enshrinement, but for the instructive value of self-re-reading too, the security of maintaining literal access to its origins. (Of course, every paper cut I get from a decaying postcard and every wrist cramp I get from entering patently ridiculous archival data5 on an AZERTY keyboard makes it a little harder to see the nobility of the endeavor.) The best things in the archives are the same bizarreries and accidents that stimulate oulipian creation before the fact: amusing typos, unexplained postal oddities, books whose prefaces dictate that their pages may be cut only by lobsters and people who eat dessert before the rest of the meal. I don’t learn much, in my months of archival servitude, about the mechanics of literary composition, oulipian or otherwise, but I do gain insight into how these people read their world, and how this makes them want to write it, too.
Because these are, not to put too fine a point on it, people who pay close attention even to their marginalia, people who even in their incidental dips into everyday language can’t bear to be prosaic. Fournel used to send out meeting summonses with tree diagrams in the RSVP section: “IF coming THEN will dine OR will not dine.” Caradec could always be counted on for a pun, even if there was no particular point to his missive—one note clipped to an old letter is inscribed porc lézard chives, a homophone of pour les archives. Some Oulipians’ regrets-only replies are more impressive than anything else in the whole month’s dossier: Mathews once emailed from a computer on which he did not know how to input accents, so he limited his response to French words without any; Métail once sent in thirty-three variations of the RSVP coupon that led circuitously to the cumulative conclusion that she would not be in attendance.
From where I stand, then, the virtue of this archive is that it testifies to a kinship between, or just to the existence of, people who are inspired and comforted by the very idea of leaving a paper trail. It makes detailed sense of the sensibility that unites the members of the Oulipo, and that unites them with those other people—who are not members for some arbitrary or symbolic reason, because they don’t speak French or because they died four centuries ago—who think this way about language, too. And in that way it is still correct to spend an evening celebrating a room that almost nobody is allowed to enter, because knowing it is there, having an inkling of the kinds of curiosities that fill it, is triumph enough. An urging from Le Lionnais in November 1961, as he presided over preparations for the group’s first collective publication, foretold the archive in its self-importance and in its genuine importance as well: “Let’s not forget that posterity is watching, gentlemen.”