& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Thinking like an Oulipien

Guest Post

Review By Fraser Sutherland

Wishes: Georges Perec

Translated and transmogrified by Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall
Wakefield Press 2018, 229 Pages, $17.95, ISBN 9781939663337

The day my review copy of George Perec’s Wishes arrived I had spent part of the time wondering what a Shakespearean sonnet would look like if it had been written by a sheep.

I sheepishly admit that I naturally didn’t get far with my woolly speculations. Other than the indefinite article (“ah”), Shakespeare’s lines tend to lack the short a, and anything resembling “baa baa black sheep” is nowhere in sight. Unwittingly, though, I was thinking the way Oulipians like Georges Perec do. They make up rules and obey them, come what may. As Jacques Roubaud says, “An Oulipian author is a rat who himself builds the maze from which he sets out to escape.”

As a group, Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, “workshop of potential literature”) was co-founded about 1960 by the prose polymath Raymond Queneau and included Perec, whose most famous, or perhaps notorious, work is perhaps the book-length lipogram La Disparition, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void. The novel entirely dispenses with the letter e, the most frequently used alphabetical letter in French (and English.)

Oulipo rebelled against a heavyweight literary movement, surrealism.  In Perec’s words

At the OuLiPo
We prefer
The cocktails of Queneau
To the quenelles of Cocteau

If playfulness sometimes descends into sheer silliness, unlike surrealism or automatic writing it never becomes so mired in depth psychology so as to become humourless. Like surrealism, it specializes in opening doors to the unexpected. To that end, one of many Oulipian subversive tactics is “N +7”: each noun is replaced in a specified text by the seventh noun following it in a specified dictionary. Thus “To be or not to be: that is the question” becomes via Random House College Dictionary (1979) “To be or not to be: that is the quibble.”

Most of Oulipo’s members, except for the American expatriate Harry Mathews and the occasional elected luminary like Italo Calvino, have been French. France may be the only country ever to honour a merry band of literary jokers by issuing a postage stamp, which it did for Oulipo in 2002.

Oulipo’s predecessors or anticipators can be said to include Lewis Carroll, with his crazed logical consistency, and Alfred Jarry with his “pataphysics,” his so-called “science of imaginary solutions.” And one may as well throw in James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who share Oulipo’s devotion to puns. For an Oulipian, as for them, a pun is not just the source of a cheap laugh, but the repository of a complex truth. No wonder Oulipians adore the creative mishearings (to which personally I’ve always been prone) called mondegreens. In one of his works Perec tells of an elderly Russian Jew who arrives at Ellis Island. He’d been advised to choose an Americanized name to offer the immigration officers. Unfortunately for him, he nervously forgets Rockefeller, the name he had chosen, and stutters, “Schon vergessen” (“I’ve already forgotten.”) The officer puts down “John Ferguson.”

Between 1970 and 1982 Perec sent about 100 or so people New Year’s greetings in the form of short texts which, as Maurice Olender says in his Foreword to Wishes, raise “the pun to the level of punishment.” Especially, one may add, punishment of a hapless translator. Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall bravely copes with the abundant challenges posed by the texts by producing two versions, one a “semantic” translation focussing on meaning,” the other a “transmogrification…that renders the play (rather than the meaning) of Perec’s text into English.” Added to them are tables that list the words or phrases generating the text.  But, as Wythe-Hall admits, “to present direct homophonic renditions of Perec’s tables into English along with their semantic meaning is simply impossible.” She gets high marks for translating what are in effect translations of names, titles, proverbs, and clichés, like trying to solve a crossword puzzle with maddening clues.  Reading Wishes demands a lot of consulting back and forth.

One example: a table gives “Rare est rire aux rues” (“Rare is the laughter in the streets,”) which Wythe-Hall translates as  “A passerby remarks how exceptional it is to hear people laughing in the street.” “Les choses (the things), in a table is transmogrified to “Lay shows” in answer to the question “What should one say to a girl exiting a bedroom, her face flushed, her clothes wrinkled, and her hair disheveled?” Les choses is also the title of Perec’s first novel. Oulipians are prone to in-jokes.

Historically free verse came about as a liberation from imprisoning, rule-based end rhyme and metre. For the Oulipian the greater the constraints, the more fruitful can be the results: a complex verse form like the sestina is more productive than rhyming couplets. So is the cento, a poem composed of other poets’ lines. Oulipian procedures and processes can lead to wonderful imaginative discoveries. The Canadian poet Christian Bök won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize for his Eunoia (“beautiful thinking”) that includes five chapters, one for each vowel: “Awkward grammar appals a craftsman,” “Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech,” and so on. Still, the pursuit of literature would be tiresome, trivial, or ultimately sterile if it were confined to wordplay and language games, entertaining or rewarding as they often are.

Harry Mathews, author of the marvellously inventive and hilarious novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, came up with one of many Oulipian innovations, the “perverb,” a cross between two proverbs, e.g., “A rolling stone leads to Rome.”  

Which may be true. Nonetheless, all roads need to roam.


Biographical Note: Fraser Sutherland is a Canadian poet and lexicographer.  He’s published 17 books, 10 of them poetry collections, this year forthcoming Bad Habits (Mosaic Press.) He lives in Toronto.

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