Trompe Lit

Andrew Hultkrans on a panel of Oulipians

New York

Left: Oulipian Anne F. Garréta. Right: The panel of Oulipians. (All photos: Dawn Chan)

IF THIS WERE A TEXT generated by the OuLiPo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), which, founded in France in 1960 by novelist-poet Raymond Queneau and engineer-mathematician François Le Lionnais, dedicated itself to the playful pursuit of constrained writing (e.g., a novel that eschews the letter e or a palindromic poem), I might have bound myself to the rule that I name the participants of Wednesday’s group reading at the New School only once. This, it turns out, happens to be a not entirely arbitrary conceit, because while Yale associate French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel’s affectionate introduction was otherwise informative, it failed to clearly identify the six individuals seated, panel-style, onstage at Tishman Auditorium.

So, here they are, for the record (they will be assigned nicknames for the duration): Marcel Bénabou, Hervé Le Tellier, and Jacques Roubaud made up the Frenchmen, who, in not necessarily corresponding order, will be referred to as Frenchman A, B, and C. Then there was Ian Monk (the Brit); Daniel Levin Becker (the Boy Wonder); and Anne F. Garréta (Dr. Strangelove), whose uncanny resemblance to Peter Sellers’s Nazi rocket scientist in hairstyle, eyeglasses, and facial structure was mildly disturbing.

As noted by poet and memoirist Honor Moore (the Host), the six readers are Oulipians for eternity. One of the tenets of OuLiPo is that, once elected to the society, you remain a member in good standing even after death. You can only resign by committing suicide with the specific purpose of resigning from OuLiPo. Some of the more famous inert Oulipians include Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Marcel Duchamp. The most prominent living American member, novelist Harry Mathews, was on the bill but sadly absent.

Left: Yale associate French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel with professor Peter Consenstein. Right: Oulipian Ian Monk.

As I entered the hall, the crowd was getting seated to the strains of the appropriately perverse Serge Gainsbourg. The Host soon ascended the stage and called the reading the start of a “once-in-a-lifetime week” (further OuLiPo events were scheduled around New York in the days to come) and read fulsome endorsement of the society by John Ashbery. She recounted a multiyear e-mail correspondence she’d had with the prominent American Oulipian, the constraint being that they had to address each other with names beginning with the letters H and M (which, of course, were already the initials of their real names). As they passed missives starting “Hunka Munka,” “Her Majesty,” “Henry Mancini,” etc., the Host was indoctrinated into the ways of OuLiPo, which the novelist called “a sect.”

She then introduced the associate French professor, who explained that the OuLiPo’s “arbitrarily conceived constraints” must be “verifiable,” or perceptible, and that oral readings of the work made this more difficult. “The nature of tonight’s reading is to be tricked,” he said, and this seemed in line with OuLiPo’s general air of literary pranksterism. With that, the Brit, who functioned as a sort of moderator throughout, announced that the group would begin with a “collective reading” of an iconic text by the prominent American Oulipian: a series of cheeky variations on “To be, or not to be” (e.g., “Antonymy—Nothing and something: this was an answer”), of which my favorite has always been, “Another point of view—Hamlet, quit stalling!”

The Boy Wonder, a recent Yale graduate and the youngest member of OuLiPo by far, read a 160-word story that he “wrote for a 160-word story contest.” It was clever and brief. The Brit followed with “Iris,” a bawdy tale of a bar hookup and sloppy copulation that had an i in every word. During the remarkably detailed (considering the constraint) sex scene, the oldest Frenchman held his head in his hands in apparent embarrassment. Frenchman C then read a story that had been translated into English by the Brit in which every sentence began, “I was thinking . . . ” Another Frenchman (A or B; I’m not sure) read from the well-known Oulipian text Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, in French. A number of audience members chuckled knowingly after the first few lines. Sophisticates. The Brit then read the same story in English, which begins with a Borges epigraph about how tiresome it is to write long books when ideas can be orally expressed in a fraction of the time. The piece, unsurprisingly, is something of a manifesto for literary minimalism.

Left: Oulipian Marcel Bénabou. Right: Oulipian Jacques Roubaud.

One of the Frenchman (not C), read an amusing, hyperliteral deconstruction of the standard epistolary opener “I received your last letter.” The Boy Wonder, uniting OuLiPo’s twin passions for literature and math, followed with a series of microstories whose subjects were determined by the prime factors of their word counts. This was one of the less “verifiable” offerings, but impressive nonetheless. Frenchman C read fragments of a novel about various couples and their couplings, each scene capped by the Brit, who read the last few lines of every segment. C’s thick accent caused him to mispronounce vowels—clitoris had a long i; penis a short e—but his story did contain the priceless lines “He muttered a Georges Bataille quote into her ear” and “She noticed that the Chlamydiae he had given her were not decorative plants.”

Dr. Strangelove, saying, “Let’s be serious for a bit,” read a long, memoiristic fragment about how books proliferate, colonize, and overwhelm her life, which ended with a series of Oulipian constraints intended to limit the amount of books in the world and, hence, in her apartment. The Brit concluded with a “serious limerick sequence,” which “chopped and butchered” the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the form into a flowing series about a romance gone bad. Then, unceremoniously, it was over. The audience was invited to the stage to have their books signed by the authors. For a group as gnomic and experimental as the OuLiPo, some Q&A elaboration would have been welcome, but perhaps this lack was the event’s overarching constraint.