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December 2013

Writing from the Oulipo

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.

Our feature presents writing from Sudan, as Max Shmookler introduces three stories of estrangement by Nagi Al-Badawi, Adil al-Qassas, and Sabah Babiker Ibraheem Sanhouri. And we're delivering the second installment of Sakumi Tayama's "Spirit Summoning," in which a pair of fraudulent mediums deliver unexpected results.

Words with Borders: Writing from the Oulipo
By Daniel Levin Becker
As the prevailing image used by book reviewers to praise literary translations is that of transparency—limpid, pellucid, crystalline—it seems clear, so to speak, how ready we are to think…
The Stations of the Cry
By Olivier Salon
This is the tale of a lengthy journey. A step-by-step journey, one inspired by a misfortune that took place in the court of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy, in November 1772, in the city of Esterháza.…
Translated from French by Chris Clarke
Seven Irrational Sonnets
By Jacques Bens
MelancholySo I’ll once more find my old horizons,cherished scent of winds and habitations.Fear not if it seems I’m quitting the place.I leave Paris just to love it better.One tends to hurry…
Translated from French by Rachel Galvin
Melody in A Flat
By Ian Monk
in the basement the heroine of a Gainsbourg songon the eighth a top executive smug and cockyon the first a sexually repressed family of bourgeoison the seventh Mr. Fix-It getting itchy fingerson the second…
Translated from French by Ian Monk
To sleep, perchance to dream
By Anne F. Garréta
CensorshipWe know that the earliest readers of Remembrance of Things Past objected to the length of its incipit narration of its hero’s noddings-off and nocturnal (and diurnal) reveries. A gentleman…
Translated from French by Daniel Levin Becker
Anagrammatic Sestina
By Jacques Jouet
At the end of the furrow, words staplethe page, lashing agile lines. None are spared. The choice is made: it imbricates, recapswhite porcelain, tin, polishes carets,better yet, china clay. Rhyming…
Translated from French by Rachel Galvin
Infinity, Minus Forty Yearly Installments: Noun Complements (1972–2012)
By Michèle Métail
1. In September 1972, funded by a scholarship, I took the Orient Express to Vienna. Sixteen-hour journey, upper bunk. Less than enthusiastic about sharing a room in the student hostel, I looked for a…
Translated from French by Tom La Farge
The Life You Save May Be Your Own
By François Caradec
Canada Dry Spoonerisms1. A Sicilian caterwauls, except in Apulia.2. The archaeologist’s wife does love a serious excavation.3. How adroit you are with your crocuses!4. The seafarer takes a pruning…
Translated from French by Dara Keck
Biting their Mother Tongue: Three Sudanese Short Stories about Estrangement
By Max Shmookler
The three short stories collected here offer a glimpse into contemporary Sudanese understandings of estrangement, a theme with a long history in Arabic letters. From the pre-Islamic renegade poets who…
By Nagi Al-Badawi
Doves!Doves flying on a horizon of signs and metaphors. I can never hear the word “doves,” nor think of it unexpectedly, without picturing them flying as if they were the horizon's capricious…
Translated from Arabic by Max Shmookler & Najlaa Eltom
A Condition
By Adil al-Qassas
You’re certain that nothing will dissuade you now. Nothing. Not your neighbors’ invitation to the luncheon to celebrate their boys’ circumcision. Not the kind old lady’s pleading…
Translated from Arabic by Max Shmookler & Najlaa Eltom
By Sabah Babiker Ibraheem Sanhouri
It's hot, hot enough to suffocate. There is nothing except this table upon which I sleep, a rectangular hall with four doors and twelve windows. On each side a door. On the shorter sides, two windows,…
Translated from Arabic by Max Shmookler & Najlaa Eltom
Spirit Summoning, Part II
By Sakumi Tayama
My mother was sitting in front of the Buddhist altar as usual. She picked the habit up last winter and now spent most of each day there.“I’m home!” She turned, a vacant expression on…
Translated from Japanese by Mark Gibeau