Games of France

Daniel Levin Becker
Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature
(Harvard University Press, 2012)

There are literary movements and then there are literary niches. The Oulipo is the latter of these. The group’s work can be both challenging and charming, fascinating and frustrating, and Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature provides an immersive and enjoyable account of what is either a literary paradise (if you like that sort of thing) or a complicated hell (if you don’t).

The Oulipo, whose name is an acronym for the French ouvroir de littérature potentielle, was founded in 1960 by writer Raymond Queneau and engineer François Le Lionnais, who together perfectly embodied the aims of the group. The earliest scenes from Levin Becker’s history pull from Queneau and Le Lionnais’s pre-Oulipian days. Le Lionnais survived Nazi prison camps by recalling his favorite paintings. “Stone by stone,” Le Lionnais says, “we built the most marvelous museum in the world. In so doing we managed to extract from each work one detail, occasionally two, infinitely more sonorous, more profound, and more righteous—more real—than the wretched reality that mired our bodies.” The combinatorial spirit that helped Le Lionnais survive the Nazis lent itself to his belief in the capacities of literature. Marry this to Queneau’s early attempt to capture a poem, “Here poem poem poem […] Aw nuts / It got away,” and you have some idea of what the Oulipo is about.

The essential conceit merges literature with other constraints (primarily mathematical) in order to unlock literature’s potential (the group’s name translates into English as “Workshop for Potential Literature”). The result can be inviting, comedic, baffling, or solemn. Opening with the funeral of one of its current members (death does not end one’s membership in the Oulipo, though it is an understandable excuse for missing a meeting), Levin Becker grounds the book in a humanity that tempers the science of melding math and literature.

A crash course in over 50 years of literary history, Many Subtle Channels carries its reader through discussions of Oulipo light and Oulipo ’ard; through the idiosyncrasy of Oulipo meetings; through the jeudi, the Oulipo’s seasonal performance gatherings; and through the list of offshoots and spinoffs collectively known as the Ouxpos. The group’s 38 members are each given their due, Levin Becker being one and the fictional QB another, and while some names are recognized, i.e. Calvino, Duchamp, Perec, and Queneau, there are quite a few discoveries. There is also plenty of the literary gamesmanship for which the Oulipo is best known. Yet, simply because the group is having its own long-running inside joke with literature doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. The purpose of the Oulipo and its constraints is to set the writer free, to set literature free even, and Levin Becker does an excellent job demonstrating how demolishing the line between the serious and the enjoyable happens to be only one benefit of that freedom.

Yet, for all of what Levin Becker successfully captures in Many Subtle Channels, there is something that gets away. The live experiences of the jeudi and the Oulipo’s public workshops are more informative than enjoyable, and the excitement that was surely present in the moment is now padlocked by the page. Perhaps such excitement is untranslatable—certainly reading a review is never as satisfying as attending a performance—and it may be unfair to fault Levin Becker for a shortcoming that is inherent to the material. Seemingly aware of these moments, Levin Becker provides short and sometimes breathtakingly funny quips in the footnotes, and these help keep the mood light when the pace of this generally sweeping narrative falters. Many Subtle Channels also appears to be free of the very constraints the work spends so much time detailing. It is entirely possible that I, like the critic Albéres, who read the entirety of La Disparition without realizing it lacked the letter “e,” have missed something.

Levin Becker has borrowed his title from Le Lionnais’s words concerning the synthesis and analysis of Oulipian invention. Moreover, it is indicative of the work’s raison d’être. Levin Becker’s investigation is as much love letter as biography; it is a seduction to read more, to explore a subject, which is what the best books do. Readers’ eyes will yearn for One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Life A User’s Manual, Î, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and the complete and at times ridiculous series of permutations that follow Le Voyage d’hier, whether or not they’ve read them before. Michelle Grangaud, one of the few female members of the Oulipo, said about language, “I was seized by the beauty […] that all our thoughts are made with just 26 letters and the game of their permutations.” These words rest in the heart of both the Oulipo and the Praise written about it, making Many Subtle Channels a robust reminder of the true potential literature still contains.

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Jon Dozier-Ezell

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