Paul Fournel is a novelist, former publisher and French cultural attaché in London, and the provisionally definitive secretary and president of the select literary collective known as Oulipo, whose fellows have included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Members of Oulipo remain members after their deaths. In this respect, it is the French literary equivalent of the Hotel California, a comparison I suspect its followers would neither welcome nor necessarily understand. But playful and defiant obscurantism is all part of Oulipo’s raison d’être.
Dear Reader is set in the world of publishing and tells the tale of a middle-aged editor, Robert Dubois, struggling to adapt to the rise of the e-book; the surname is no accident. The book is brief, witty, intellectual and wonderfully quotable.
It also adheres faithfully to the Oulipian doctrine of ‘creative constraint’. The most celebrated example of this is Perec’s La Disparition (1969), composed entirely without using the letter e and heroically translated into English by Gilbert Adair in the 1990s as A Void. In the case of Dear Reader — original title La liseuse — British readers have had to wait just two years for the translator David Bellos to deliver a close reimagining of Fournel’s work. In the Afterword, the author discloses the constraint under which Dear Reader was written.
It struck me that the subject implied a reflection on the future of reading. It is probable that one of the possible forms of reading in the near future will be interactive: readers will enter into the body of the text and adapt it to their taste … That is why I decided to give my book (probably one of the last of its kind) a fixed form based on its character count, so that anyone entering it to change a single letter will destroy the entire project.