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Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literatureby Daniel Levin Becker
Ebullient to those already under the Oulipian spell and likely befuddling to those ingenuity intolerant, Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels is a fascinating, engaging, and well-researched account of Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (translating loosely as the "workshop for potential literature"), a collective of mostly French writers and mathematicians that employ(ed) a range of constraints in their work to aid in the exploration of the seemingly limitless possibilities and forms inherent in literary creation.
Oulipian inquiry has yielded novels without certain vowels, love stories without gender, poems without words, books that never end, books that do nothing but end, books that would technically take longer to read than most geological eras have lasted, books that share the exercise of mourning, books that aim to keep the reader from reading them, books that exist for no particular reason other than to amuse and perplex, books that may not actually exist at all. These works, all of them governed in some way by strict technical constraints or elaborate architectural designs, are attempts to prove the hypothesis that the most arbitrary structural mandates can be the most creatively liberating.
Levin Becker traces Oulipo's origins and follows them through a half-century to their myriad present-day spin-offs and associated incarnations. Offering brief biographical sketches of many of its most noteworthy members (including cofounders Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais), as well as explanations of some of the group's most favored techniques, Many Subtle Channels is an indispensable addition to the Oulipian library in English. Levin Becker, now himself a member (having been co-opted in 2009 at the age of 24, making him the only other American after Harry Mathews), writes admiringly of the group, recounting meetings attended, performances witnessed, and inquests conducted.
Univocalism, the prisoner's constraint, n+7, anagrams, palindromes, alexandrines, sestinas, chronopoems, acrostics, word golf, metro poems, homophones, lipograms, snowballs, pangrams, and tautograms (to name but a handful) are all deliciously captivating, and Levin Becker does an excellent job describing and providing examples of each (although, sadly, some specimens remain untranslated [untranslatable?!] as yet). Surely Many Subtle Channels has a limited audience, but Levin Becker makes it accessible both to the ardent admirer as well as to those with but a cursory interest. Delving into the philosophical ramifications and technical applications of constrained writing (to reveal or not to reveal, that is the question) brings up any number of interesting asides and makes clear that potential(!) volumes of criticism could never begin to exhaust the subject. Many Subtle Channels is an invaluable read for fans of Oulipo or for anyone intrigued by boundless creativity, structured formation, or the irresistible coalescence of literature and mathematics.
...and so in the Oulipo, as in these stories, it is the act of seeking that defines the characters. They become who they are in searching for a solution, through the optimism and momentum of working toward it on their own terms, with the creative tools and interpretive resources at their disposal. The bigger the haystack, the better it is not to have a particular needle in mind. Think of the Oulipo, if you like, as a search party for those of us who don't know what we're looking for.
Et vive l'Oulipo!
Synopses & Reviews
What sort of society could bind together Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Queneau--and Daniel Levin Becker, a young American obsessed with language play? Only the Oulipo, the Paris-based experimental collective founded in 1960 and fated to become one of literature's quirkiest movements.
An international organization of writers, artists, and scientists who embrace formal and procedural constraints to achieve literature's possibilities, the Oulipo (the French acronym stands for "workshop for potential literature") is perhaps best known as the cradle of Georges Perec's novel A Void, which does not contain the letter e. Drawn to the Oulipo's mystique, Levin Becker secured a Fulbright grant to study the organization and traveled to Paris. He was eventually offered membership, becoming only the second American to be admitted to the group. From the perspective of a young initiate, the Oulipians and their projects are at once bizarre and utterly compelling. Levin Becker's love for games, puzzles, and language play is infectious, calling to mind Elif Batuman's delight in Russian literature in The Possessed.
In recent years, the Oulipo has inspired the creation of numerous other collectives: the OuMuPo (a collective of DJs), the OuMaPo (marionette players), the OuBaPo (comic strip artists), the OuFlarfPo (poets who generate poetry with the aid of search engines), and a menagerie of other Ou-X-Pos (workshops for potential something). Levin Becker discusses these and other intriguing developments in this history and personal appreciation of an iconic--and iconoclastic--group.
The youngest member of the Paris-based experimental collective Oulipo, Levin Becker tells the story of one of literature's quirkiest movements--and the personal quest that led him to seek out like-minded writers, artists, and scientists who are obsessed with language and games, and who embrace formal constraints to achieve literature's potential.
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012
About the Author
Daniel Levin Becker is Reviews Editor for the Believer and has been a member of the Oulipo since 2009.
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