Oulipo Postscript: Because They’re There

Having roughly delineated the areas of generative writing mechanisms and how their purposes can be at odds with traditional notions of “meaningful” work, a personal statement. I discovered the Oulipo as a teenager through a series of Martin Gardner Scientific American articles, which focused on the most mathematical and formal of their work: the long palindromes, N+7, the million zillion sonnets, the lipograms. Most of this work was not readily available; most of it wasn’t even translated. But I kept the names in mind and bought what I could.

Like Eudaemonist, I was fascinated by Perec’s La Disparition, though I didn’t have the necessary French to read it. I tried a few (unfinished, unsatisfying) exercises in the same mode. By the time I got to college it had been translated as A Void, but I found that in the intervening years with their intervening troubles, Perec’s conceits had ceased to interest me or resonate with me. The trick could not, in my mind, be justified in execution, only in theory, and the resolute attempt to bring everything in line with the motif read as quaint. The final bit of Life: A User’s Manual, that the puzzle-maker’s last piece is a “W” but the whole is the shape of an “X”, seemed trivially self-defeating rather than profound.

It applied to other works. I could admire Ulysses for its structural properties but only warm to them as far as they related to the business between Stephen and Bloom. I never did get through Tristram Shandy.

I’m still stunned by the amount of effort and care put into the arrangement of such works, and sometimes the willingness to make things so much more difficult. I don’t plan on looking down on them from the pinnacle of awesome respect for their achievements, but they still are very useful reference points.

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