Tuesday, January 10, 2012

As if it weren't hard enough already...


There are plenty of examples of writers who’ve produced great stuff by imposing restrictions on themselves. Beckett wrote in French to stop himself giving in to his facility with English. The French classical dramatists interpreted the ‘rules’ of Aristotle very tightly and had to write in Alexandrines and stick to the 3 unities. But their constraints were easy to cope with compared with the things the members of a group called Oulipo do. I’d vaguely heard about them before but they were featured in a recent BBC podcast and I was amazed to hear the sort of difficulties they create to make the writing process even trickier.

The name comes from  a French expression meaning ‘workshop for potential literature’. (It could only be French, couldn’t it?) The group’s been going for fifty years and you can only join if you’re invited to. If you ask to become a member, that guarantees that you never will. Mind you, when you hear the sort of constraints they impose on themselves, you probably decide a visit to the supermarket or a few hours spent staring at a wall would be a better way to spend your time.

I’d heard of Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which doesn’t have the letter ‘e’ in it. What I didn’t know was that it had been translated into English by Gilbert Adair (again with no ‘e’s). He then used all those ‘e’s  that he’d ‘saved’ to write a novella called Les Revenentes which uses ‘e’ but no other vowels. A Canadian poet, Christian Bök, was interviewed on the programme and he’d written a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters. Michel Thaler wrote a novel with no verbs in it. And so it goes on. One poet, whose name I’ve forgotten, wrote a book of ten sonnets whose pages were cut in such a way that you can create any 14-line sequence you like out of them. To see what he meant, imagine those kids’ books which have a head, body and legs on 3 separate segments of the page so that you can create different combinations by matching the different heads, bodies and feet. The mathematical permutations when you have 10 poems of 14 lines each are such that it’s effectively a book you can never finish reading.

The theory is that this triggers ideas, inspiration, and forces you to ‘think outside the box’ (apologies for such a gross cliché). But, apart from it being an entertaining sort of game to play for one’s own amusement or a way of saying to the world ‘Look how clever I am’, it’s hard to warm to the idea. I think imposing restrictions is valuable. I often get students to remove all the adjectives and adverbs from a piece to show them how it affects the narrative tone and pace and, indeed, changes meanings, but these arbitrary and very severe restrictions seem to work against full creativity. You may produce something which obeys all the rules but I can’t help but think that, in doing so, you must surely have had to discard insights and images that would have added to the message you were conveying. It’s form taking precedence over meaning , and the two shouldn’t (and can’t, in my book) be separated.

To finish, another example of an Oulipo-type product. One of their techniques is called n+7. It involves replacing each noun in a text by the noun which comes 7 places after it in the dictionary. The programme gave one about the Creation which ended with God saying ‘Let there be limit’, which I rather liked. So I’ve just recast perhaps the most famous opening novel sentence as follows: It is a tube universally acknowledged, that a single mandala in possession of a good founder, must be in want of a wildebeest.

9 comments:

Mark W. Danielson said...

Wow, Bill. Lots of information there. I'm much more inclined to write a simple tale, simply told, simply to entertain. I gave up on writing the next classic novel many years ago.

Mike said...

Sounds like these folks are trying to build Sudoku puzzlers of the written word.

Bill Kirton said...

I agree Mark and Mike. I actually tried writing just a couple of sentences without an 'e' - it was fun as a game but the results were far from what I'd originally wanted to say and it took ages. To sustain that for a whole novel - no, life's too short. I can't see it topping the Amazon lists either.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Who has time to create the puzzles? I'm sure it inspires creativity but I'd rather read or write a good novel.

Jaden Terrell said...

I've read part of the book with no e's. I'm sure it was an interesting intellectual exercise for the writer, but in my opinion it wasn't much of a story.

But I do like that last sentence about the wildebeast.

Bill Kirton said...

My sentiments entirely Jean.

And I agree Beth, how could it be a decent story if the writer's depriving himself of most of the building blocks of his trade? (And I bet that mixed metaphor guarantees that I never get invited to join.)

Chester Campbell said...

I'd better ask them to invite me just to make sure I never get an invitation. Sounds like a group of musicians trying to see who can create the sourest note. Or like scrambling metaphors with cheese and bacon bits (let 'em figure that one out).

Chester Campbell said...

I'd better ask them to invite me just to make sure I never get an invitation. Sounds like a group of musicians trying to see who can create the sourest note. Or like scrambling metaphors with cheese and bacon bits (let 'em figure that one out).

Bill Kirton said...

Good thinking, Chester. Be careful, though - that final metaphor might qualify you for membership.