Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature by Daniel Levin Becker

Friday, January 25, 2013

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature

by Daniel Levin Becker
Harvard University Press

“Falindromes,” which are almost palindromes (e.g., “So cats taste staccato tacos?”); novels and stories in which the letter e is completely absent; “metro poems,” which must be written according to the starts and stops of a subway train: these are just a few of the projects that have been undertaken by an experimental literature group called the Oulipo. Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature is a survey of and homage to Oulipian writers and their projects. The group, whose name is an acronym formed from the first two letters of each word in “Workshop for Potential Literature” in French, was founded in Paris in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Caradec. It currently has thirty-eight members, one of whom is fictional and seventeen of whom are now dead; membership in the Oulipo is permanent. Of the thirty-eight, five are women, only a handful are not French, and several have careers outside of writing. By way of introduction, Becker provides glimpses of outsiders’ views of the Oulipo: the group is known variously as a “literary supper club,” a “band of ‘chessmasters who have lost their boards,’” and “Ah, yes, the people who don’t use the letter E . . .”

More than a biographer, Becker himself is a member of the Oulipo. He is one of only two American members of the French group, and he was the youngest member at the time he joined, in 2008. He had discovered potential literature during a French literature survey course in college and was shocked and delighted to learn that other writers shared his interest in word games, inventive language, and the finer points of grammar. In this sense Becker is typical of most Oulipians, who began to use language experimentally in isolation and only stumbled on like-minded writers later on. After graduating from college (Becker shies away from naming the university—Yale—and he is stinting on personal detail throughout the book), Becker set off for Paris with “nine months’ worth of research funding” and spent his days cataloging the Oulipo’s archives at the French National Library. He then spent several months interviewing various Oulipians “with a battered tape recorder in tow, asking them questions about their work and taking notes on everything but their answers.” Shortly thereafter, Becker was invited to join the Oulipo.

After the engrossing first chapter, the book becomes a nonchronological glimpse into the Oulipian archive, presumably the result of Becker’s research. He often returns to the jeudi (Thursday) monthly public reading series, which the Oulipo has been hosting since 1996. Becker remarks that some jeudis are “joyous occasions of sublimely mischievous wit,” while others “can verge on the tedious.” Either way, Becker’s descriptions are wonderfully intimate and colorful. At a 2007 jeudi, for example, Becker met Marcel Bénabou, a Moroccan-born “elder statesman” of the Oulipo, whose “books are meant to outwit you.” Another Oulipian at that jeudi, Olivier Salon, “has the appearance of a good-natured off-season pirate.” Between these biographical details, Becker presents some of the major Oulipian techniques and forms. These range from mixed proverbs, or perverbs (“A stitch in time gathers no moss”), to Jean Lescure’s “S+7 technique,” where each noun in a text is replaced by the seventh noun following it in a given dictionary. Remarkably, Becker is able to maintain the sense of wordplay even though he has translated most of these texts from French; typically, the original French is not provided.

Even when the history seems a bit dry, Becker mercifully avoids literary jargon and focuses on making the Oulipo interesting to readers. For instance, he writes that some scholarly catfighting is “repetitive and abstruse, and is not enough fun to dwell on here.” This forthright approach works because it allows Becker to give particular attention to the writers and forms he knows and likes best. Still, his descriptions of Oulipians are often more interesting and personal than his chronicle of Oulipian writing, which, like some of the jeudis, can be tedious. Experimental literature seems to have more heart when seen through Becker’s eyes, and readers may wish that he spent more time on his own observations and less on literary history. Becker even says, touchingly, that his induction into the Oulipo was his life’s “greatest honor.”

Becker, who is currently reviews editor for the Believer, not only presents a general overview of Oulipian writing but also analyzes its evolution and underlying philosophy. He tells us that Oulipian writing can be categorized by the source of the potential component: the content of the finished work or the writing process itself. In earlier Oulipian writing, the text owed its experimental element to the absence of certain letters or an unconventional use of characters and plot elements. Other forms of potential literature, such as the metro poem in which lines are mentally composed only while a train is in motion and written on paper only when it stops, represent an experimental process. The metro poem, then, is “unverifiable: its rules affect only the moment of composition.” Thus the concept of potential literature is an elastic one. Furthermore, Oulipian writers have proved their creativity not by following certain rules and constraints but by inventing those rules and constraints.

Although Becker acknowledges that “this sort of thing isn’t for everyone,” most of his other claims contradict that point. He makes a case for Oulipian ideas as a worthwhile undertaking for all writers. The constraints of Oulipian thought and writing, he seems to say, would be freeing for “dozens of potentially great writers with craft issues, subject matter issues, motivation issues: writers who need tools to outwit themselves.” Authors of metro poems must “think thoughts of the right size, to focus on the line at hand without workshopping the previous one or anticipating the next.” In this sense, the fact that the Oulipo is called a workshop seems particularly fitting. And Becker points to a playfulness with language that exists beyond literary circles. For example, pharmaceutical companies invent names for new drugs, and Bill Clinton’s outgoing staff maliciously removed the letter W from White House keyboards before their successors’ arrival; both of these could count as potential use of language.

At times it might seem that Oulipian writers—Becker included—are missing the point of literature. Some of them have devoted years to projects that seem gimmicky, privileging wordplay at the expense of meaning. One could claim that literature is at its best when it stirs the imagination and facilitates empathy, and this requires the full use of all vowels. This point is strengthened by remembering that Becker has translated Oulipian work into English; this makes the linguistic tricks seem particularly arbitrary. For example, baobab, which is the name for a fruit tree in both French and English, is a homophone in French for bas-haut-bas, or “low-high-low.” The baobab is an Oulipian form meant to be performed aloud, with special emphasis every time the syllable for “low” or “high” occurs in the text. This doesn’t really translate to English, which makes clear that word games are confined by language.

Ultimately, whether readers find potential literature fascinating or exasperating is secondary to the philosophical perspective they may gain from reading this book. As Becker repeatedly points out, the Oulipo group is not trying to acquire converts or alter the course of literary history. Readers who enjoy word games and unusual arrangements of words may not be convinced to go out and read literature by Oulipians, and yet they might find Oulipians’ sense of joy in how language works compelling. As Becker writes, potential literature is about “finding ways to let the world entertain you, even when it’s not trying.”