oulipo in new york 03.30.2009, 4:16 PM
posted by dan visel
The most prominent members of the Oulipo are making a rare descent upon New York this week; there are readings at the New School tonight and in Pierogi in Williamsburg on April 3rd. (A complete schedule of events can be found here.) Oulipo is the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (the workshop of potential literature), a group of mostly French mathematicians and writers who use constraint to generate new literary forms. The most well-known Oulipians are the late Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec; the group, however, carries on, and Marcel Bénabou, Anne Garréta, Hervé Le Tellier, Ian Monk, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Mathews will be talking about their work.
Part of the occasion for their arrival is the publication of Jacques Roubaud's The Loop in Jeff Fort's English translation by the Dalkey Archive. (There's a launch party tomorrow night at Idlewild Books.) The Loop, originally published in France in 1993, is the second volume of a series of works collectively called The Great Fire of London; five volumes have been published in France, and a sixth and final volume is in the works. While the first volume (published under the same name as the series) was translated into English in 1992, it's taking a while for the rest of them to appear here. The Great Fire of London is worthy of mention here because it's perhaps the most extended literary use of hypertext. The two volumes published here have "Fiction" stamped on the back cover, but that's not entirely accurate: these books are writing about writing, a metafictional memoir if you will, arranged around Roubaud's inability to write a novel entitled The Great Fire of London. (Marcel Bénabou confronts this issue more concisely in a book of his own entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.)
"Metafiction" is a word used in criticism to damn writing more often than not; especially in this country, it's frequently presented as ivory tower excess, obfuscatory, the enemy of American plain-speaking. The Great Fire of London is certainly subject to these criticisms: Roubaud is dazzlingly intelligent (while a professor of mathematics at the Sorbonne he studied for a second doctorate in poetry), and his writing pulls no punches; within the first chapter of The Loop, the reader is faced with explorations of the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa, Wittgenstein, and Kripke, to name only the philosophers. But The Great Fire of London is also a very personal work: as explained in the first volume, Roubaud began writing the work after the death of his wife Alix as a means of working through grief. His wife's presence hovers over the first two volumes of the work, albeit obliquely: her death is never discussed directly. Roubaud wakes every morning before dawn and writes a section of his evolving book; he forces himself to work linearly, not to revise, not to leave anything out. The first volume focuses on his conception of his project and his writing, though there are memoiristic departures: Roubaud's ideas about how croissants should work and how jam was prepared in his childhood in Provence; the memory of an American love affair and his tastes in English novelists all make their way in to his narrative.
Roubaud does not constrain himself to a strictly linear writing style: periodically there are interpolations, glosses on passages of his linear book that go on for a few pages; interpolations frequently have their own interpolations. There are also bifurcations: sometimes Roubaud sees another way that his narrative could go and follows it for a longer period. The reader flips back and forth through the sections of the book; to follow Roubaud's suggested pathway (which, he points out, is not the only way to read the book) requires three bookmarks.
Here, as a demonstration, is a diagram of the first chapter of The Loop, showing how 90 pages of the book's text are interconnected: the chapter itself is about 30 pages, there are about 30 pages of interpolations, and the bifurcation also lasts for 30 pages. Horizontal connections are interpolations, where linear text is interrupted to suggest a possible digression; vertical connections are linear connections. The complete book is about six times this length; I'd love to see a complete map of the book, though I haven't found one yet.
It should be noted that this diagram only captures the explicit interconnections in the book; there are also implicit interconnections, and especially in the bifurcation Roubaud refers back to other interpolations that the reader trying to follow the explicit map will not yet have read. Like Cortázar's Hopscotch, this is a book that demands re-reading. Dominic Di Bernardi's afterword to the English translation of The Great Fire of London, "The Great Fire of London and the Destruction of the Book", argues that Roubaud's work is the future of the book: the future was hypertext. Read 17 years later, this feels like a flying car vision of the future; the hypertext future that everyone imagined in 1992 never really arrived.
Roubaud's work, by contrast, now feels like a deeply personal project: one man's attempt to map out his memory as accurately as possible using the formal tools available to him, trying to smash the architecture of memory into the Procrustean bed imposed by the strict linearity of our readership of text. In The Great Fire of London, Roubaud explains how he works with a typewriter, an electronic model named Miss Bosanquet III (named after the secretary of Henry James); Miss Bosanquet III's primitive word-processing capabilities allowed him to edit one line of text before it was printed. With The Loop, Roubaud started composing using a Mac. The results are obvious as soon as one opens the book: text is bolded, italicized, and underlined, and the type size changes. The Loop is primarily about Roubaud's childhood, but it's also necessarily an exploration of how writing can approach the problem of mapping memory, and, by extension, how technology changes writing. The problem for the reader of Roubaud is that technology changes reading as well: we're left trying to catch up.
Posted by dan visel on March 30, 2009 4:16 PM
Nathaniel on April 1, 2009 1:47 PM:
A small correction: according to French Wikipedia, the series is called "The Project." Having read its first installment, "The Great Fire of London," that title seems to make more sense to me.
Jason Weaver on April 1, 2009 4:14 PM:
I'm very excited about this. I return to 'The Great Fire of London' every few years and it continues to unlock doors with each re-reading. Funnily enough, I was discussing collaborative fiction with somebody earlier today. There are a number of new collaborative sites springing up and a palpable sense that it's time has arrived. And then I remembered the same feeling in 93-94 that hypertext was going to revolutionize writing. As you say, it never really happened. Thanks for a great introduction to OULIPO.
dan visel on April 1, 2009 6:15 PM:
Nathaniel: I knew I'd screw up on terminology somewhere. In the afterword to The Loop, Jeff Fort refers to the whole sequence as "The great fire of London" with no capitals – this seems kind of confusing, esp. given the differences in the way French and American publishers capitalize titles. "The Project" seems loaded – there's the project that Roubaud envisions & the books that he's actually published, which seem to be different things?
Jason: I think there's a crucial distinction to be drawn between the early-90s-style hypertexts and collaborative work, though they do tend to be discussed in the same breath. Roubaud's work is very much his alone – while the reading experience might be seen as a collaboration with the reader, there's really only a single author. Multiple authorship can result in something that feels similar – different webpages linking to each other, for example – but I think that the intent & the experience of reading are vastly different. Probably an argument can be made the hypertext never happened because it was simply too hard for most authors to do?
And I should have included some Roubaud-related links: the fantastic Dalkey Archive has a great casebook related to The Great Fire of London, and there are useful reviews here (Terry Pitts), here (Richard Crary), and here (Stephen Mitchelmore).