My Oulipo Year: on editing The Penguin Book of Oulipo

Philip Terry on the unique challenges of assembling an anthology of Oulipo texts

In February 2018 I received an email from Simon Winder at Penguin Books asking me if I’d be interested in curating an anthology on the Oulipo group. This sounded too good to be true, and immediately I suspected a wind-up. The clue was in the name, surely: Winder.

“What should I do?” I asked one of my closest friends, Liz Vasiliou. “Just say ys,” she replied, with a nod to Perec’s e-less novel La Disparition. So I did.

Simon Winder, it turned out, was a refreshingly enlightened senior editor at Penguin, who had been involved with many of the projects which have recently reinvigorated the Penguin list, such as the new Penguin Freud. We met up in his office in the Strand, and after a brief chat he asked me to draft a proposal.

The proposal I put forward, and which was quickly accepted, was for an anthology which not only consisted of writings by the members of Oulipo, the staple fare of such an enterprise, but also included important precursors, what Oulipo call their “anticipatory plagiarists”, as well as a smattering of the growing number of exciting writers outside Oulipo who have blazed the same trail.


A book of three parts, in a word: Before Oulipo, Oulipo, and After Oulipo. Putting together an anthology of Oulipian work in English was something I’d already been thinking about for some years, but it was the kind of slow-burning project I thought I’d probably bring to fruition in my retirement. Now I had to do it in a little over eight months.

For the last 12 years I’d taught courses on Oulipo, and I’d corresponded with and met many Oulipians over the years, so I wasn’t exactly starting from scratch, but at once I set about reading everything I’d neglected to read in the past.

I read the 80 fascicles of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne (limited edition pamphlets published by Oulipo) which I had ordered for the University of Essex library a couple of years back, but never got round to reading; I read all the French novels and poems of the one English member of Oulipo, Ian Monk, only to conclude that they were too difficult to translate successfully, steeped as they were in argot; I read the political novels of Oulipian Jacques Jouet, though found that the extracts I would need to represent them with any justice were far too long for the number of pages at my disposal; and I read Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s The End of Oulipo? (2013), where they argue that Oulipo has run its course, dissolving into the creative quagmire of “Oulipo lite”, though to my mind their arguments, based as they were on the existing English language translations of Oulipo alone, and neglecting poetry entirely, were wide of the mark.

And as time was pressing I talked to influential people in the field to pick their brains. I met David Bellos, Perec’s principal translator, who happened to be in London, and he at once suggested a number of chapters from Perec’s Life A User’s Manual for inclusion, as well as a little-known aleatory music score by Perec from the 1970s, Memory of a Trip to Thouars.

I met Alastair Brotchie, who had co-edited The Oulipo Compendium, in his office above the Bookartbookshop, to quiz him about the connection between Oulipo and Pataphysics. And I met the American poet Lee Ann Brown, who was on a residency in Cambridge, to discuss some of the American poets and writers who had written Oulipian works, and the often overlooked connection between Oulipo and the New York School.

Over the previous year I’d been included in the Expanded Translation network, organised by poets Zoë Skoulding and Jeff Hilson, and by a happy coincidence the network included a number of Oulipophiles.

Lee Ann Brown was one of them, whose own writing often works with Oulipo, and she was generous in sharing her extensive knowledge relating to the dissemination of Oulipian ideas across the US poetry community, which culminated in the noulipo conference at the California Institute of the Arts in 2005. This had been set up to explore Anglophone responses to Oulipo, often of a deliberately politicised persuasion, on the surface a hundred miles from Oulipo itself, which had deliberately avoided political affiliations, after the disastrous consequences of Surrealism’s flirtation with the Communist Party.

The network also included the poet Lily Robert-Foley, a founder member of Outranspo (the Workshop of Potential Translation), which had been set up to explore Oulipian methods of literary translation, the poet and translator Cole Swensen, who had translated many Oulipian texts, some of which she generously offered for the anthology, and the poet and critic Vincent Broqua who pointed me in the direction of Jacques Roubaud’s novelistic memoir Peut-être ou La Nuit de dimanche (2018). This had caused something of a storm in Paris for its apparent critique of Oulipo, largely relating to what Roubaud percieved to be a corporatisation of the group, moving away from the concentration on invention, recommended by co-founder Raymond Queneau, to a concern with the history of the group and its public profile.

I took advantage of my contacts in the UK poetry scene, too, asking for suggestions from Tim Atkins, James Davies, Holly Pester and Peter Manson, among others, and soon I was deluged with material. I’d planned, ambitiously, to include 100 pieces, but before I knew it I had in excess of 200, and the problem quickly shifted from what to include to what I had to leave out. Among the pieces I had to drop for want of space was a brilliant piece by Tim Atkins, who had written a novel called The Bath-Tub, then rewritten the whole thing using Oulipo’s N+7 method, where nouns are substituted by moving seven places forwards in the dictionary. Then last but not least, I took up an invite from Oulipo, which I’d been ignoring for a couple of years, to come to one of their monthly meetings as an invité d’honneur.

Eventually, just as the 2018 World Cup was coming to a close, an event which had been a constant companion during my reading binge, Simon Winder came to visit me in Wivenhoe, where, after a brief tour of the village, including a peek through the window of the house where Francis Bacon had briefly had his studio in the 1950s, we went through the material I’d gathered together.

We agreed on 100 pieces, and discussed ways they might be organised. Simon mentioned the idea of a sort of “rattle-bag”, where the reader is free to dip in and out as they please. I mentioned the possibility of organising the pieces according to the method Perec uses in Life A User’s Manual, where the order of the 100 chapters is determined by the knight’s move in the game of chess. It took three weeks to actually work this out, and in the end the results were disappointing.

I was reminded of the passage in Life A User’s Manual where Perec describes how the painter Hutting devises an elaborate formula for his portraits, where colour is dictated by the date and time of the painting’s “birth” and the phase of the moon at the painting’s “conception”: “The system’s impersonality,” Perec writes, “was the kind of thing to captivate Hutting. But perhaps because he applied it too rigidly, he obtained results more disconcerting than captivating.”

So I tore it up and started from scratch, working with that most un-Oulipian resource, instinct, trying to stitch together an order that would actually work as a reading experience, using repetition, contrast, groupings, and juxtaposition.

A sequence of Oulipian memoirs, predating and post-dating Perec’s own I Remember of 1978, and beginning with New York artist Joe Brainard’s 1970 book of the same title, would be dispersed throughout the book in order of composition; the chronological order of the before and after Oulipo would be disrupted, so that Homer, say, one of Oulipo’s precursors (like Homer, Oulipo love lists), could be juxtaposed directly with the texts that it linked to most clearly; sequences of sestinas, or explorations of the acrostic from Perec and The Psalms, would be presented side by side, a move that became possible once I decided to label each piece with titles like Oulipo, Anticipatory Plagiarism, Noulipo and After Oulipo.

In a similar manner Theiri Foulc’s New Observations of Harry Mathews’s Face, where he distorts a portrait of the writer’s face by reference to the letters in his name (A=1, B=2 etc.) was juxtaposed with Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, where scale is similarly played with, to suggest a continuity of interests across the centuries.

Even if every reader wasn’t going to pick up on all of these subliminal links, it gave the organisaton an inner cohesion, which I hoped would come across to readers as a general feeling that they were in good hands.

And if strict chronology was disrupted here, then that seemed fitting to Oulipo. For one thing, some seminal Oulipian works, such as Queneau’s Exercises in Style, first published in 1947, actually predated the founding of Oulipo, while some “anticipatory plagiarists”, on the other hand, such as Joe Brainard, whose I Remember first saw the light of day in 1970, came after Oulipo, strictly speaking.

If Oulipo in some ways works outside conventional time, I had a first-hand experience of this in connection to ‘Pataphysics. After meeting Alastair Brotchie, I talked to him about visiting the Pataphysical Museum in north London, where a large archive of Oulipian work was held. It was late August 2018, so when he said why not come along to the Pataphysical New Year, I initially thought that was quite a wait.

‘Pataphysics, though, I should have guessed, follows its own calendar, and the New Year falls on September 8th, in the month of Absolu, marking Alfred Jarry’s birthday. All was well. Perhaps one day somebody will set up the Outempo (the Workshop of Potential Time) and bring some order to bear on Oulipian concepts of time. Meanwhile we will just have to muddle on.

One Oulipian strategy which I did stick to was to organise the introduction alphabetically, after the manner of Kevin Jackson’s alphabetical essays, which worked well, and came out feeling natural, and it helped keep a rhythm in the introduction, stopping it from getting too rambling.

Similarly, I didn’t want an excess of footnotes – these were supplied only where the introduction didn’t have the space to introduce an individual piece, or where the sense would otherwise remain obscure. I wanted to give enough information so that the reader could make sense of what was before them, but after that to leave them alone to read.

And yet, while my initial plan, following an anthology edited by the President of Oulipo, Paul Fournel, the Anthologie de l’Oulipo (2009), was to create an anthology where the reader was presented with a series of texts which read well in their own right, rather than create the more common anthology of constraints, I didn’t want to disappoint the reader interested in constraints either – so I included an index of constraints where these could be pursued by the curious.

Two things I drafted but didn’t include in the end were dates with individual pieces and notes on contributors. There are many key dates in the introduction, but including dates with each individual piece was problemmatic. For one thing dates are often multiple with Oulipo – Queneau’s Exercises in Style was first published in 1947, though many of the pieces date from much earlier, and a number of the pieces included here date from Queneau’s revised edition of 1973, where he removed several pieces he thought inadequate and included a series of new ones which consciously Oulipianised the book (pieces which are not included in any previous English translation).

Gilbert Adair’s translation of a passage from Perec’s La Disparition (1969) is another case in point. Here, Adair substitutes Poe’s poem The Raven for Baudelaire’s Les Chats (The Cats). Not only does his translation tip into pure invention here, but in giving us this text by Poe, he slyly introduces another of Oulipo’s anticipatory plagiarists – Poe’s essay The Philosophy of Composition (1846), where he discusses the mechanics behind The Raven, has long been a key text for Oulipo.

As often happens with Oulipo, this combines to make dates problemmatic, so that they cannot be given in the straightforward way favoured by historians. Perec’s novel dates from 1969, but the passage from 1994, or, more correctly, perhaps, to January 29th, 1845, the date of the first publication of Poe’s poem in the New York Evening Mirror.

Where notes on contributors are concerned I ground to a halt when it came to Homer. It’s all very well giving a thumbnail sketch of a contemporary author - so and so is the author of such and such - but with Homer this seemed inappropriate, and the idea started to unravel. I thought that I could probably assume that my readers would know that Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, they might even know that “Homer” was possibly even an invention that had been attached to the products of an oral tradition, so for me to concoct some kind of bio-note started to seem ridiculous: “Homer, though not to be confused with the character in The Simpsons, may well have been a family man, we don’t know for sure, but scenes of domesticity abound in his two most distinguished works….”

I’d stick by these editorial decisions, even if some of them were necessarily made on the hoof, and even if they were found annoying by the odd reviewer. The historically minded couldn’t understand the ordering, and wanted an ordering by date of composition, and others wanted author notes, and mistook the fact that there wasn’t a note for every text as an indication that I had somehow not finished the notes.

Another drove the point home by pointing to misspellings in the text. The misspellings – such as “an” for “and” in Harry Mathews’s Trial Impressions (1977), to give only one example – are actually part of the Oulipian texts themselves, and are common in Oulipo. Perec’s novel Les Revenentes of 1972, where the only vowel employed is “e”, is full of them, and couldn’t have been completed otherwise. And Raymond Queneau, the co-founder of Oulipo, is famous for his phonetic spellings, as in the opening of Zazie dans le métro: “Doukipudonktan?” (“D’où qu’ils puent donc tant?” or “How come they stink so much?”)

Misspelling takes us to the very heart of Oulipo, in fact. Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (The Poem on Nature) supplied Oulipo with one of its key concepts in the “clinamen”, Lucretius’s Latin for the Greek klesis, “a bending”. The term was rescued from obscurity by Alfred Jarry, who used it for the name of his Painting Machine in his novel Life and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. For Oulipo, it represents a moment when a particular constraint is broken, usually for aesthetic reasons.

In Perec’s Life A User’s Manual each chapter desribes one of the visible spaces in a building with 100 such spaces, but the novel contains only 99 chapters. Perec’s missing chapter is the clinamen. For Lucretius, the term has a specific sense, referring to the spontaneous deviation that allows atoms falling in otherwise parallel lines through the void to collide with one another and thus create matter. Without the clinamen, in other words, there is no creation.

Elsewhere in his argument, Lucretius likens atoms and letters, arguing that just as small changes in atomic structure can alter the nature of matter, so small changes in words can alter sense, as in the words “fir” and “fire”. All of a sudden, Lucretius’s description of the creation of matter starts to sound uncannily like a description of Oulipian wordplay, and from this perspective clinamen can be seen to describe not just creative deviation from a rule, but the creative swerve involved in any textual manipulation, such as the N+7 method or homophonic translation, or, indeed, misspelling.

And perhaps there is a similar philosophical point to be made concerning our contemporary desire for author notes, as if the identity, tastes and biography of an author were all that were needed to explain the literary text. It was Roland Barthes in his essay “The Death of the Author” (1967) who did most to popularise the idea that the concept of the author was essentially a Romantic notion which functioned to close off meaning in the text, and who argued, by way of contrast, that a text could be seen rather as a tissue of quotations from literature, culture, and history, the author as no more than a performer in a tradition that always already exceed the self - and perhaps it is for this reason that Fournel in his Anthologie de l’Ouipo, edited with Marcel Bénabou, includes no names next to texts, just the author’s initials, as if to suggest that Oulipo as a collective endeavour is more important than any individual author? Oulipo themselves were very aware of both structuralism and post-structuralism, movements with which they had much in common, and Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979) uses Barthes’ essay as a template for its exploration of the reader in the text, where the reader becomes an active producer of meaning. Calvino’s novel, on one level, is a creative embodiment of Barthes’ ideas in action, and the same could be said of other Ouipian texts vis-à-vis structuralism. In Oulipo, the point raised by Barthes’ essay about who is writing is nowhere made more clearly than in Perec’s essay “Think/Classify”. Here Perec meditates on Oulipian Marcel Bénabou’s “One Aphorism Can Hide Another”, where Bénabou creates a machine for the production of aphorisms. In brief, Bénabou dissects aphorisms into their underlying formulas, such as “X is the continuation of Y by other means”, then creates lists of word pairs, such as false synonyms (love and friendship), and antonyms (science and ignorance). By combining these formulas systematically with the lists of word pairs, he is able to generate an almost limitless supply of new aphorisms. Perec concludes: “Where is the thinking here? In the formula? In the vocabulary? In the operation that marries them?”

Once I submitted the manuscript for The Penguin Book of Oulipo there were other hurdles ahead. The manuscript itself was more like a collection of photocopies than a traditional book manuscript, and there was a lot of work still to do to make it into a book, and then there were unforseen problems obtaining rights which at moments threatened to derail the whole project, and which were only ironed out by a frantic summer of letter writing, telephoning, emailing, and meetings – one of these a lunch at which I was presented with a pork chop having forgotten to mention I was a vegetarian – with the people managing the estates of Georges Perec, Stefan Themerson and Stanley Chapman, to name but a few.

My meeting with the members of Oulipo, though, went smoothly. I was reassured by the relaxed gathering at the home of Ian Monk, round plentiful bowls of curry and rice, where what you didn’t want to eat could easily be dodged, and where the agenda was written out on the back of an envelope, and proceedings were as affable as they were chaotic. There was little sign of the corporatisation that Jacques Roubaud had complained of, and there was no sign of a diminution in the Oulipo’s enthusiasm for sharing and exploring new ideas: Olivier Salon discussed at some length Oulipian ideas, such as palindromic formulae, that he had recently unearthed in French science fiction novels; Pablo Martín Sánchez presented poems written on a cylinder, whose meanings changed as parts of the cylinder were rotated; Daniel Levin Becker presented poems that explored the constraints and patternings of English bell-ringing scores.

One late editorial decision had an impact on how I think about the book now, and led to a few late adjustments. Right up until the last minute the notes had been at the bottom of the pages, and were fairly restrained, only added where sense would otherwise be opaque. Yet a late move of the notes from the bottom of the page to end-notes seemed to remove the need for brevity so that a sense of a lack was created – if one piece had a footnote, why not another?

It was never my intention to supply a note for every piece – some are explained in the introduction, some are self-explanatory – but for the satisfaction of future readers a few additional footnotes have been supplied for the paperback, sometimes pointing to the idea behind a particular juxtaposition, such as that with Rabelais and Foulc. Apologies to future readers if occasionally this strategy errs on the side of telling rather than showing – but remember, you can always do what I often do, and ignore the notes.

The Penguin Book of Oulipo: Queneau, Perec, Calvino and the Adventure of Form , edited by Philip Terry, is published by Penguin Classics