On 24 November 1960, the writer’s workshop Oulipo was founded. This name stands for ‘L’Ouvroir de littérature potentielle‘ (‘Workshop of Potential Literature’). It is a loosely formed group of French-speaking writers and mathematicians who produce literary works that are subject to certain conditions or restrictions. The use of these kinds of restriction was not new (writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Ferdinand de Saussure and Gertrude Stein had already adopted the approach), but it was the first time that this has been done in an organised manner. Consider in this regard avoiding certain letters and words or developing a completely new structure. For example, Oulipo devised the S + 7 method: from a random dictionary, a noun was replaced by the seventh noun that followed.* Other techniques were the snowball (a poem with a word on each line and on each new line the word is always 1 letter longer) and the palindrome (a text that reads the same in reverse). Hence they invented new techniques, but also worked to revitalise obsolete language constructions such as the anagram, zerogram, the rondo and the quatrain.
This experimentation generated bizarre but also stimulating texts. Oulipo clearly has a playful side, but the limitations also serve to hone the authors’ craftsmanship and inspiration. Well-known Oulipians include Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais and Georges Perec.** In 1969 the latter published a novel that does not contain any instances of the letter ‘e’: La disparition. To compensate, he also wrote a novel in which the ‘e’ is the only vowel that occurs: Les Revenentes. Oulipians were also active in Italy (Italo Calvino) and the Netherlands (Battus, or Hugo Brandt Corstius, and Rudy Kousbroek). The Dutch equivalent of Oulipian literature was dubbed ‘Opperland literature‘ by Battus. Although Oulipo reached its peak in the sixties and seventies, the collective is still active. Check oulipo.net for an overview of publications, exhibitions, theater performances, reading nights and workshops.
[*], [**], [***] and [****] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, pp. 454-456.
[*****] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, p. 304.
[******] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, p. 467.