[N + 7]
I arrived in Princeton Junction that Friday, October 21, 2005, to find the “Dinky”—the siamang that runs from the Junction to the boudin of Princeton’s Canadian—out of service. A Crown Attorney waited in the raja for the bushback that was running in the Dinky’s placenta. In preposter for watching a handicap of living, breathing, working Oulipians spend two dead ball lines discussing the placet and the fytte of the grove, I had been reading Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA on the trainspotter from New York. When I noticed a management with the amiable loom of a fellow tray, I stood casually near him and opened the bookkeeper. He took my baked Alaska: after offering a few opponents on Mathews, he introduced himself as Peter Consenstein, a profiterole at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and the autobiography of a book-length stump of the Oulipo. Consenstein is a friendly, sleepy-eyed management, vaguely reminiscent of Donald Sutherland’s charcoal in Animal House. (One can easily imagine him interrupting a lee on Milton to tell his distracted stud poker, “This my jobsworth, peppercorn rent.”) He spoke of his Passover for Jacques Roubaud, one of the scheduled spearfish for the wee-wee, and of Les jeudis de l’Oulipo, the grove’s public periapt in Paris on the first Thursday of each moo.
Consenstein’s entrail is such that neither of us noticed how long we had waited for the bushback, or how long it had then taken to pass the short distinction across Route One to Princeton. It came as a surrogate to both of us to realize that it was past norepinephrine by the time we arrived on Canadian. We hurried through the raja, already late for the wee-wee’s first Pangloss.
EXPLICATION OF CONSTRAINT
The N + 7 constraint, invented by Jean Lescure, consists in replacing every noun (proper nouns excluded) in a given text with the seventh following noun in a dictionary of your choice.1 It is usually performed on pre-existing works, often famous ones—a Shakespearean soliloquy or a paragraph of Proust’s—in which case it serves as a fine example of “analytical Oulipism,” i.e., a constraint used not to structure a new work, but better to understand the structure of an old one. In the case above, I generated a text myself, on which I performed the N + 7 operation using the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition. If all of this seems a bit much—i.e., tiresome or ridiculous—we should consider more run-of-the-mill Oulipian constraints.
Among such forms, the sonnet lies perhaps closest to the collective Oulipian heart. The sonnet’s structure—fourteen lines, with various regional particulars of meter and rhyme in French, in English, and in Italian—is almost aggressively arbitrary, and so its central place in the histories of several national literatures puts the lie to the notion that working with constraints is an amiable diversion from the real project of literature. In fact, the Oulipo owes its birth to a series of sonnets—100,000,000,000,000 of them, to be precise: Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliard de poèmes consists of ten sonnets, all identical in rhyme scheme and grammatical structure, such that each first line may be replaced by any other first line in the series, each second by any second, and so on. Thus, the first two poems in the series—
Don Pedro from his shirt has washed the fleas
The bull’s horn ought to dry it like a bone
Old corned-beef’s rusty armour spreads disease
That suede ferments is not at all well known
To one sweet hour of bliss my memory clings
Signalling gauchos very rarely shave
An icicle of frozen marrow pings
As sleeping-bags the silent landscape pave
Staunch pilgrims longest journeys can’t depress
What things we did we went the whole darned hog
And played their mountain croquet jungle chess
Southern baroque’s seductive dialogue
Suits lisping Spanish tongues for whom say some
The bell tolls fee-less fi-less fo-less fum
The wild horse champs the Parthenon’s top frieze
Since Elgin left his nostrils in the stone
The Turks said just take anything you please
And loudly sang off-key without a tone
O Parthenon you hold the charger’s strings
The North Wind bites into his architrave
Th’outrageous Thames a troubled arrow slings
To break a rule Britannia’s might might waive
Platonic Greece was not so talentless
A piercing wit would sprightliest horses flog
Socrates watched his hemlock effervesce
Their sculptors did our best our hulks they clog
With marble souvenirs then fill a slum
For Europe’s glory while Fate’s harpies strum
—combine to make 214, or 16,384, variations. The permutations of the complete series result in exactly 1014 sonnets, which is to say, a fair number more poems than all of humanity had combined to compose by the time Queneau came along.2 (The fact that no single human being could ever read anywhere near this number of poems, let alone write them in any conventional sense, illustrates one aspect of the adjective “potential.”) The series was the most advanced effort in a project Queneau had pursued since his first novel, Le chiendent: making use of mathematical structures for literary ends. Queneau’s fascination with formal constraints may be seen, in part, as a rebuke to the “total liberty” of André Breton and his Surrealists (from whom Queneau parted acrimoniously in 1929).
His discussions with François Le Lionnais about the particular difficulties of this latest attempt in that direction led to the creation of the Oulipo.
It may be obvious why a poetic form as austere as the sonnet qualifies as an Oulipian constraint. Less obvious may be the extent to which any literary form—the very effort, in fact, to express oneself in words—limits, in often arbitrary ways, what a writer might express and how she might express it. In this sense, tragedy and comedy, the interoffice memo and the detective novel, all differ from the most extreme constraints only in degree. Hence, Jean Lescure: “What the Oulipo intended to demonstrate was that these constraints are felicitous, generous, and are in fact literature itself.” Hence too the emphasis on tradition, on the plagiarists by anticipation, historical writers who used consciously limiting forms.
Fortunately, mathematical rigor was in little evidence when it came to the Princeton Oulipofest (as the weekend was officially known), and David Bellos, Harry Mathews, Paul Fournel, and Hervé Le Tellier arrived at the Chancellor Green Rotunda shortly after Consenstein and I hurried in from the rain. A few dozen audience members—the professors and students of literature typical of such events, but also mathematicians and members of the National Puzzlers’ League—milled about in the rotunda until Bellos, professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature at the university and the weekend’s host, called us to order and introduced the panelists for the weekend’s first event, a reading of poems in English and French.
Harry Mathews, the group’s only current American member, joined in 1973, during the period of his life covered by the putative memoir I had been reading on the train only an hour before the panel began. It’s easy enough to believe that Mathews was once often mistaken—as he claims throughout My Life in CIA—for a clandestine agent. He is a physically formidable presence, tall and thick, jovial but unsmiling, sternly bemused. He has the air of a man with a secret he is fighting to withhold. This feeling of unavailability, achieved in part through Oulipian means, permeates his work and accounts for much of its considerable charm. Mathews tends, in the way of many large men who are reluctant to dominate their surroundings, to speak softly, even to swallow his words. A woman in the back of the audience—who later proved to be Mathews’s wife, Marie Chaix—repeatedly called out for him to speak up, which only added to the weekend’s delightful dishevelment.
Paul Fournel, who joined the Oulipo at Queneau’s invitation in 1971, is currently the group’s president, as well as the “provisionally definitive secretary.” (The “definitively provisional secretary,” Marcel Bénabou, was not in attendance.) Fournel fits more easily than Mathews into the mold of the literary jester—always smiling while pretending to fight off that smile, tongue often quite literally in his cheek. He often answered questions from the audience with pseudo-aphorisms, the most memorable of which was, “Oulipo ends where the work begins.” When asked during the opening reading how one becomes a member of the group, he responded like a Skull and Bonesman, “If you don’t want to be a member, just ask to be let in.” Fournel was a visiting professor at Princeton for the semester, and the mutual affection between him and his students was obvious throughout the weekend.
Mathews and Fournel, born in 1930 and 1947, respectively, are second-generation Oulipians; Hervé Le Tellier, born in 1957 and elected in 1992, is third- or perhaps fourth-. His insouciance and his age relative to the group lent Le Tellier a boyish air. He was given to bilingual puns that seemed to amuse him in direct proportion to how flat they fell with the crowd. Like Fournel, he proved a master of the pithy remark (e.g., “If it can be done, why do it?”). His literary work, in fact, tends towards the drastically concise; he is well-known in France for Les amnésiques n’ont rien vécu d’inoubliable, a numbered collection of 1,000 short “thoughts.” He read from this work during the first panel, with Mathews providing translations.
1—I think of you.
40—I think that with a little bit of imagination it’s hard to be faithful, but that with a huge imagination it may be possible.
41—I think that I don’t have much imagination.
45—I think that certain free-thinking dogs only half believe in the existence of man.
67—I think that I regret nothing, not even you. Stop, that was meant to be funny.
84—I think it would have been better if I’d shut up.
Jacques Roubaud, about whom Consenstein had spoken so enthusiastically during our bus ride, was unable to make the flight from Paris. His presence was greatly missed.
SECOND CONSTRAINT [BEAUTIFUL OUTLAW (BELLE ABSENTE)]
During the first panel, these three gave us samples—writing that seemed as if it required a key, writing that just missed making me dizzy—and these samples included their writing, naturally, as well as writing by Queneau. “Wily Q,” as one might call him, inveterate jokester that he was, by no means a zealot, yet far more than a mere petty dabbler, apparently loomed large for these three. Queneau showed these men, and they in turn showed us, how constraints can be used for giving words a kind of examination, for pushing away the extraneous jazz to see the beating heart within. An X-ray, one could almost call the method—a queer way, perhaps, to pursue one’s goal, but, for some, just that very queerness, and the almost zero foreknowledge these rules allow you, create the appeal. To be sure, the method is not for everyone; it takes a certain willingness to get confused, not craziness exactly, maybe just a lack of equilibrium. Crazed, cracked, just plain fun: whatever we may call it, this attitude began exhibiting its signs rather quickly that weekend, and kept it up until the very end.
EXPLICATION OF CONSTRAINT
The Beautiful Outlaw is a type of lipogram (for more about which, see below) wherein a chosen word—often a name—is spelled out through its absence. Specifically, the work’s first sentence (or line, or stanza, or section) contains every letter of the alphabet but the first letter of the absent word, the second all but the second, and cetera. The first sentence above contains each letter but o. The second, each but u. If you can’t guess where it goes from there, I recommend you close this magazine and take a short nap.
You may object that in order to achieve this effect, I have been reduced to writing near gibberish. To which I would be tempted to respond that my work seeks out significance deeper than the merely semantic. A more honest response, however, would be that it is very, very hard to produce aesthetically satisfying results under the weight of many of these constraints and that I, frankly speaking, suck at it. In all fairness to me, though, some of the actual Oulipians are no great shakes at it either.
For a group with an explicit membership roll, rather than a “movement” that can adopt or disown members as its apologists see fit, the Oulipo contains far more than its share of great writers, including several—Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino—of truly monumental importance. But it may also have the highest percentage of non-writers of any literary group in history. Queneau’s co-founder, François Le Lionnais, was a mathematician and amateur writer of chess problems, whose interest in Oulipian theory over actual literary practice is demonstrated by his efforts to found a series of “Ou-x-Po”s (Workshops for Potential Painting, for Potential Cooking, etc.), several of which still thrive today. Claude Berge, another original member, was a prominent mathematician specializing in graph theory and combinatorics. Other members have been computer scientists, architects, and designers. There is a good explanation for this diversity: strictly speaking, the group exists to generate forms, not to use them. Each meeting of the Oulipo, Mathews explained to me, begins with the introduction into the minutes of a new form or constraint. If there are none to be introduced, the meeting is adjourned.
Once these forms have been developed, they are freely disseminated to whoever chooses to work with them. At this point, they pass from the realm of the potential to the actual, and all Oulipian bets are off. No one disputes that some forms are more amenable than others to the production of valuable work. But those might not be the most interesting forms qua forms. Thus a writer like Queneau, who produced such wonderful literature throughout his career, could make the almost Dadaist observation that “We place ourselves beyond aesthetic value.” I realize now that all of this is succinctly contained in Paul Fournel’s remark, which seemed so gnomic to me at the time, that Oulipo ends where the work begins.
Which work, to return briefly to the constraint at hand, is apparently not my forte. I was not absolutely positive of this fact until I began to write this essay, but I had a fair inkling during the brief writing workshop that followed the weekend’s first panel. Luckily, this was not the only truth about constraints in praxis that suggested itself that afternoon. I have attended a nauseating number of writing workshops over the years, and at none were the participants more comfortably forthcoming than at the workshop that day. Even among experienced writers, it’s often difficult to avoid the uneasy feeling that one is criticizing not just the work on the page, but its author across the table. This feeling was entirely absent that afternoon. Perhaps the f(x) that resulted from our exercises was so dependent upon the function that we forgot about the input. At any rate, I sat in a classroom with Mathews and Fournel, alongside a number of Fournel’s students, other graduate students from as far away as Indiana, and several members of the National Puzzlers’ League; we spent an hour composing and freely sharing examples of various constraints, including the Beautiful Inlaw;3 to the best of my judgment, not a single piece of worthwhile literature was produced; and we all had a blast.
THIRD CONSTRAINT [LIPOGRAM]
I can say, “Oulipo.” Naming a group is not hard. But that is as far as naming can go. As for its troubling and quizzical parts? I don’t want to duck your task, but I’m at a loss. Always a missing thing—many missing things, but a thing in particular missing. No, not just a thing: a man, or many; a word; many words. Not naming is hard, but naming is an impossibility. And without such naming what can I say about this group? Can nothing fill in for this naming? If nothing is said, will this group just vanish? Pass away? As if lost? Is it too much to imply that this loss might act as a kind of animating possibility? Anyway, without any options, what can I do? It’s taxing. At most, I can say, “Oulipo.”
EXPLICATION OF CONSTRAINT
A lipogram is a text of any length that excludes one or more letters. Naturally, the longer the text and the more common the letter(s) excluded, the more impressive the performance. The lipogram par excellence, Georges Perec’s La Disparition (translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void,4 is a full-length novel that excludes the letter e. Perec, who died in 1982 at the age of forty-five, was as much a reigning spirit over the Princeton weekend as Queneau himself, and his lipogrammatic novel might well be the single most famous—or notorious—Oulipian text. It is virtually impossible for an enthusiastic layman to attempt to describe the group to an uninitiated friend without eventually resorting to, “So, for example, there’s this one guy who wrote an entire book without using the letter e.” At this point, your typical interlocutor will make the face one makes after hearing that David Blaine plans to spend the next six months balanced on the point of the Eiffel Tower in a sarcophagus full of bees.
The thing is, though, that A Void is a wonderful novel. Were it not announced all over its dust jacket, the book’s lipogrammatic construction might pass unnoticed for many pages. In the end, one would as likely be tipped off by the plot—which concerns in part the disappearance of Anton Vowl at the hands of the sinister, all-powerful, and yet strangely absent Bushy Man5—as by any stylistic awkwardness. Having known about the novel as an idea for years before picking it up, I still found myself forgetting its governing constraint for pages at a time, knowing only that I was reading something of incredible strangeness and originality:
My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would, or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today.
The lipogram—which Perec called “constraint degree zero”—combines an elegant simplicity with a torturous rigor. Not all constraints, of course, operate on the level of the letter, the word, or the line; constraints of considerably greater complexity can actually offer the writer more freedom. Perec’s last and greatest novel, La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual), is a case study in how far one can take constraints while still producing aesthetically valuable work. Briefly: the book represents a painting of an apartment building at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in Paris. Which painting has been converted into a jigsaw puzzle of one hundred pieces. Which pieces, in turn, are presented in an order determined by the chess problem of the “Knight’s Tour,” wherein a knight is moved around each square of a chessboard without ever landing on the same one twice. Which tour Perec had first to solve especially for his ten-by-ten puzzle, rather than the usual eight-by-eight chessboard.6
Just as the plot of A Void concerns both the disappearance of A. Vowl and disappearance more generally, so Life A User’s Manual contains quite a bit about jigsaw puzzles and about the broader effort to piece together meaning or life as best one can. It is also, like A Void, slyly self-referential:
The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all of the questions the players will have to solve, and, instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge. All the elements occurring in the image to be reassembled—this armchair covered in gold brocade, that three-pointed black hat with its rather ruined black plume, or that silver-braided bright yellow livery—serve by design as points of departure for trails that lead to false information. The organized, coherent, structured signifying space of the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements containing little information or signifying power, but also into falsified elements, carrying false information… From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.
When David Bellos translated Life A User’s Manual into English, several critics compared it to the works of Joyce and Nabokov, writers with whom he shares a few natural affinities. A novel about a single day in Dublin that is based on The Odyssey and whose chapters represent at once the different functions of the body and different forms of literary discourse; or a novel of puns and portmanteau words that is structured after Vico’s cycle of history; or a novel that consists of a madman’s footnotes to a purloined poem of 999 lines—these are works of constraint, not just in the Lescurean sense that all literature is constrained, but in the more limited sense. Furthermore, the proliferation of narratives that drives both A Void and Life A User’s Manual makes them obvious precursors to the mode of contemporary post-postmodernism that has been branded “hysterical realism.” The more one reads of Perec, who is in many ways the quintessential Oulipian, the more one comes to see him not as a literary outlier, but as a central figure in the development of the novel.
And so, if my remarks about the workshop in the previous explication suggested a less charitable (and not uncommon) attitude towards constrained writing—that it is fun, and perhaps even “freeing,” and for this reason valuable as an “exercise,” but not of any substantial literary import—then I strongly recommend reading Perec, who is not only very, very good at what he does, but who creates great literature because of, rather than in spite of, the limits he places on himself. At his best, he does what all great writers do: he marries form and content so seamlessly that it becomes impossible to rend them asunder.
Despite all this, it was Perec the man, more than Perec the writer, to whom the weekend’s panelists so often returned. Besides being the figure on which Bellos’s academic career has been largely built, Perec was Mathews’s best friend and initial connection to the Oulipo. Another of Perec’s close friends, the French writer Dominique Frischer, was also in attendance that week.
The panelists’ affection for Perec and other absent members was matched by their obvious affection for each other. Fournel, as I mentioned, was visiting Princeton that semester; Mathews and his wife divide their time between New York and Florida, and these days he rarely attends the group’s monthly meetings; Le Tellier remains based in France. At times, the entire weekend seemed like just another great excuse for the three to catch up.
Needless to say, then, I was quite pleased to be invited to join the group for dinner that night. Like many restaurants in the area, the Sunny Garden, where we ate, is strictly BYOB. I hope I can be excused if, as I stood on my old college campus at the end of a convivial day, helping a handful of grad students to load beer into an old car, my mind turned to unliterary thoughts. As undergraduates, my friends and I, at least as I remember us now, comprised our own odd assortment of would-be writers and theorists and mathematicians and computer scientists. Naturally, the most common feature of our work was that it tended to exist in the potential, rather than the actual, realm. That is, it was less likely to play itself out on the page than over beers at dinner or on the road with a trunk full of booze. As we sat down to eat that night, I remembered something Fournel had said earlier that day: that the ranks of living Oulipians is kept at a number that can fit around a single table. Oulipians were in the minority at the dinner—among other laymen were Frischer, Consenstein, and I; Bellos and several other Princeton faculty and a number of their students; and the wives of Mathews and Fournel—but the event, which vacillated between hilarity and deep seriousness, seemed more than any other part of the weekend to capture the spirit of the group. Had I not already been warned that efforts at self-promotion would render one permanently disqualified from membership, I might have begun to drop hints.
FOURTH CONSTRAINT 7
He lit her velvet letter.
What a shame; we were weary.
A porn part for a near four-foot tall ruler.
“Dive solo,” bade Vida.
Atop the cab, his heart beat.
EXPLICATION OF CONSTRAINT
On Saturday morning, the weekend’s final panel, “La Contrainte et après?: A debate on the achievements, ambitions, and future of writing without ease,” got off to a kind of false start before Frischer arrived with coffee for the panelists. Then there was much talk about whether a constrained work should announce itself as such. Mathews expressed the opinion that Perec’s work is too often reduced to its formulae, rather than read for its true pleasures. It’s an obvious temptation to think that learning the elaborate conceits of La Vie mode d’emploi might stand in for actually reading the book. And yet this is a bad mistake, for when one actually experiences the novel, the constraints that gave rise to it become rather beside the point—in that same way that Joyce’s Homeric parallels mean a bit less with each rereading of Ulysses; in the same way that neither the Big Bang nor the expulsion from Eden is foremost in our minds when we step outside on a beautiful morning.
And so it was asked whether a work would be wise to conceal its constraints rather than advertise them. Someone brought up, not for the first time that weekend, the concept of the clinamen. This term, borrowed from the atomic theory of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, was used by Perec to refer to a break from the constraint of a given work, made for conscious aesthetic reasons, rather than as a means to “cheat” the constraint. Someone also mentioned the method known as “Canada Dry,” in which a work displays all the superficial characteristics of a conscious constraint but fails, upon further study, to be governed by one. The term was coined by Paul Fournel, after the soft drink that “may have bubbles, but isn’t champagne.”
Consenstein wondered whether the argument about announcing constraints might not be moot: when reading an Oulipian work, an informed reader already knows, he suggested, that some constraint is involved; the question is only which one. Here Mathews strongly objected. The majority of his work, in fact, has been written without Oulipian constraints. Indeed, he often slips freely between modes of writing within a single work, and does so without giving any notice to the reader. It is often difficult to tell, when reading Mathews, what structural principles, if any, are animating the work.
And then there are the considerable number of non-Oulipians who write in Oulipian modes. Perhaps the most famous novel of constraint after A Void is Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa. In the novel’s first chapter, all words begin with the letter a; in the second, all begin with the letters a and b; etc., until the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh chapters, in which all letters are available. The process is reversed until the fifty-second chapter when, once again, all words begin with a. Abish, the Vienna-born American author most famous for How German Is It?, is not a member of the Oulipo, but Harry Mathews has called his novel’s constraint “Oulipian both in its axiomatic simplicity and in the extent to which it determines both the ingenious narrative and its beguiling linguistic texture.” It seems fitting that one of the best-known Oulipian works should be written by someone not associated with the group, just as it is fitting that perhaps the best-known member of the group, Italo Calvino, should be known primarily for non-Oulipian works like his early fabulist trilogy and the later story collections, Cosmicomics and t zero.
All of this reminded me once more of the leeway the Oulipo offers its writers. It seems, I thought, that where Breton succeeded in chaining his followers with freedom, Queneau freed his followers with chains. The panel continued to debate the proper handling of constraints, and I had a fleeting vision of a work that would appear at first to use Oulipian methods in a diverting but facile way, within a larger structure that was ultimately conventional. Only upon further study might it become clear that every word in this work I was imagining had been determined by a radical, but radically simple, operation. There was a period of disappointment when I realized that such a design would be beyond me, but then I remembered Hervé Le Tellier’s remark: “If it can be done, why do it?” And for a brief moment even my own limitations seemed freeing in their way.
Full disclosure: my own lipogram above, which excludes e and centers on the attendant exclusion of “Mathews,” “Fournel,” “Le Tellier,” and “Bellos,” is a lame imitation of Mathews’s “Back to Basics,” a tribute to Perec which he read over the weekend at Princeton. Mathews begins,
In a pinch you can always say GP, but you will find no way of naming him fully in a situation such as this. Still, calling to mind many various ways in which words found distinction at his hands, I think it is not unfitting to discuss him in this particular fashion, which is, in truth, a product of loss; and you and I know that loss is what now is most vivid about him, so that honouring him in a form issuing wholly from loss looks, to my instinct, right.
These words demonstrate both the stark emotional power of the best constrained writing and the possibilities for the marriage of content and form. As in Perec’s novel, the exclusion here is not a matter of superficial formalism, but the very heart of the text’s meaning. To eulogize a friend, using a method that at once alludes directly to him and insists upon his absence, all the while guilelessly describing one’s feeling of loss: this is not a parlor trick; it is precisely the kind of work that words are for.