Oulipo Compendium
Harry Matthews & Alastair Brotchie, eds.
Atlas Press, 2005, ISBN 1900565188, 336 Pages, Paperback 19.99. [

Review by Paul Kane

Oulipo Compendium, originally published in 1998 and recently revised and updated, is a comprehensive guide to the Oulipo (the Ouvroir de litterature potentielle or “Workshop for Potential Literature”) and its subsidiary groups. Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the Oulipo includes among its members such writers as Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Julio Cortázar, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Mathews. It is no coincidence that these are all writers who take a decidedly ludic approach to literary creation.
The Compendium is set out rather like an encyclopedia: there are a number of sections, and their entries are arranged alphabetically. The main section is devoted to the Oulipo itself, while others focus on the group’s various offshoots. The Oulipopo, a group concerned with crime fiction, merits a section of its own, as does the Oupeinpo, a group devoted to art. The final section includes diverse other groups that take as their creative province graphic novels, architecture, music, etc.
The main section of the book includes entries on the group’s members and its precursory creators — or “anticipatory plagiarists” — such as Lewis Carroll and Raymond Roussel. Other entries touch upon key Oulipian works (La disparition, or A Void, Perec’s novel written without using the letter “e”, being the most famous of these), and topics of importance to the group such as the graphic representation of text and animal languages. The minutes of some Oulipo meetings are also included.
Although these entries are certainly useful, the heart of the book lies in its discussion of Oulipo methods, particularly the constraints (or restrictive procedures) and mathematical artifacts devised and employed by Oulipo writers. Each constraint is clearly defined, and illustrated by an example of its use. One such constraint — touched on in passing above — is the lipogram: a piece of writing that intentionally excludes a particular letter of the alphabet. According to Georges Perec, the lipogram is “the oldest systematic artifice of western literature.” Another constraint, and one that was especially appealing (I come from a nation of dog lovers), is called “Poems for Dogs.” This involves writing a poem “that incorporates a dog’s name in such a way that it remains hidden from the human eye but audible to the canine ear.” An extended explanation of this constraint may make clear the Oulipo’s approach to literary creation, and indeed the rationale for wanting to write using constraints.
Imagine that you are sitting on a park bench with your dog at your feet. A stranger approaches and asks, “Where are the shops?” or some such nonsense. Since you are polite and a veritable prince among men, you wave in some general direction and say, “They’re over there.” And curiously you notice that your dog has suddenly sat up and is all ears. Later, you realise that your dog had heard his own name (your dog is called Rover, by the way) when you spoke the words “are over” to the stranger; this was the reason for his sudden and unexpected interest.
Not many would see the germ of a method in an experience such as this, but the poet François Caradec did. This constraint of his own devising does more than extend considerably the potential audience for modern poetry. The ideal goal here would be to read a poem expressing love and adoration to your dog in such a way that, when the dog responds to its spoken name, naive observers will believe that the animal is touched and moved by your deeply felt sentiment. (This constraint can also, incidentally, be extended to prose. So one might write an eulogy to Manchester United’s treble-winning side, hiding within the text the surnames of all the players that were in the squad during that glorious season.)
Like many of the constraints on literary creation included in Oulipo Compendium, the idea behind “Poems for Dogs” has a certain playful charm as well as a seeming craziness. Consider for a moment, though, how it (or any other constraint, for that matter) works. It places a restriction on the expressions and phrases that can be used in a poem, and it determines to some extent what the poet is able to say. It makes the process of writing both more difficult — by short-circuiting habitual modes of self expression — and, paradoxical as it may seem, easier: certain decisions have already been made for the writer. A constraint confronts the writer with a puzzle to solve, not a blank page, and this can be strangely comforting. Finally, a constraint will almost always force a writer to be creative, to seek out new means of self expression. Think here of all the cliches that Perec was able to exclude by obeying this simple rule: the letter “e” cannot be used.

Paul Kane
20 October 2006

Additional Information

As well as co-writing and co-editing Oulipo Compendium, Harry Mathews has written a pair of essays, both available online at the time of writing, that serve as good introductions to the Oulipo: “In Quest of the Oulipo” and “Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese”.

Another book on the Oulipo, Warren Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, includes some material not included here (e.g. Perec’s “History of the Lipogram”) and is worth exploring.

Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.