on Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, by Daniel Levin Becker (Harvard University Press)

In September, 1960, at a colloquium in Normandy devoted to his writings, Raymond Queneau (photo, below) decided to convene a small group to engage in a systematic study of experimental literature. Two months later at a Paris restaurant, the Oulipo was launched with co-founder François Le Lionnais. (OuLiPo is an acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop for Potential Literature.) Queneau.jpegAlthough the Oulipo’s membership and activities have since tilted away from clandestine discussion and toward public performance, its founding assertion persists. Daniel Levin Becker describes its work as “attempts to prove the hypothesis that the most arbitrary structural mandates can be the most creatively liberating.”

For instance, consider a monovocalism, a text that avoids the use of all vowels except one. Or a beau présent, usually delivered as a testimonial, comprising only the letters in the honoree’s name. Or a chronopoem, a piece that takes as much time to recite as does the action or task it describes. Privileging the “ordering of the means” over “the intuition of the ends,” the Oulipians reject “ecstatic intuition” in exchange for whatever unanticipated language may appear through play and chance.

There have been only 38 Oulipians. Seventeen are dead, five are female. Georges Perec was invited in 1967. Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews were recruited in 1973. Julio Cortazar was invited but turned them down. Seven members are non-French and two are Americans, one of whom is Levin Becker. Of the current Oulipians, Hervé Le Tellier may be best known to Americans.

BeckerCover.jpegIn Many Subtle Channels, Levin Becker presents the brief history of the Oulipo, spiced by the personalities of its participants. Readers who follow the Oulipians may expect to be duped by their output and to uncover the rules of composition that guide it, but Levin Becker’s writing is anything but Oulipian. It reads like a sturdily constructed, extended feature article. When portraying the players, he captures their blithe oddities and idiosyncratic tendencies, and adeptly shows how various Oulipians have variously interpreted the group’s guidelines.

Levin Becker’s tone can be surprisingly earnest. Below, he describes the benefits of working through an Oulipian exercise:

“You’ve liberated something you didn’t know you were holding back, written on a topic you didn’t realize was on your mind, or in a tonal register you didn’t think you had, or with an alien artistry that amazes you but seems completely natural to the acquaintances all around you. Sometimes that artistry is directly related to the constraint at hand, but just as often it’s not – you’ve just pulled a fast one on yourself and unlocked their weird, encouraging accidental profundity.”

A thousand conventional American writers pump out self-help books and blogposts with advice on how to achieve the same effects. Or do they? The Oulipian difference is found in its profound dismissal (per Roland Barthes) of the “anachronistic personage” of the writer, the supposedly inspired (first- or third-person) voice of authority and pre-established values, “that spoiled child of ignorance” who now must “give place to a more thoughtful person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works.” If that statement turns you off, Levin Becker's generosity of spirit and felicitous phrasing may yet entice you to reconsider.

Perec.jpegGeorges Perec (photo), the producer of a 1200-word long palindrome (a world record exceeded only by a computer), may be the most prolific and impressively original of the French Oulipians. His novel A Void was written without resorting to the letter ‘e.’ He said, “The intense difficulty posed by this sort of production … palls in comparison to the terror I would feel in writing ‘poetry’ freely.” Levin Becker adds, “ ‘Willed subjectivity’ is a way of foregrounding the technical in order to take enough pressure off the personal that it can express itself more or less organically.”

Many Subtle Channels seems to have been written for the reader who might otherwise reject or ridicule Oulipian terms out of hand. Its amiable, wryly engrossed attitude leads the reader into the assertive, subversive comedies of the Oulipo. They are not surrealists – they are blithe teachers, docents and ushers. These days, Oulipians host readings and panel discussions. The recondite accumulation of arbitrary structures has given way to an emphasis on text production, creativity training, and entertainment.

BeckerB.jpegLevin Becker (left) emerges occasionally as a character, mainly to comment on his chosen role as a documenter of the Oulipo. Recruited to handle correspondence and management of the archives, Levin Becker rides the Métro after work: “I can feel my thought patterns changing gently, being primed along oulipian lines; I cannot tell whether this is the understanding and excitement I came to France looking for, or just a different kind of defeat. On the better days I am instinctively aware of the potential of my own thoughts; on the slow days it’s all I can do to inventory and categorize them -- criticisms, compositions, the inclassable -- in the hopes that I can read some sense into them later.”

Many Subtle Channels is animated by the intentionally unlyrical joy taken in a sort of sacrifice – the giving up of literary safety nets. But Levin Becker doesn’t give up on the audience for literature. He encourages us to appreciate and pursue "an openness to language as something material, something manipulable, and something with practically infinite possibility." He addresses us as collaborators. He does us the favor and honor of perceiving us as people with potential.

[Published April 30, 2012. 352 pages, $27.95 hardcover]