Mini-Review: The Penguin Book of Oulipo by Philip Terry (ed.)

The Penguin Book of Oulipo [2019] – ★★★★

This book is a very good compilation of Oulipo writings from all major writers, including from Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature) and denotes a group, founded in 1960 in France, that adopts a style of writing using “constrained” writing techniques. The goal is to experiment with “new structures and patters” in writing to stretch the possibilities of literature. Thus, the book contains all kinds of linguistic conundrums, narrative riddles, experimental poetry and comics, as well as narratives which experiment with word-play, anagrams, palindromes, repetitive forms and homophonic translations. There are examples of “constrained” or “seemingly nonsensical” writing from such authors as Homer, Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, Jorge Luis Borges and Francois Rabelais.

This reversible inscription on a wine tray by Yin Zhongkan can be read in sixteen different ways, including “What suits the body is joy and wine/For rituals, there are rules”, and “The rule is to have what suits the body/Joy and wine which becomes ritual.”

One prime example of this type of writing is Georges Perec’s A Void (La Disparition). This work was written without using the letter “e” in writing, and then, the translator, Gilbert Adair, also decided to be bound by this rule when translating. Harry Mathews’s Their Words, For You is written using only the words found in forty-six proverbs, while Paul Fournel’s Suburbia contains such sections as “A Word from the Publisher”, “Foreword”, “Supplement for School Use” as well as references/citation, but, extraordinarily, not the main text. Herve Le Tellier’s Atlas Inutilis has encyclopaedic entries that amaze, conjuring up impossible worlds, including that of one strange desert whose inhabitants play a “virtual” ball or a planet that has “five sexes”. In turn, in Joe Brainard’s work I Remember, each sentence begins with “I remember” as the author recalls and writes down each of his specific memories without pausing to think about their appropriateness or actuality, so we have “I remember the day John Kennedy was shot”, “I remember many dreams of finding gold and jewels”, “I remember when I went to a “come as your favourite person” party as Marilyn Monroe”, and “I remember an American history teacher who was always threatening to jump out of the window if we didn’t quiet down. (Second floor.)” Another highlight for me was Francois Caradec’s short story The Worm’s Journey, which I found quite original. This tale is told exclusively from the point of view of a worm, from his birth “in a scantling in the bell-tower of Sainte-Mere-Eglise” to his starting a family and raising “a clutch of baby worms”, while, in between, we also read of him substituting his career of a “wood-worm” for the career of a “book-worm”.

One downside of The Penguin Book of Oulipo is that it largely contains only extracts from works (though they are 100! examples), rather than whole works, and some of the material included needs some/more explanation from the editor.


10 thoughts on “Mini-Review: The Penguin Book of Oulipo by Philip Terry (ed.)

  1. I am one of those who have read ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec. That novel has everything in it including the kitchen sink. Parts of it were brilliant, parts of it were annoying. Here are my two reviews of it:
    As for Italo Calvino, I loved his work until I got to “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler…” which I thought was a little too oulipo:
    So I am not completely convinced about oulipo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read and enjoyed your reviews, thanks very much, and I understand. This Penguin book is also a mixed bag and therefore I only gave it four stars rather than five. However, when some writing does nail oulipo style, it is just so beautiful. We must give it to them anyway – it is far from easy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh crumbs, I often contemplated writing a book with all the apparatus surrounding the text but omitting the text and now I see that Paul Fournel has already beaten me to it in his Suburbia! I wonder what other brilliant literary ideas I’ve had that someone (perhaps noted in this compendium) has already employed! My artistic horizons are shrinking as I write this… 😁

    Liked by 1 person

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