On Limits and Liberation: Oulipo, the New Wave, and My Summer in Paris

1.

In the fall of 1960, an exclusive group of writers and thinkers gathered in Paris to officially launch a new way of approaching both the study and creation of literature.  This gathering—which would become “a kind of literary supper club . . . a hallowed echo chamber for investigations of poetic form and narrative constraint and the mathematics of wordplay,” as Daniel Levin Becker describes it in his book Many Subtle Channels—called itself Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), or Oulipo.  According to co-founder Raymond Queneau, the workshop would explore “new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.”  Becker, who is currently one of 20 living members of the still-active workshop (there are 38 total members, living and dead), was elected to the Oulipo in 2008 and describes the workshop a bit more specifically:

[T]he Oulipo has served as the laboratory in which some of modernity’s most inventive, challenging, and flat-out baffling textual experiments have been undertaken . .  oulipian inquiry has yielded novels without certain vowels, love stories without gender, poems without words, books that never end, books that do nothing but end, books that would technically take longer to read than most geological eras have lasted, books that share the exercise of mourning, books that aim to keep the reader from reading them, books that exist for no particular reason other than to amuse and perplex, books that may not actually exist at all.  These works, all of them governed in some way by strict technical constraints or elaborate architectural designs, are attempts to prove the hypothesis that the most arbitrary structural mandates can be the most creatively liberating.

In a nutshell, as Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito write in their introduction to The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement, “The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principal: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated.”  Two best-known examples of Oulipian projects include Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a collection of 10 sonnets printed on perforated paper that allows for interchangeability of each line of each sonnet (precisely one hundred thousand billion poetic possibilities), and George Perec’s A Void, written without a single occurrence of the letter e.  Even better known among readers who’ve never heard of the group, let alone the term Oulipian, are Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (a collection of alternating first chapters of ten different novels) and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, whose first-layer structure takes the form of a 999-line poem in irregular pentameter.

But there are even more familiar manifestations of Oulipian principals.  Those of us who teach creative writing employ a similar philosophy every time we give a writing assignment:

Write a dialogue scene in which two people are expressing intense tension but never mention the source of the tension. 
In 250 words or less, introduce four characters, their primary physical traits, and their relationship history with one another. 
Write a descriptive paragraph of someone finding their way through a pitch-black cave; in other words, use all the senses except for sight.

In limits, there is great freedom, and thus great potential.  Like Becker, who happened upon Oulipo in college and knew he’d found a kind of psychic-literary home, I’ve also believed this, sensed it, without articulating it as explicitly as the Oulipians. “Try writing a high-tension scene with these characters before mapping out the whole story plot,” I might advise a student who is swimming in a swamp of thin abstractions.  Or: “Try writing a short story around this protagonist before jumping into the hugeness of a novel draft.”  (These are, by the way, exercises I give myself as well.) In other words, as god or goddess of your project, the best thing you can do is anchor yourself on earth; walk among the trees, smell the flora, study the fauna.  Make it real by imposing concrete focus.

 

2.

This summer I’ll be in Paris, teaching and writing, and so as I’m learning about Oulipo, I’ve also been re-watching a slew of French films.  I’ve made my way through the most well-known of the French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, et alia) and have also explored some relatively minor works for the first time.  My favorite among these is Agnes Varda’s first feature film, La Pointe Courte.

A young Parisian couple spends a few days in the husband’s seaside hometown.  Their marriage is under question, and they must decide whether or not to stay together.  The place is called La Pointe Courte, a poor area in the city of Sète, located in a stunningly sun-drenched and marshy region between sea and lagoon on the western Mediterranean coast. Varda was 29 years old when she made this film, and despite her claims that she had hardly watched any films prior to embarking on it, she employs a compellingly original style that I immediately loved and responded to—a melding of hyper-realist documentary and high-art storytelling.

It’s the place that is given to us unpolished, a barrage of the everyday—laundry flapping, ramshackle sheds spawning stray cats, a houseful of unkempt children, coarse women gossiping at the water pump, men throwing out their nets for coquillages.  You can smell the salt and feel the dirt under your own fingernails.  We see the inhabitants of La Pointe Courte at work, at love, at play; at war with local officials and each other.  They speak naturally, in colloquial, accented French. The young couple on the other hand float through the town like superimposed Photoshop images (of course, this is long before digital manipulation, and the film was shot on a very small budget, DIY style).  The woman (Silvia Monfort) is blonde and thin, her skin is smooth, her clothing fitted and pretty, her voice deep and detached; the two walk through the landscape, oblivious to the sun, wind, and water that saturate the frame; they speak of love and existence in stilted, abstract language:

If you want to go on living in peace, I can leave.  You talk only of happiness.

Yes.

Being happy at all costs has got us where we are.

Being happy without thinking! . . . Say what you’re thinking.

Do we really love each other… or do we live with each other out of habit.

The first one who’s had enough should leave, if their heart tells them so.

The heart never tells us that.  The heart never gets enough. It’s the mind that rebels, or the body.  When I met you, there were no questions.  I went toward you.  One day I saw in the eyes of others what we call “our love.” I saw it frolic about while others coaxed it. I saw it grow while others envied it. I began to look at it, me too, I began to watch over it, to weave crowns for it and keep it under glass.  Too late.

The music backgrounding them is atonal.  There are moments when Varda positions the actors in photographic closeups at angles to one another; there is one instance when Monfort addresses the camera directly.   Often, the two enter and exit the frame diagonally.  They take themselves, the fate of their love, awfully seriously; and yet the viewer feels that the teeming, rough-hewn lives of the villagers outweigh them in permanence. The young couple grasps for meaning outside of materiality or obligation; they can go here, there, anywhere.  They believe they can choose happiness or unhappiness.  Or at least talk about choosing it.  Meanwhile, Varda has done something provocative: she’s placed their musings within the compressed cinematic frame of a very particular place.  She’s constrained their existential dialogue to La Pointe Courte—literally, The Short Tip.  It’s one thing to talk about “love.”  What happens when you talk about it while walking among these corporeally, topographically constrained lives?  At one point, the woman crosses into the real life of La Pointe Courte: she sees a child with an ice cream cone and decides she wants one, too. But it’s a moment of terror for the man, who doesn’t know where she’s gone, who fears she has left—the sporting event they are watching, the town, their marriage.  It seems we can drift so far from life’s concreteness that we lose the natural ability to reconnect.

La Pointe Courte is a beautiful, moving film, at times strange, and doing very much what Elkin and Esposito describe as the Oulipian aspiration—“a statement of what it knows and a gesture toward something infinitely larger than itself.”

 

3.

Another significant figure of the nouvelle vague, Marguerite Duras, often similarly constrains her creative canvass in order to reach toward infinity; and, like Varda, she does so by framing her setting narrowly.  In the short novel The Square, an older man and a young woman meet on a park bench.  The entire novel unfolds like a one-act stage play: the two have an extended conversation, revealing the fears and hopes of their lives.  The nameless girl hates her job as a maid and longs only for a man to love her and rescue her.  The nameless man is a traveling salesman, going from place to place alone, just barely getting by.  Occasionally, the little boy that the woman is charged with watching enters then quickly exits the scene.

Summarized thus, The Square sounds about as interesting as a novel that excludes the letter e, or one that starts over and over again and never finishes.  Two sad, anonymous people talking on a park bench?  But doesn’t anything happen?  And yet the extreme formal confinements—all dialogue, a single setting—spawn a perhaps proportionally extreme, and emotionally complex, reading experience.   For example, here the young woman is describing to the man how sometimes she must look after a heavy old woman with dementia who soils herself:

I would have you appreciate the fact that I haven’t killed her . . . I still haven’t killed her and I never will, although it becomes easier and easier as she gets older and frailer. She is left alone in the bathroom to wash and the bathroom is at the far end of the house.  Al I would have to do would be to hold her head under water for three minutes and it would all be over.  She is so old that even her children wouldn’t mind her death, not would she herself since she hardly knows she is there any more.  But I look after her very well and always for the reasons I explained, because if I killed her it would mean that I could imagine improving my present situation, making it bearable, and that would be contrary to my plan.  No, no one can rescue me except a man.  I hope you don’t mind my telling you all this. . .

I am still not giving you advice but it seems to me that in many cases other people could do something of that nature to make their lives a little easier and still be able to hope for their future as much as before?

It’s no good talking to me like that.  I would rather my horror became worse.  It is my only chance of getting out.
After all, we were only talking.  I just wondered whether it might not be almost a duty to prevent someone from hoping so much.

In real life, people rarely sit, and stay, and talk (for the length of a short novel); even less likely do they work so earnestly and progressively to say just what they mean, to understand and be understood; to reveal who they are, who we all are.  But constrain them, give them limited time, in a limited place, and make them talk; give them no out; and then see what they might say, and how what they say in fact makes something happen.  I would describe Duras’ short novels written in this vein as hugely eventful, relentless in their sense of emotional upheaval; propulsive.  And there is something exhilarating about the very idea of Duras’ novels as experiments in this spirit of formal imposition—their very own workshops of potential literature.

 

4.

Neither Duras nor Varda would ever call themselves Oulipians, nor would Oulipo claim them; I don’t mean to imply otherwise.  Nor is the notion of a formal mandate engendering creative fruition the exclusive territory of the French.  And yet… I am excited about my upcoming time in Paris, and about what I am learning in preparation, because, doubtless, France is not the U.S.; and there is good reason to anticipate just what this means, what I can absorb of these differences in five weeks’ time.  Writes Elkin and Esposito:

The skeptical reader would be forgiven for wondering whether such games aren’t, after all, a little juvenile . . . But the Oulipo’s game-playing fits into a long French tradition: the avante-garde just loves a game, with its rules of engagement and its unknown outcome.

And in her introduction to her translation of Queneau’s Exercises des Styles (99 versions of the same short, simple story), Barbara Wright writes:

Queneau, you see, is not limited, and he doesn’t take himself over-seriously.  He’s too wise.  He doesn’t limit himself to being either serious or frivolous—or even, I might say, to being either a scientist or an artist. . . this is, I think, the reason why you find people in England who don’t know who Queneau is.

She goes on to quote a review of Queneau’s novel Pierrot in an English publication called Time and Tide:

Time & Tidecame down to Parish Magazine style: “This novel is of the kind called ‘so very French.’  It is all very unassuming and amusing, and most of us enjoy this kind of fun.”  According to the current way of thinking (or not thinking), it seems that if we are to enjoy anything then we must not have to think about it, and, conversely, if we are to think about anything, then we mustn’t enjoy it. This is a calamitous and idiotic division of functions.

Part of what we’ll teach in Paris this summer is that a change of place can galvanize, and energize, one’s writing.  We will encourage the students to allow Paris—the Paris of today, as well as the long tradition of cross-pollination and experimentation—to influence them.  Summer is nearly here, and while I am traveling to Paris to work, there is no reason why, like Queneau, one can’t work and amuse oneself simultaneously.  Why the two can’t be one in the same.  It would be so very French, after all.  And while the novel I’m working on is serious business, why not also play with possibility.  Why not impose a little freedom.

 

 

 

Sonya Chung, Associate Editor of The Common, is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and teaches fiction writing at Columbia University.

Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user MaO de Paris.

On Limits and Liberation: Oulipo, the New Wave, and My Summer in Paris

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