The French poet, amateur mathematician and general all-round scholar, Raymond Queneau (1903 - 1976), was a rare 'Renaissance man' in an age of specialisation. In his youth, he had a brief involvement with the Surrealist movement in Paris, and traces of the Surrealist influence can be found in the often 'dream-like' quality of much of his subsequent work. However, Queneau had little time for the emphasis Surrealism gave to the role of 'chance' and the 'irrational'. With his work, as he once pointed out: 'The appearance may be surrealistic, but the method is not'. That is to say, Queneau, as a mathematician as well as a poet, used formal structures and rational logic to organise his work. The outcomes may at times have been absurd, but the principles underlying them certainly were not.
Not Another Avant-garde Literary Group?
At first glance, the work of Queneau and his colleagues within the Oulipo literary workshop (see below) would seem to justify the term 'avant-garde', with their oddly-arranged poems, sonnets generated by means of turning small strips of cardboard according to the reader's own preferences, and an entire 300-page novel written (by Georges Perec) without a single use of the letter 'e'. However, the Oulipo were fascinated most of all by structure. In contrast with a practitioner of, say, modernist free verse, they were not trying to break down existing forms and write spontaneously under the influence of 'inspiration'. Far from it, in fact. The aim was to use the inherent constraints of a particular form (eg sonnet, alexandrine) as a stimulus to creativity. Structure was seen by the Oulipo as a boon, rather than a hindrance, the challenge being to overcome the limitations of the particular system one is using.
Queneau was hardly an aesthetic revolutionary. 'Avant-garde' hardly seems appropriate for one who saw nothing wrong with existing forms, and indeed asked for nothing better than to use and develop them. If it can be called 'experimental writing' at all, then it is experimental in the mathematical/scientific, rather than aesthetic sense. When all is said and done, the Oulipo didn't really set out to make great literature at all. Rather, they tried to create certain conditions and forms which others could perhaps use to make something great.
Exercises in Style
Queneau initially became known for his 1947 book Exercises in Style, published to popular and critical acclaim in French, and later in English. This remarkable book was largely responsible for gaining Queneau election to the prestigious Academies des Goncourt. It serves as an object lesson in improvisation, for any would-be writers fond of complaining that there is 'nothing worth writing about' in their lives. It also makes for an immensely entertaining, often hilarious, and also educational read.
Exercises in Style consists of a series of short variations on a single theme, in itself utterly mundane. A young man gets on a crowded bus at midday, complains about being jostled, and then sits down when a seat becomes available. Later, the narrator sees him in another part of town talking to a friend. Queneau tells, and retells, this unremarkable scenario 99 times, using a different style every time. For example, recounted in 'narrative' form, the tale becomes a minutely detailed account of everything the narrator observes during these two brief scenes, and then recounts as a short story. As an 'official letter', it becomes a breakdown of events recorded in the stilted, formal tones of the office pedant. Told as a 'cross examination', it becomes a battle of wits between a lawyer and a witness. A 'reactionary' telling of the story traces everything back to the state of the government, and blames the attitude of 'young people today'.
Queneau's achievement is two-fold. Firstly, he has managed to make a potentially tiresome display of technical mastery into something amusing and enjoyable to read. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the book's success lies in the relationships between the different recountings of the tale, and the way that, together, they throw up a 'kaleidoscope' of possible interpretations of this one simple event. Thus, the book shows that even the most simple occurrence is infinitely interpretable, and that an understanding of formal techniques can help one to understand, and relate better, to these different perspectives.
Oulipo and Other Strange Noises
Oulipo sounds a bit like a nonsense word - some strange, imaginary, far-off land perhaps - but is actually an acronym for: 'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle' (Workshop of Potential Literature). This literary group, founded in 1960 by Queneau and a friend called Francois le Lionnais (and still running today, in fact, with different members), set out to put into practice their philosophy of 'writing under constraints'.
They also attempted to undermine the traditional separation between the author - 'god-like' dispenser of 'meaning' - and their audience, conventionally seen as rather passive consumers of literary text. The intention of the group was to produce texts that were impossible to 'consume' in such a way, because they actually relied on the reader to 'produce' them, in some sense, in the first place. They called this concept 'potential literature’, in that it required the input of the reader to complete the production of the work. Thus, the Oulipo understood, long before postmodernism came on the scene, the importance of the 'role of the reader'1 in determining the meaning of literary texts, to the point where they even allowed a reader the luxury of effectively producing a text for themselves.
The other principal aim of the group, was to try to find ways of combining the differing approaches, to reality, of arts and sciences. As stated above, Queneau himself was well placed to attempt to do this, with his background in both literature and mathematics. The group has had a diverse membership, consisting of people from various disciplines of the arts and sciences, and much of the impetus for the group's activities came from the desire to develop possible new literary structures for a post-Enlightenment age, in which science is, and has for a long time been, the dominant 'truth language'. Such a world would seem to require new literary devices to cope with it, but, as Queneau argued, the conventional avant-garde was of little or no use in this attempt, because of the tendency of groups like the Surrealists to focus on trying to find ways of escaping from scientific rationalism, rather than trying to incorporate its insights into artistic endeavour.
Let 100, 000, 000, 000, 000 Poems Bloom
Exercises in Style can be seen, with hindsight, as a prototypical working out of some of the 'writing under constraints' thesis. Nowhere is the ethos of the Oulipo more fully developed than in Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Published in 1961, the book comprises a base sequence of ten conventional 14-line sonnets2, each line of which is cut, so that the book appears as a series of 14 horizontal strips of paper, giving the book the appearance of a piece of children's literature. The result is a series of possible combinations that come to an extraordinarily large figure - in effect, one can more or less go on flicking through, and randomly piecing together new poems, into infinity. Queneau estimated that it would take a person, reading one sonnet per minute, eight hours a day, 200 days per year, approximately a million centuries to finish reading through these extraordinary poems-to-be in their entirety. It gives 'life after death' a whole new sense of purpose!
The reader might be forgiven for wondering if this whole enterprise isn't perhaps a little frivolous. Who really wants to read randomly produced 'automatic' poetry for goodness' sake? Actually though, this sense of 'play' has always been very much a part of the literary tradition - it just tends to get a little obscured by the rather heavy-handed earnestness of the more institutionalised end of the canon. As fellow Oulipian, Georges Perec, once put it:
Exclusively preoccupied with its great capitals (Work, Style, Inspiration, World-Vision, Fundamental Options, Genius, Creation, etc) literary history seems deliberately to ignore writing as practice, as work, as play.
Oulipo showed a possible way of bringing a little welcome lightness to the often stupefying solemnity of the established canon of 'good literature'. One should bear in mind, however, that the work is also valid in its own right. The trillion plus sonnets are a masterpiece of economy. Only somebody with a complete mastery of rhyme and metre could have composed the individual lines of each sonnet in such a way as to make them so versatile; so interchangeable with one another. Besides which, if nothing else, think of the paper saved if all our books were printed up in this way!
- Georges Perec, History of the Lipogram from Oulipo: a Primer of Potential Literature, edited by Warren F Motte (1986, University of Nebraska Press)
- A short article by Stéphane Susana from Electronic Book Review no. 10 about Constrained Writing on the Web. The article also contains an excellent series of links on Queneau and Oulipo, and other related matters.