OuLiPo, lipograms, and pataphysics

Q. Where do avant-garde poetry, literary curiosities & linguistic experimentation meet mathematics, surrealism & off-the-wall humour in an environment that has survived for decades?
A. In Paris. In November 1960, a group of mostly writers and mathematicians gathered for the first of what would become regular monthly lunch parties, with huge ambitions.

The group included Raymond Queneau, author of what is considered some of the most important French prose and poetry of the 20th century; he was general editor of the Encyclopédie de la Pléïade (a scholarly edition of past and present classical authors) and from 1955 its director. Queneau is famous as the author of Zazie dans le métro (made into a film by Louis Malle in 1960). He was also secretary of the readers' panel of the famous publishers Gallimard; and when Jacques Roubaud, a young mathematician and poet who had written his first book of poems structured like a game of go (in which he gave his readers instructions on how to play go-poetry or poetrygo), brought it to Gallimard in 1965 to discuss its publication, he discovered that Queneau was also at home in the world of modern mathematics, quizzing him about that for two hours rather than talking about poetry.

The group called itself l'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, OuLiPo for short. When Queneau later introduced Roubaud to the group, the young man was astonished to find it was concerned with just that kind of crossover between two usually disparate disciplines which interested him.

Under Queneau's guidance, OuLiPo undertook a vast programme of investigation: on the one hand, into the formal devices used by writers over the centuries, and on the other into how ideas from the formal systems of mathematics, logic, computer science and even chess could be applied to the creation of new poetry and literature.

In the 1920s Queneau was involved with the Surrealists, and in OuLiPo he wanted to create something quite different because of the deep hurt he had suffered from the infighting and public disputes of the surrealist movement three decades earlier.

Membership of OuLiPo was not a secret, but it was meant to be confidential, and resignation was impossible: OuLiPo's constitution says membership is for all time and no one can be expelled. Deceased members are excused attendance at meetings, but members are not allowed to give up their membership, except under a special stipulation that they may commit hara-kiri at a properly constituted meeting convened explicitly and exclusively in order to resign. Apparently no one has so far taken advantage of this provision.

OuLiPo was the inspiration of, among other works, Queneau's outlandish book: Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, which indeed offers the reader one hundred trillion (10 ) poems, and such feats as La disparition (The Disappearance) by Georges Perec, who first heard about OuLiPo from his friend Jacques Roubaud in 1966. It arose from the concept of a lipogram, a piece of writing that avoids use of any word containing a particular letter.

The most common letter in English and French is E, and yet in 1968 Perec began to collect and jot down E-less words and phrases to build a subset of French broad enough in which to write an entire novel. The technical challenge was to make his subset read like a natural language, and the result (published in 1969) is a mystery thriller about a man who disappears, a multiple whodunnit that runs to 320 pages. It was put into German in 1986 and is now available in English as A Void which is also quite E-less, a feat managed by translator Gilbert Adair. Internet shoppers can find it in the online bookstores.

By the way, it should be emphasized that OuLiPo didn't invent the lipogram or even the lipogrammatical novel; Ernest Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby (1939, 267pages) without using the letter E. However Georges Perec, influenced by the OuLiPo, was apparently the first to write an E-less novel in French.

Another OuLiPo idea is to take a poem, keep all the vowel phonemes intact, but rewrite it with different consonants (hence different words, of course). Or, take a poem (perhaps a famous one by somebody else), and replace every noun by another which is (for example) 7 places on among the series of nouns listed in a given dictionary. This, called S+7, gives very interesting results. I've played a little with some famous verses (and a copy of Chambers dictionary) below.

Queneau and one of OuLiPo's mathematician members, François Le Lionnais, were also Pataphysicians. If you thought, when you heard in the lyrics of Maxwell's Silver Hammer that Joan studied it until the hammer came down upon her head, that “pataphysical science” was a Lennon-McCartney invention, be assured that it was not.

Pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions” was invented by the French dramatist Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), a writer of symbolic farce; and it was the forerunner of the theatre of the absurd. It is still very much alive on the Internet, with over 800 pages found recently. OuLiPo is also very much alive, and widely documented on the Internet (including at Wikipedia). Puzzle lovers will also find it mentioned in collections such as Penrose Tiles To Trapdoor Ciphers, And the Return of Dr. Matrix (1996, 312 pages) by Martin Gardner, who for many years conducted his Mathematical Puzzles column in Scientific American magazine.

So, whether you are interested in poetry, word games, mathematical logic, modern French culture, avand-garde art or just plain silly things being done for the fun of it (and that surely must inlude, for example, all fans of the long running BBC Radio 4 gem I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue), OuLiPo is an essential feature in your cultural landscape. Clearly it deserves to be better known by all who love whacky ideas.

You don't need me to tell you what these were before S+7*. Weird how, just by chance, exotic footsoldiers crop up twice in the second example....

The curlew tolls the knick-knack of passing dead,
The lowing Herero winds slowly o'er the leak,
The plug homeward plods his weary wealth
And leaves the worsted to dartboard and to me.
Sebundy of mistrals and mellow frustfulness!
Close bostangi-fright of the maturing sunket,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With frust the vintages that round the theatre-Eblis run...
On either sierra the rix-dollar lie
Long figments of barmkin and of Saanen
That clothe the wolverine and meet the slag;
And through the figment the Robinia runs by
To many-toxicomaniacal Camion...

In doing the “S+7” transformation, I skipped homonyms, abbreviations, and all words without their own main dictionary paragraph marked as 'noun' first. And did you know that a “camelot” is a hawker, pedlar or newspaper vendor?