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The Penguin Book of Oulipo, ed Philip Terry, review: what happens when maths meets literature?

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Oulipo author Raymond Queneau
Oulipo author Raymond Queneau Credit: Getty Images

What is the longest book ever written? Callow pub quiz enthusiasts might venture a guess at Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which weighs in at 13 volumes, or a little over a foot of shelf space in most editions.

The more likely answer, I suspect, is a book published in 1961 that, by a marvel of ingenuity, comes in a single volume no thicker than a third of an inch: Raymond Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.

Read one way, the book is only 10 sonnets long – you could nip through it in about half an hour, if you fancied. Read another way, it is, as the title suggests, 100,000,000,000,000 poems long, and would take you something like a million centuries to get through.

The trick is that any of the poems’ first lines will go equally well with any of the poems’ second lines, which, in turn, will go equally well with any of the third lines, and so on, such that there are, in total, 1014 possible poems lurking within the covers.

Printed on pages specially sliced to allow such recombination, A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems – which is to be found in The Penguin Book of Oulipo in an equally remarkable English translation by Stanley Chapman – was one of the first productions of a small group of writers who christened themselves l’ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or OuLiPo for short; in English, the workshop of potential literature.

Largely French but with select foreign members including Ian Monk (British) and Harry Mathews (American), the group has, somewhat astonishingly, remained active for nearly 60 years, “co-opting” new members as old ones die.

Co-founded by Queneau and the mathematician François Le Lionnais, Oulipo invented literary forms through deliberate experimentation at the crossroads of literature and mathematics or, more broadly, at the meeting point of freedom and constraint.

Raymond Queneau, pictured in 1951 Credit: Bridgeman

Their formal constraints were simultaneously absolutely rigorous and quite arbitrary. Exploring what Philip Terry, editing this volume, neatly calls the “adventure of form”, the group has produced, among other things, “lipogrammatic” texts (constructed entirely without the use of certain letters), texts constructed purely of anagrams or palindromes, texts structured by mathematical tricks or board game rules, and even “W +/- n” texts (generated by replacing every noun with one a certain number of entries earlier or later in a dictionary).

Written in outline like this, the Oulipo jeux d’esprit seems like play for play’s sake, and doomed to niche interest, but the group has counted among its members writers like Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, in whose hands the most arbitrary of restrictions can be the vehicle for classics such as, respectively, Life: A User’s Manual (1978; constrained, among other things, by the so-called “knight’s tour” of a chessboard) and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979; a book that consists of 10 first chapters).

Perec and Calvino, perhaps more than any other members of Oulipo, play games that risk sublimating aesthetic decisions to mechanical formulas, but then play them so well that play itself becomes an aesthetic driver.

At times, you simply have to stand back in amazement: Perec’s La Disparition (1969) is a 300-page lipogram, written without a single word containing the letter E – the most common letter in French (as in English). Heroically translated under the same scheme by Gilbert Adair (as A Void), the novel is both a ludic shaggy-dog story of the disappearance of “Anton Voyl”, and a metaphorical treatment of the theme of loss by a writer who had lost his father to fighting in the Second World War and his mother to the Holocaust.

The loss is one that means Perec has to make do, homphonically, both sans E and sans eux: “without E”, and “without them”. More simply, it works. The opening – “Today, by radio, and also on giant hoardings, a rabbi, an admiral notorious for his links to Masonry, a trio of cardinals, a trio, too, of insignificant politicians (bought and paid for by a rich and corrupt Anglo-Canadian banking corporation), inform us all of how our country now risks dying of starvation” – is as good a hook as any first sentence I know.

Oulipian texts suit anthologisation. Many of them are brief, and often the point is to demonstrate the parameters of a given form rather than to reach the literary heights. (Taken at length, in the eight volumes, and counting, of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne, they can try the patience of even the most sympathetic appreciator of formalist experiment.) Given the patchy availability of much of the group’s output in English, any attempt to compile it for English readers is to be welcomed – not least of all for trumpeting the amazing work of translators like Gilbert Adair, Stanley Chapman, and Cole Swensen.

Unfortunately, though, The Penguin Book of Oulipo is a frustrating business. There is no problem with the selections themselves: Philip Terry – himself a fine formalist poet and a distinguished translator of Oulipo – has put together as good a tasting menu as any. The 100 examples of Oulipian and relatedly formalist work here, including precedents, descendants, and a scattering of graphic pieces, maintain an almost uniform virtuosic ingenuity, and reward reading, even en masse.

In other senses, however, the editing feels lazy. Terry’s introduction (arranged alphabetically, of course) does almost everything except introduce Oulipo, while the entries (undated, and arranged according to a logic I have yet to discern) are annotated with Antarctic sparseness, and their formal constraints are noted only in an index. It made it all seem less an adventure than an obstacle course – and that, more than anything else, seems against the spirit of the Oulipo themselves.

The Penguin Book of Oulipo is published by Penguin Classics at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop