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Saturday, 15 September 2012

Oulipian exercises: The infinite possibilities of restriction

Ever the wordplay nerd, I am excited to now have the English translation of Raymond Queneau's marvelous Exercises de style in store. It's an impressive example of translating the seemingly untranslatable: Exercies de style seems so linguistically specific - a totally mundane anecdote related in 99 different styles, ranging from the more traditional "past", "present", "sonnet", or "passive", to the rather more experimental/absurd "spectral", "olfactory", "spoonerisms", or even "permutations by groups of 9, 10, 11 and 12 letters". And yet, the translation works well; it doesn't have that forced feeling that translations of wordplay or nonsense writing often do.   


Queneau, with François Le Lionnais, founded the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) literary movement in France in 1960. The group of writers and mathematicians and writer-mathematicians who assembled under this title were intent on achieving the seemingly paradoxical freedom that would comes from setting themselves near-impossible rules and limitations and then writing their way out of them. The constraints took many forms, from the lipogram, which denies the writer the use of a particular letter, or letters (in the case of George Perec's La disparition, it was the most common letter in the French language - "e"); to "S+7" or "N+7", which requires the writer to replace every noun in the original piece with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary; to the "snowball", a poem in which each line is one word long, and each word is longer than the last.

Recently, a friend told me of Jacques Jouet's metro poem form, which I've tried out a couple of times, with some difficulty: 1) You get on the metro, and once it starts moving, you compose the first verse of your poem in your head, without writing it down; 2) at the next stop, while the train is motionless, you transcribe that verse; 3) continue like this until you reach your destination, at which point you may transcribe the last composed verse on the platform. No composing while the train is stopped, no transcribing between stations. If your journey involves switching lines, each new line means a new poetic stanza.

This article from Frieze Magazine elaborates wonderfully on the foundations and developments of Oulipo, with a focus on Georges Perec, one of the original members of the group. 

Perec wrote some of the most elaborately restricted Oulipian novels, many of which are available in English as well. For a less daunting introduction, The Art of Asking Your Boss For A Raise is short and hilarious:

Written in 1968, it is Perec's answer to a challenge set by the Computing Service of the Humanities Research Centre in Paris for a writer to "use a computer's basic mode of operation as a writing device". The 70-odd pages are one run-on sentence, which mimics the way in which a computer "thinks" about all possible actions and outcomes in a given scenario. Perec guides the reader through the convoluted process of asking for a raise, taking into account the myriad possible occurrences that could arise during this venture, and advising on how to deal with each one. This algorithmic logic is laid out in a helpful diagram, designed by Perec, printed on the inner leaf of this edition:


If you'd like to delve into the heftier and more challenging examples of Perec's oulipian works, we also have Life: A User's Manual (La vie mode d'emploi) and A Void (La disparition) here at the store!




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