Oulipo Compendium, originally published in 1998 and recently revised and updated, is a comprehensive guide to the Oulipo (the Ouvroir de litterature potentielle or “Workshop for Potential Literature”) and its subsidiary groups. Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the... show more
Oulipo Compendium, originally published in 1998 and recently revised and updated, is a comprehensive guide to the Oulipo (the Ouvroir de litterature potentielle or “Workshop for Potential Literature”) and its subsidiary groups. Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the Oulipo includes among its members such writers as Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Julio Cortázar, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Mathews. It is no coincidence that these are all writers who take a decidedly ludic approach to literary creation.
The Compendium is set out rather like an encyclopedia: there are a number of sections, and their entries are arranged alphabetically. The main section is devoted to the Oulipo itself, while others focus on the group’s various offshoots. The Oulipopo, a group concerned with crime fiction, merits a section of its own, as does the Oupeinpo, a group devoted to art. The final section includes diverse other groups that take as their creative province graphic novels, architecture, music, etc.
The main section of the book includes entries on the group’s members and its precursory creators — or “anticipatory plagiarists” — such as Lewis Carroll and Raymond Roussel. Other entries touch upon key Oulipian works (La disparition, or A Void, Perec’s novel written without using the letter “e”, being the most famous of these), and topics of importance to the group such as the graphic representation of text and animal languages. The minutes of some Oulipo meetings are also included.
Although these entries are certainly useful, the heart of the book lies in its discussion of Oulipo methods, particularly the constraints (or restrictive procedures) and mathematical artifacts devised and employed by Oulipo writers. Each constraint is clearly defined, and illustrated by an example of its use. One such constraint — touched on in passing above — is the lipogram: a piece of writing that intentionally excludes a particular letter of the alphabet. According to Georges Perec, the lipogram is “the oldest systematic artifice of western literature.” Another constraint, and one that was especially appealing (I come from a nation of dog lovers), is called “Poems for Dogs.” This involves writing a poem “that incorporates a dog’s name in such a way that it remains hidden from the human eye but audible to the canine ear.” An extended explanation of this constraint may make clear the Oulipo’s approach to literary creation, and indeed the rationale for wanting to write using constraints.
Edited by Harry Matthews, Edited by Alastair Brotchie.
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