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Writing from the Oulipo

December 2013

"La Manif" by Killoffer, 2009, Graphite on Paper 48 x 63 cm, Courtesy of Galerie Anne Barrault

This month we’re showcasing the sparkling innovations in form and literature produced by the members of the Oulipo. The Paris-based literary collective explores how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints, working within restrictions—alphabetical, narrative, rhythmic, metric—to set genres and language loose. Ian Monk’s tour of an apartment building maintains a strict numeric unity in lines and words. Olivier Salon travels through a gradually dwindling alphabet. Michèle Métail claims a chain of possessives, and Anne F. Garréta offers a rogue reading of Proust. In playing with poetic forms, Jacques Bens finds sonnets easy as pi, and Jacques Jouet extends the sestina. And François Caradec’s aphorisms offer less than meets the eye. Guest editor and translator Daniel Levin Becker provides a useful key to the considerations at play in both French and English versions. Join us in marveling at the verbal gymnastics of the writers, and at the dazzling ingenuity of the translators.

Words with Borders: Writing from the Oulipo
By Daniel Levin Becker
To write an Oulipian text is both to draw a picture and to solve a puzzle.
The Stations of the Cry
By Olivier Salon
Hear Haydn’s cry at the court of the Prince, and his symphony.
Translated from French by Chris Clarke
Seven Irrational Sonnets
By Jacques Bens
Committing blasphemy’s no parlor game.
Translated from French by Rachel Galvin
Melody in A Flat
By Ian Monk
in the basement she coughs then lights a smoke
Translated from French by the author
To sleep, perchance to dream
By Anne F. Garréta
I have long suspected that the public, exoteric text of Remembrance of Things Past is a fake.
Translated from French by Daniel Levin Becker
Anagrammatic Sestina
By Jacques Jouet
At the end of the furrow, words staple / the page, lashing agile lines. None are spared.
Translated from French by Rachel Galvin
Infinity, Minus Forty Yearly Installments: Noun Complements (1972–2012)
By Michèle Métail
On every banknote that passed through my hands I wrote one verse.
Translated from French by Tom La Farge
The Life You Save May Be Your Own
By François Caradec
Smirking, the abbess palpates the prelate’s brow.
Translated from French by Dara Keck