Nothing Less and Nothing More: The Oulipo Compendium

Nothing Less and Nothing More: The Oulipo Compendium

Joseph Tabbi
Oulipo Compendium
Harry Mathews & Alastaire Brotchie (eds)
London: Atlas Press, 1998.

Alain Vuillemin comprehends the compendium - a summing up of four decades of Oulipian activity.
Translation by James Stevens

Published in English in the series, “Atlas Archive 6: Documents d’avant-garde,” this Oulipo compendium aims to be a paradoxical “summary” of the work being done by OULIPO (OU-vroir de LI-ttérature PO-tentielle: Workshop for Virtual Literature) and its sister organizations OULIPOPO (Ou-vroir de LI-ttérature PO-licière PO-tentielle: Workshop for Virtual Detective Stories), OUPEINPO (OU-vroir de PEIN-ture PO-tentielle: Workshop for Virtual Painting), and other OU-X-POS. The book appears to be a kind of “synthesis” (hence the title identification, “compendium”) of the original Oulipo publications, nothing less and nothing more. (The editors don’t claim any originality!) Rather loosely organized, as the editors themselves admit, the book may seem chaotic at first sight. In the overall four-part structure (distinguishing the four movements, OULIPO, OULIPOPO, OUPEINPO, OU-X-POS) each section is preceeded by a kind of user’s model (“Directions for use…”) and an introduction (“Prologue”). In short, the approach is globally thematic: the book is a kind of “dictionary” or “encyclopedia” on OULIPO, its research and experiments, its creations and publications; the units of the work are given following an alphabetical order and are accompanied by a whole set of definitions, examples, illustrations, citations, footnotes, information on the sources used, suggestions for further reading, and so on.

Complementing the encyclopedic structure, the Oulipo Compendium possesses an in-depth thoretical and thematic presentation in the three introductory texts, respectively by Jacques Roubaud (on OULIPO), Paul Gayot (on OULIPOPO), and Thierri Foulc (on OUPEINPO). All three are given as examples of “virtual” or “permutational” writings, i.e., as writings decomposed into lexias, each with its own number and widely open to different orders of reading, like any other Oulipian-inspired text (and like several more recent hypertextual outgrowths) whose principles of reading are always negotiable. thREAD to electropoetics

This brings us to the important remark that the Compendium by Mathews and Brotchie has been conceived as an Oulipian work itself, so that it can or should be analyzed at different levels. A very schematic and over-concise introduction, Roubaud’s text on OULIPO provides the reader with some basic definitions and the essential background information, it gives also some key quotations, summarizes a few polemical discussions, lines up the movement’s principal publications, and finally offers penetrating personal testimonies and views on the history and the evolution of OULIPO. The contributions by Gayot and Foulc offer useful complementary information on the way OULIPO has progressively broadened its scope, first in the direction of the detective story (an initiative strongly pushed by François Le Lionnais), some years later in the direction of painting (an old dream picked up in the early 80s by Le Lionnais, Jacques Carelman, and Thierri Foulc). The very first virtual detective story (“Who is Guilty?”) was published by François Le Lionnais in 1971, in the 15th issue of Subsidia Pataphysica. The first OUPEINPO were exhibited on June 14th, 1985, during a show in the Carelman studio. The “Notes” one reads in the last section of the book dedicated to the several new OU-X-POS, show clearly how the spirit and the tools of OULIPO can now be found also in comic books (OUBAPO, since 1992), in cooking (since 1968), in (fictitious) history (since 1993), in music (since 1985), in photography (since 1995) and last but not least in tragi-comedy (since 1990).

Thanks to this Oulipo Compendium, the major texts of the movement are now available in English. All the materials brought together by Mathews and Brotchie are indeed borrowed from existing OULIPO publications, from its successive manifestos, from the volumes of La Bibliothèque Oulipienne, La Bibliothèque Oulipopienne, La bibliothèque Oupeinpienne, and some other, smaller items. thREAD to the Mathews essay on translation and the OULIPO There are only two texts to appear for the very first time in print: Le Petit Norbert and the Minutes de l’Oulipo (in addition to some notes directly written in English for this compendium). The work done by Mathews and Brotchie must be interpreted as a way of recognizing the importance of the role played by OULIPO as part of the larger international avant-garde movement. Since 1960, the year of its foundation, OULIPO has had correspondents in the US, in Britain, and in a few other countries such as Belgium. Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie admit furthermore, in a short introductory note, that the choices they had to make for their book have actually led them to exclude the often very important Oulipian work made in Italy and Germany and, mostly since the early 90s, in countries as diverse as Hungary and Brazil. Anyway, this “synthesis,” which is more an encyclopedic dictionnary than a survey, will soon prove to be a very useful instrument, both for scholars interested in OULIPO, and for every reader intrigued by literary creation and experiment. One can only regret that an analogous work still does not exist in France, the country where OULIPO was born and where it encountered its first successes.