Oulipo Laboratory — Reviews

Sulfur 40, 1996.

The Complete Review website, 22.10.2011.

Oulipo Laboratory: Texts from the Bibliothèque Oulipienne

From the Reviews:

  • “An improbably enjoyable collection.” – Kirkus Reviews

The Complete Review‘s review:

Oulipo Laboratory collects several examples from the Oulipo’s Bibliothèque Oulipienne (which now numbers over two hundred volumes) and these, along with the other pieces here offer a good, small introduction to Oulipian writing.
The texts by founding fathers François Le Lionnais (two manifestos from 1962 and 1973) and Raymond Queneau (The Foundations of Literature (after David Hilbert)) are standard (and familiar — but still worth reproducing here) introductions to the group and its principles — of using restrictions and constraints in their writing, in which they see, as Alastair Brotchie puts it in his Introduction: “not limitation but potentiality“. The other pieces illustrate a variety of ways in which Oulipo authors have put this into practice.
Oulipo Laboratory is worth it just for Italo Calvino’s essential gloss on his novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, his explanation of How I Wrote One of My Books, a neat, fully diagrammed clear outline of the book.
Paul Fournel’s Suburbia is a novel that includes the entire supporting apparatus of a book, from title- and copyright-page through dedication, table of contents, introduction (attributed to Marguerite Duras), footnotes, an index and even a list of errata — everything, that is, except for the actual text of the novel proper, which remains invisible. The supporting material allows for some sense of the missing text, but it is entirely left to the reader to imagine what it actually is. It’s a beautifully done piece.
Jacques Jouet’s The Great-Ape Love-Son plays (very, very seriously) with the idea of a ‘great-ape language’ (of less than 300 words) and translation from it, while Claude Berge’s Who Killed the Duke of Densmore ? is an elaborate rule-filled variation on the whodunit, with entirely mathematical foundations (and resolution).
Harry Mathews’ The Poet’s Eye (written in English) offers ‘English eye rhymes’ — sonnets and limericks that ‘rhyme’ only as written — so, for example:

Said a boy to an elderly bather
Who reminded him of his dear father,
“Sir, the pit of your navel
Is full of green gravel
And your ear’s overflowing with lather.”

In presenting a few representative examples from the Bibliothèque Oulipienne this small volume is a useful complement to the Oulipo Compendium and Warren Motte Jr.’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature — a triad of books each serving a slightly different purpose and offering a different perspective on the Oulipo. The Oulipo Compendium remains the essential starter volume, but this fine collection is also highly recommended — one just wishes there were (much) more to it. Indeed, this was published way back in 1995 and another sampler is long overdue — and one wonders why more of these pamphlets haven’t been collected and translated (beyond the obvious translations challenges …).

The Year’s Work in English Studies, 1995.

Kirkus, 1.7.1996

Oulipo Laboratory ($15.99 paperback original; Aug. 1996; 256 pp.; 0-947757-89-9): An anthology of representative writings from the French experimental group (the “Workshop for Potential Literature”) that was founded by post-surrealist Raymond Queneau for the purpose of exploring the possibilities of combining literature with mathematics, and whose members included such other verbal magicians as Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Its contents reflect varying degrees of intelligibility, but readers should be amused (if not especially enlightened) by Calvino’s “diagram” of the relations among writer, characters, and reader required by one of his novels–as well as by Jacques Jouet’s “The Great-Ape Love- Song” and the alarmingly witty “eye rhymes” displayed in two joyously nutty sequences of poems by the fiendish Harry Mathews. An improbably enjoyable collection.