Oulipo, OuMuPo, OuPeinPo, OuBaPo, etc.
by Sal Robinson
In fall, oneâ€™s thoughts turn to the battening-down-of-hatches, the finiteness of time, and in due course, constraints, and then, naturally, but also possibly as an escape from the lowering gloom, to theÂ OulipoÂ movement. Whose youngest memberÂ Daniel Levin Becker is the translator of the forthcoming, never-before-translatedÂ La Boutique Obscure:Â 124 Dreams,Â Georges Perecâ€™s extraordinary dream journal from the late 60s. (There will be dentists.) It has hypnotizing and beautiful cover, and something may or may not emerge if you move your head very quickly towards and away from the computer screen while focusing on the middle of it.
Levin Becker is the author of a recent book on the Oulipo,Â Many Subtle Channels, which was recently the subject of a three-part series byÂ Matt RoweÂ onÂ Three PercentÂ (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here), which describes Levin Beckerâ€™s introduction to the Oulipians:
The first third ofÂ Many Subtle ChannelsÂ recounts his experience of discovering, meeting, and finally joining this strange group. Levin Becker first encountered the Oulipo as a Yale student, when George Perecâ€™s story â€śThe Winter Journeyâ€ť was assigned in his French class. After college, he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to go to France with a (he admits) ill-defined project to study the Oulipo. He soon found himself put to work as the groupâ€™s â€śslave,â€ť organizing its archives; only after he had left France did he learn that he had been elected to membership himself. He invites us to â€śthink of the Oulipo … as a search party for those of us who donâ€™t know what weâ€™re looking for.â€ť
Rowe also draws attention to some little-known (at least to me) corners or associates or affiliates of Oulipo: OuMuPo, OuPeinPo, OuBaPo, OuTyPo, and OuWiPo, for music, painting, comics, typography and Wikipedia respectively; the Italian counterpart, OuLePo; past and present writers who wrote work we might consider Oulipian, but who arenâ€™t actually members, likeÂ Jorge LuisÂ Borges,Â StanisĹ‚aw Lem,Â Milorad PaviÄ‡Â and, more recently,Â David MitchellÂ andÂ CĂ©sar Aira.
The real significance of the Oulipo, Rowe argues, may be in the stance towards reading that their work invites:
The key lies in reading, not writing. As Levin Becker points out, those members who studied the Oulipo before becoming members learned to read â€śoulipianlyâ€ť before they learned to write that way â€¦ this has much more to do with Barthesâ€™ notion of â€śreaderly writing.â€ťÂ As explicated by Tom La Farge, readerly writing engages the reader as a creative collaborator. For the writer, â€śthe process of composition is … an experience of reading,â€ť and the reader in turn becomes â€śan active participant in the composition process.â€ť The oulipian reader, like the oulipian writer, is always re-reading, re-creating, re-membering. Levin Becker claims this â€ścreative readingâ€ť — in effect, writing in reverse — â€śis no less noble, no less rewarding, no less potentially spectacular, than creative writing.â€ť
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House, and co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.