A workshop for potential literature (you have been warned) - Bill Kirton

by Bill Kirton
A novel with no e.
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 was reminded of them when I listened to a BBC podcast. It seems writing’s not hard enough, so they impose artificial constraints to make it 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-odd 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 restrictions they impose on themselves, you’ll 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). Perec 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, has 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.
A novel using a single vowel - e.

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.

The one exception I’ve found to that in my own experience is the Fibonacci poem. I’m not a poet but there’s a beauty and mysterious naturalness about ‘Fibs’, as their devotees call them, which is very beguiling. They’re based on the Fibonacci sequence (which is the thing behind the arrangement of sunflower seeds, the whirl on a snail’s shell, etc.) The sequence of numbers is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Each number is the sum of the previous two. The poems consist of a first and second line with one syllable each, the third then has two, the fourth three and so on.

You can write as many lines as you like and even reverse the sequence, which creates interesting shapes on the page too. Mind you, it can draw you into pretentiousness. I wrote some for my own amusement and to try to exploit those shapes. However, rather than expose myself to your derision, I won't quote them here. (I may be pretentious but I’m NOT a poet.)

The sequence in nature
In keeping with the mystical nature of the Fibonacci sequence, it’s strange how applying it to metre does seem to produce a natural rhythm. Try it. In a way, it helps you to see and feel how having to work to strict rules can also be liberating.

But, 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 podcast gave an example about the Creation which ended with God saying ‘Let there be limit’, which I rather liked. I tried recasting the too frequently quoted Jane Austen opener and it produced this:

It is a tube universally acknowledged, that a single mandala in possession of a good founder, must be in want of a wildebeest.

I'm probably insensitive or something but I don't really see how that serves any purpose.


madwippitt said…
I think I possibly need to go re-read Thurber's The Wonderful O again now ...
Lee said…
Oh, but it does serve a purpose, Bill: reading that sentence several times over, you keep thinking that you're on the edge of comprehension. Is it a tease? an exhortation to try harder (as often happens to me when I read a difficult text)? a sly comment on the inadequacy of language (with which we all struggle as writers, of course)?

In any case, out my window I can see that my pet wildebeest has just started eating my mandela, so I'd best not founder.
Bob Newman said…
Aha, an opportunity to plug one of my favourite books: Douglas R Hofstadter's "Le Ton Beau de Marot", which is about the nature of translation, and what is lost in it. Among many other goodies, he includes excerpts from "La Disparition", and from its English translation. It seems there's a point in the novel where the characters begin to suspect that something is wrong; this is because a second letter has disappeared. Bur that second letter in the English translation is not the same one as it was in the original French!
I used to count among my friends an American whose speciality was palindromic poetry, but sadly his website Red Nun Under seems to have evaporated. He also wrote one poem which was a perfect "word anagram" of the Gettysburg Address.
In a way, restrictions can be help rather than a hindrance. "Free verse" is often appalling.
Jan Needle said…
On the edge of comprehension, eh? Lee, I used to have a female American friend who lived with an Englishman called Benjamin, who was deep into esoteric literary ideas and experiments. Her definitive comment (and you must forgive my English attempt at her American attempt at a French accent): "Benjamin, too eh plane de lar merde de tawroh.' Deep, or what?
Mari Biella said…
I’m in two minds about this, Bill. Some of these artificial constraints do indeed seem to consist of “form taking precedence over meaning”, and I agree that these things shouldn’t be separated. On the other hand, the imposition of restraints can, on occasion, force both the writer and the language to work harder. Being clever for a reason is great; being clever for the sake of it, not so much...
Bill Kirton said…
The Thurber's a great example of the liberating nature of playing with words, MW. It's exhilarating to read and a perfect fusion of form and 'message'. It illustrates perfectly what Mari says in her last sentence.

Bob, I've done a few translations in my time and I'm fascinated when meanings become slippery as you try to transpose them. I remember being the only member of staff available in the Aberdeen department when an urgent call came from a manufacturer of asthma inhalers for a translation of their instructions for use into French. I spent the following few months dreading reading of a spate of asthma-related deaths in Francophone countries.

Jan, your immaculate pronunciation reminded me of the opening word of Jarry's Père Ubu. It's 'Merdre', which hadn't existed as a word before then but the insertion of that extra 'r' made it even more shocking than if he'd used the original.

And Lee, yes, the teasing aspect of linguistic play is very enjoyable. Also, I'm glad to have helped save either your mandala or your wildebeest (or both).
Lydia Bennet said…
Of course Perec failed, as his own name contains 4 e's and is probably included in the book several times... I must plead guilty to a form of this as I invented the quantum haiku as written on live sheep or beachballs, based on three fundamental principles of quantum physics. 'Quantum Sheep' is included in a recent anthology of unusual forms, Adventures in Form (publ Penned in the Margins) which has lots of weird and wonderful poems. Ira Lightman does a lot of experimental work too, and recently Scott Tyrrell had a poem published which was Kipling's 'If' written in predictive text. The seemingly conflicting yet simultaneous use of randomness and restrictive form can be playful and free up new forms of creativity, and suggest new uses of language. or it can be a load of pretentious bollox.
Bill Kirton said…
More to add to my TBR list. Thanks, Lydia. I remember reading a piece about sheep and the quantum haiku but I didn't realise it was your doing. Big respect.

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