Vol. XIX, #1 Edward Sanders
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Oulipo Compendium, by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie
reviewed by Warren Motte
Atlas, 1998. 336 pp. Paper: $19.99.
Certain aspects of the work of the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature, “Oulipo” for short) will be familiar to readers of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, for that group has included among its members such figures as Raymond Queneau, Marcel Duchamp, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, and Jacques Roubaud. Founded in 1960 by ten writers and mathematicians interested in problems of literary form, and more particularly in “restrictive” methods of literary composition, the Oulipo now includes thirty-one members. On the threshold of its fifth decade of existence, the Oulipo’s productive collaboration continues unabated—surely a record for literary groups. The Oulipo Compendium offers a broad account of that collaboration, from its early days to the present. And it should be noted that no single volume, in English or in French, gives as complete a picture of the Oulipo’s principles, its history, or its wonderfully curious literary ethos.
The editors have chosen to organize the book according to an encyclopedic format, with entries of varying length arranged by name or subject in alphabetical order, handily cross-listed and referenced. The Compendium is very much an “open” work, then, and readers are free to read it from first page to last, or to rampage about in it, alighting wherever they may espy especially rich plunder. The editors’ choices are intelligent, judicious ones, and their own plundering of the vast Oulipian archives has produced a thoughtful, various, and consistently intriguing selection of texts. Many of those texts have been translated into English for the first time, the most astonishing example being Stanley Chapman’s translation of Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, which is in itself worth the price of this book. That text (perhaps the seminal work of the Oulipo) is as a series of ten sonnets, any line of which may be exchanged for its opposite number in any of the nine other sonnets, potentially generating ten to the fourteenth power, or one hundred thousand billion, poems. I say potentially because, as Queneau himself noted, somebody reading twenty-four hours a day would need almost two million centuries to finish it; and also because the idea of literary “potential” is situated at the heart of the Oulipian enterprise.
There is an admirable balance of showing and telling in the Compendium. Literary terms and arcane fixed forms dear to the group (lipogram, palindrome, tautogram, elementary morality, canada dry) are described in close detail, and the reader will find illustrations of many of them. The editors have included a useful critical bibliography of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne, a series of short pamphlets published by members of the group in editions limited to 150 copies, and including 101 titles to date. Interesting accounts are given of those writers whom the Oulipo wryly designates as its “plagiarists by anticipation,” precursor figures like Arnaut Daniel, Lewis Carroll, and Raymond Roussel. Appendices provide information on other groups the Oulipo has spawned, including the “Oupeinpo” (devoted to painting), “Oumupo” (music), and “Oucuipo” (cooking). In that same plurisensory spirit, let me suggest that anyone interested in the contemporary avant-garde and in the variety of shapes that literature can assume in our time will find in the Oulipo Compendium seductive portraits, delicate harmonies, and sumptuous, savantly prepared feasts.