MJ Nicholls's Reviews > Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature

Oulipo by Warren Motte
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's review
Dec 10, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, dalkey-archive, pernod-and-gauloises, oulipians

A brief review based on Mathews’s Algorithm:

Initial formula:

A1 B1 C1 D1
A2 B2 C2 D2
A3 B3 C3 D3
A4 B4 C4 D4

A: This marvellous collection, plump with erudition, sparkling with innovation, makes me spasm in delight.

B: This overview of Oulipian techniques, rife with creativity, shiny with brilliance, makes me come.

C: The work of Queneau, especially the formulations, leaves me tongue-tied, makes me weep salt shakers.

D: Perec is present, in a glorious shiny suit, twinkly with wondrousness; makes me want to love someone.

Results upward:

A1 B4 C3 D2
A2 B1 C4 D3
A3 B2 C1 D4
A4 B3 C2 D1

This marvellous collection makes me come: leaves me tongue-tied in a glorious shiny suit.

Plump with erudition, this overview of Oulipian techniques makes me weep salt shakers—twinkly with wondrousness.

Sparkling with innovation, rife with creativity, the work of Queneau makes want to love someone.

Makes me spasm in delight: shiny with brilliance, especially the formulations: Perec is present.


OK, this is a crude (well—bad) example, but illustrates the Oulipo’s success at creating combinatorial forms in literature. Technology has made many of their algorithms possible. Especially Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.

This volume contains the following:

Harry Mathews: “Liminal Poem” / “Mathews’s Algorithm”
Francois Le Lionnais: “Lipo: First Manifesto” / “Second Manifesto” / “Raymond Queneau and the Amalgam of Mathematics and Literature”
Jean Lescure: “Brief History of the Oulipo”
Marcel Benabou: “Rule and Constraint.”
Collective: “The Collége de Pataphysique and the Oulipo” / “Recurrent Literature”
Raymond Queneau: “Potential Literature” / The Relation X Takes Y For Z” / “A Story As You Like It”
Jacques Bens: “Queneau Oulipian”
Jacques Roubaud: “Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau”
Georges Perec: “History of the Lipogram”
Claude Berge: “For a Potential Analysis of Combinatory Literature”
Paul Fournel: “Computer and Writer: The Centre Pompidou Experiment” / “The Theatre Tree: A Combinatory Play”
Italo Calvino: “Prose and Anticombinatorics”

The material ranges from informative, historical, to brain-busting mathematical complexity. You get from this collection a sense of quite how remarkably gifted these French writers and mathematicians were, and as a “primer” it certainly leaves you wanting to read full-length works. Harry Mathews has always been the most lucid explainer of Oulipo techniques for me, perhaps due to faults in translation, and his piece gives the best examples of combinatorics in action.

Warren Motte translated most of these pieces and at times his decision to leave quotations in the original French is a nuisance. These quibbles aside, this is a prim primer and a must for the logic-bound tinkerer.

Recommended reading:

Marcel Benabou: Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books = Pourquoi je n'ai ecrit aucun de mes livres
Italo Calvino: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
Paul Fournel: Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do
Harry Mathews: Tlooth (American Literature
Oskar Pastior: Many Glove Compartments: Selected Poems
Georges Perec: Life: A User's Manual
Raymond Queneau: Exercises in Style
Jacques Roubaud: The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis
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Reading Progress

December 10, 2010 – Started Reading
December 10, 2010 – Shelved
December 10, 2010 – Shelved as: non-fiction
December 10, 2010 –
page 1
0.45% "About time I read this! Perec, Calvino, Queneau, Benabou. Heaven!"
December 11, 2010 –
page 74
December 12, 2010 – Finished Reading
January 3, 2011 – Shelved as: dalkey-archive
July 30, 2011 – Shelved as: pernod-and-gauloises
January 25, 2012 – Shelved as: oulipians

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Mike (new)

Mike Puma Is this the one that includes Calvino's formula for If on a Winter's Night a Traveler?

message 2: by Jasmine (last edited Dec 10, 2010 07:52PM) (new)

Jasmine oh interesting.

I should read this.

let me know how much you think that I should read of the authors before this book

message 3: by MJ (last edited Dec 11, 2010 01:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

MJ Nicholls Mike: It has Calvino's essay "Prose and Anticombinatorics," but I think the IOAWNAT essay is in the Oulipo Laboratory: Texts from the Bibliotheque Oulipienne.

Jasmine: This is an introduction, of sorts, to the Oulipo's loopy theoretics, so you don't need to have read any of the contributors beforehand.

message 4: by Tuck (new)

Tuck and "inish" by share? he seems like he's oulipo ing all over the place. i just read "the wrong blood" by manuel de lope (the first of his books to be translated in to english) and it takes place in the basque country and he/or the translator sort of use oulipo techniques when they talk about place names, sometimes they use spanish, sometimes formal basque, sometimes "rural" basque, sometimes the "english" version of one of those. all for the same place. also he writes the same sentence with tiny little variations, that say the same thing. or do they? from reading queneau and mathews it seems they are just playing, like bernard share, or de lope? its the same thing they say?

message 5: by Nate D (new) - added it

Nate D I'm so intrigued to delve into Oulipo.

message 6: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine it makes me sad that so many of them are french and I don't speak french, but I've got a bunch of books around anyway.

message 7: by Nate D (new) - added it

Nate D Yeah, this and Alain Robbe-Grillet really really make me want to brush off my supposed French-reading.

message 8: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine actually the original reason I wanted to learn french was because in a milan kundera book he references a book talking about young girls sensuality and I wanted to read that.

message 9: by MJ (last edited Dec 13, 2010 09:20AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

MJ Nicholls Tuck: Share, sure. Most Dalkey books have unconventional techniques, some strict Oulipo ones, others more playful. Mathews and Roubaud's novels are available from Dalkey, along with a few rare Queneaus. (Two of which I've ordered but are taking months to arrive!)

They are playing but take their play seriously. Queneau talks about leaving things to chance as being more constricting than not having clear designs for your writing in advance. Relying on your imagination to solve every structural, logical problem doesn't work, and I tend to agree.

Nate: Queneau is the most fun. And arguably the most talented. I'd read anything by him.

Jasmine: Agreed. Motte's book was infuriating because so many titles and quotes were untranslated, leaving it hard to get into the work(s) in question.

message 10: by Rand (new) - added it

Rand I

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