Dennis Duncan

Method in the madness

The most famous member of the Parisian group was perhaps Georges Perec, whose novel avoiding the letter ‘e’ was more than just an ingenious experiment

Have you heard of the Oulipo? The long-running Parisian workshop for experimental writing? Even if you haven’t, you might have heard of some of its members: Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp. The group’s stock-in-trade (so-called ‘constrained writing’) is best illustrated by their most notorious production: Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition which manages to avoid using the letter ‘e’ (and which was miraculously translated into English as A Void).

Founded in 1960, the Oulipo spent its first decade in self-imposed semi-secrecy. While its academic sibling, Structuralism, came to dominate literature departments both at home and abroad, the Oulipo watched discreetly in disdain: why are the structuralists so dry, so up themselves? Where’s the fun in that? In the mid-1960s, when the group’s original joie de vivre began to flag, a decision was taken to revivify things by accepting new members, and these second-wavers — many of whom, such as Perec, Jacques Roubaud and Harry Mathews, were up-and-coming writers with something of a public profile already — made secrecy more or less untenable.

The group has continued, periodically, to take on new blood, and are more active and less secret than they’ve ever been. For nearly 60 years they have held monthly meetings in Paris to discuss new constraints and new literary forms, ways of forcing writers out of their familiar patterns, of making them say things they didn’t expect to say.

If that all sounds a bit surrealist to you, then you’re both right and wrong. A number of the group’s founder members had been through surrealism’s fractious, bitter first wave and come out the other end jaded and sceptical. What literature needed was not more freedom but less; not chance, but rules. Look at literary form, they would say, whether rhyme, metre or the Aristotelian unities of drama: great literature, from its earliest days, has always had some kind of scaffolding propping it up.

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