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Writings for the Oulipo
Make Now Press ($16.50)
by Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle
Ian Monk was elected to the Oulipo in 1998, the year that Atlas Press originally published his Writings for the Oulipo in London. Founded in Paris in 1960, the Oulipo hovered first between Surrealism and Bourbaki mathematics as their ‘Pataphysical corrective. Wearied by Surrealist schisms and expulsions, Oulipo members instead are appointed for life, and their dead remain ever in good standing. One may secede by suicide alone.
Oulipo abreviates Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature. “Potential” here may be its operative word. By devising generative principles—active axioms—and combinative procedures characterized by inversely prolific constraints, its patriarch Raymond Queneau maintained, “Rats construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.” Called, in a strategic paraphrase of Clausewitz, “The continuation of literature by other means,” self-imposed Oulipian restriction at last affords, as Jacques Roubaud put it, a way out of the “intellectually pathetic belief in total freedom.”
Recently re-released in the U.S., Ian Monk’s Writings for the Oulipo dazzles with its display of samples. Take “A Threnodialist’s Dozen.” Threnodials contain 11 sets of anagrams of the 11 most common letters in the English alphabet, in each of which each letter is used one time. The set “Threnodials” (literally, a dirge) is an eponymous example. Note: an anagram is not a bananagram! Invented by Harry Mathews, the bananagram is an anagram vigorously and rigorously void of meaning. Perversing the baker’s dozen of 13, Monk’s dozen, based on 11’s, comes to 10.
A magisterial translator—he rendered into English our sole complete version of Raymond Roussel’s matchless Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique—Monk next critiques Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perecs’s La Disparition, entitled A Void. While Perec’s book-length murder mystery charts the disappearance of the letter e without once employing that most common vowel, in what’s strictly known as a 12-paragraph lipogram Monk disparages Adair without using it also—as in my last 21 words.
Finally, for those who suppose such language games are too thinky or dinky, I excerpt from Monk’s “Homage to Georges Perec: An Entertainment in Six Univocalisms.” Both its constraint and lack thereof should prove glaring:
In his digs, I kiss his lips. Lifting his shirt, impish, I sink. First, I pinch his midriff. Blinking in his hindsight, I kiss his thighs, lick his dick till it’s stiff. I grip his fist, sliding it till his mid-digit’s clitiris*-twiddling.
Above I list just three of Monk’s Sphinx-like steganographics. And in a caveat I add I may somewhere have misread a form, as one Oulipian constraint, “Canada Dry,” requires work to look like it is constraint-determined while utilizing no constraints at all.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008