La Bibliotheque Impossible

A depiction of architects is shown in the image above. The structures they design are displayed, giving an example of their work.

Exactly thirty years after the passing of Raymond Queneau, I found myself in the ornate reading room of the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal.

This grand eighteenth-century structure, located near the Left Bank of Paris, is accompanied by a metal sculpture purportedly of Arthur Rimbaud.

It houses bookbinding artifacts, medieval manuscripts, and records from the Bastille, as well as the archives of an artistic collective known as the Oulipo.

The purpose of this mini-gathering was not to officially open these archives to the public–which is still not allowed without special permission and a lengthy process–but to celebrate the fact that they are stored in this esteemed location rather than at Marcel Benabou’s ninth-arrondissement apartment, who is the Oulipo’s definitive yet provisional secretary.

Amid the two champagne pourers in the corner, the room was filled with everyone from library undersecretaries to branch curators and nearly all living Oulipo members, roughly half of whom were new acquaintances.

Among them is:

  • Benabou, a former history professor with sad eyes.
  • Paul Fournel, a diplomat and cyclist, and the workshop’s current president, Jacques Roubaud, a highly esteemed poet who still lists his occupation as “mathematician (retired)”;
  • Anne Garreta, an unapologetic postmodernist wearing a leather bomber jacket, Herve Le Tellier, a newspaper wit who never arrives on time,
  • Olivier Salon, a math teacher with a kind-hearted pirate or futuristic librarian-like appearance depending on whether he has his glasses on,
  • François Caradec, a literary biographer whose brows and mustache make him appear like a smartly clothed shih tzu,
  • Paul Braffort, a computer scientist before the time of personal computers,
  • Michelle Grangaud, who published a book composed of anagrams made up of Parisian metro station names, and
  • Jacques Jouet, who spent over fifteen hours writing a poem by visiting each station in the Parisian metro system at least once and writing one line per stop. He repeated the process a few months later but with the route reversed.

During a French literature course in college, I first heard of La Disparition, a whodunit written by Georges Perec that omits the letter e.

This literary contortion had an immediate effect on me since I had created a mix tape that did not use the letter e either.

It was appealing since it implies writer’s block can be beaten by treating the text like a puzzle and also because it suggests a group of people who think the same way I do about language.

Fortunately, I did not know who Paulette Perec was during our conversation, so I did not have to tell her.

Regarding the people around me, I know them mainly as literary figures. That is why I came to Paris on a research grant, to gain an apprenticeship with them and discover their true identities.

I wanted to find out if they were exciting characters or kindred spirits like Georges Perec, who wrote e -less. I have been to one of the Oulipo’s monthly readings, where I heard the phrase personne n ‘est parfait–nobody’s perfect–and two individual readings.

At first, I said hello to Benabou and made a mistake when pronouncing the name of the street I had moved onto that day.

Now I’m at Arsenal, aware that the Oulipo has transferred its archives here and is possibly looking for an assistant–in their words, a slave– to put them in order.

In 1960, Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais founded the Oulipo to explore the history of experimental literature.

As a result of the work of Perec and Italo Calvino, who was inducted later, the focus shifted from analyzing the craft of poetry — Queneau, for example, revealed that Mallarme’s sonnets could be reduced to their rhymes and still maintain their form — to creating texts with strict rules.

These rules can range from simple to intricate; La Disparition is an example of the former, while If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler by Calvino is an example of the latter, with the reader’s journey dictated by an algorithm.

The use of rules and the authors’ creativity demonstrate that the most arbitrary mandates can lead to the greatest freedom.

The Oulipo, which is not interested in being precise or literal about itself, makes it clear that it is not a movement, a school, or an – ism.

This group originated approximately three decades after Queneau separated from the surrealists, whose use of chance as a creative tool significantly contrasts Oulipian work. Andre Breton’s authoritarian attitude was also an issue.

While the workshop has stringent membership rules–requesting to be a part of the Oulipo makes one permanently ineligible to join the Oulipo, yet, after being accepted, one cannot depart, be it through expulsion, resignation, or death–it is not prescriptive in regards to its techniques.

It does not inform anyone about what literature should or must be; it explains to anyone who wishes to hear, by way of speculation or example, what literature could potentially be.

It’s challenging to come up with a single, succinct definition of the Oulipo, but the group’s second president, Noel Arnaud, referred to it as “a secret laboratory of literary structures.”

The Independent described it as “a mysterious and often clandestine organization that has been an integral part of French culture for many years”;

  • Martin Gardner, in Scientific American, as “a whimsical and somewhat eccentric French collective”; a communist character in Harry Mathews’s novel My Life in CIA labeled it “a gang of cynical formalists”;
  • Philip Howard from the London Times spoke of it as “the French avant-garde coterie noted for its literary and masturbatory pursuits”;2 and
  • Michael Silverblatt of the literary radio program Bookworm referred to it as a group of “chess masters without a board.”

The only description of the Oulipo that the organization has ever approved is “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”

After the Oulipians who were present (apart from Le Tellier, who had already left to attend to something else) signed a document confirming the historic nature of the evening, we were taken through the back channels of Arsenal and down a rickety staircase to a small room on the ground floor. Its door read “architects.”

Inside was a modestly illuminated office with a couple of halogen lamps, a potted plant that was doing quite well, and a desk with a computer, an armoire, and a file cabinet.

There were also a few feet of books, some videos, and a retired Florida vanity license plate that said “Oulipo.” The side walls had metal shelves with books, spiral-bound manuscripts, and archival boxes with stacks of aged paper that still needed to be logged and arranged.

Nothing in this room or its contents was remarkable, nor did it compare to the library of anyone on tour. It appeared just as it was: an area that still needed to be set up, where a great deal of work was yet to be done.

It is worth considering that a library is of great importance to an Oulipian. Books have a mythical, sensory quality, and a whole branch of Oulipian thought can be devoted to novel ways of managing them.

In Perec’s Penser/Classer, which was recently translated by his biographer David Bellos with the title Thoughts of Sorts, there are some “Brief Notes on the Art and Craft of Sorting Books”: by binding, format, color, date of purchase.

Anne Garreta’s essay “On Bookshelves” examines her suspicion that books are alien species that multiply and evolve by resisting our attempts to categorize them.

She outlines ten alternative bookshelf organizing principles, from books that do or doesn’t contain the word book to books that have been transported across an ocean to those with at least one sentence the reader knows by heart.

Paul Braffort’s monograph Les biblioth eques invisibles is a bibliography of real books owned by fictional characters and imaginary books mentioned in real works of fiction.

Jaques Jouet and Bertin created La biblioth eque impossible in 1984, a mural devoted to the latter category:

  • a bookcase overlooking a lone street in Paris’s fourteenth arrondissement, filled with titles from Pierre Menard’s Quixote to the collected memoirs of Sir Francis Haddock, the ancestor of Tintin’s companion.

When I undertook the first round of interviews with the Oulipians, I realized that the biblio-adoration was more of a personal rather than public inclination.

I found that both Salon and Braffort had dedicated entire bookcases to Oulipo books, while Fournel had a side office and Mathews an upstairs annex just to store the literature.

It was peculiar to observe only a few books in Le Tellier’s living room on my first visit to his apartment, close to the Sacre-Coeur. However, upon my next visit, I realized the actual volumes were kept elsewhere.

My fantasies mostly involved spending an afternoon in Perec’s, Calvino’s, or Queneau’s libraries or even a week in Le Lionnais’s, which was said to be housing over three thousand books on chess problems, on the condition I don’t have to do any filing.

For the time being, I am content with the holdings of Arsenal, which have been divided into several categories by the time I get to them:

  • a dossier for press releases regarding Oulipians’ publications and readings,
  • one for posters and photographs from their public appearances and
  • one for materials from tutorials in which they teach poetic forms and constrained-writing strategies.

There is also a ‘dossier classable for things that need to be taken care of at a later date which I keep adding to but whose size always stays the same. Each dossier is organized, rearranged, classified, and inventoried.

I switch the documents between folders and the folders between boxes, replacing rusty wire paper clips with plastic ones.

I ponder if Le Lionnais’ shelf of books follows an Oulipian filing system, such as the ‘POURQI’ alphabet, which was used for a short period in 1961, based on the order of letters in a treatise written by one of the original members.

Still, I eventually conclude that it is just terribly alphabetized. Construction outside continues undefined, preventing direct access to the archive, which is located in a side door so far away from Arsenal’s main entrance it feels like it is separate from the building.

Every so often, Benabou brings a few boxes with unsorted materials, and the room is gradually filling up. Still, the collection will never be huge or complete – especially when compared to the Perec archive nearby, which has translations of ‘La Disparition’ into languages that don’t even have a letter ‘e.’

One can’t deny that countless points of interest can be observed. For example, I recently learned that Jacques Bens, the initial secretary of the group, authored some steamy works of literature while using the alias “Gwen Treverec”, which is attractive because it contains merely one vowel.

I also gained familiarity with the handwriting of members of Oulipians and the fonts they preferred in later years (including Comic Sans! Et tu, Salon?).

I also came across a card with Calvino’s contact information in Paris and an insignificant grammatical blunder in French, which I found quite heartening.

The correspondence dossier contained a letter inviting the Oulipo to participate in a stochastic generation project, to which Benabou responded in a scandalized manner on Oulipo stationery, stating that the group opposed randomness and was actively engaged in a struggle against it.

There was also a photo postcard from Latis, a founding member, boasting about his cactus collection, as well as a request from Michele Metail, who had been accepted into the Oulipo in 1975 but had since distanced herself, asking that her name be changed to an ellipsis (which was denied).

Lastly, there was a copy of a typewritten letter from Le Lionnais to Marcel Duchamp, a member of the group since 1962 but who had never been very active, urging him not to be a stranger to the Oulipo and, as a postscript, inquiring if he had much time for chess.

Fan letters, scholarly arguments, and reverential tributes make up the correspondence by Oulipophiles. Generally, these could be more exciting and exciting, yet it is a kind gesture that they are not tossed aside.

It is uncertain whether the senders would have sent them in the first place if they knew the archivists would make phthbtt noises in response years later. On the flip side, a few unsolicited pieces are stimulating creations, only ruined by the sender’s plea to be included in the Oulipo.

The archives retain the minutes from every monthly meeting since the mid-1960s as their main pride and joy.

The agenda of the panels is usually determined during a long aperitif and entails the order of contributions and discussion topics; the secretary also accounts for the proceedings, though with an abundance of poetic detours.

The agenda’s first section is création, without which the session cannot begin, and which requires texts written or forms developed since the last session.

The second is rumination, where new members can present ideas they believe to be unique, only to be told that Georges Perec had already come up with them ages ago.

The third is érudition, mainly for presenting pre-existing Oulipian authors – dubbed anticipatory plagiarists – that the group has discovered, with Raymond Roussel being the major one.

However, Lewis Carroll, Ramon Llull, and Gottfried Leibniz have been attributed with unwitting pre-Oulipo works as well.

Rummaging through the oldest meeting records is like a virtual journey to the past: ornate letterheads, indecipherable notes on NASA stationery, and handwriting that is only seen on exclusive wine bottles these days.

I came across a wish list of poets whose works should be “perforated” by a computer for lexical research and dot-matrix prints of machine-generated sonnets–at a time when computing was about as accessible as electron microscopy for the general public.

I also found a page where Perec had tried to compose pangrams–sentences with all the letters in the alphabet–shorter than the norm.

(In French, portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume [37 letters] is the norm, similar to our the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog [35]; his plombez d ‘onyx vif ce whig juste quaker [32] is comparable to pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs [32].)4.

Attached to it was a handwritten note of apology for the spots where Perec’s cat had pawed the paper, in the middle of the right side.

On some days, I leave Arsenal feeling disheartened, either due to the lack of progression in Oulipian history or the laboriousness of the tasks I have fulfilled.

I then make the journey to my apartment, located between Moulin Rouge and the Sexodrome, to find the most straightforward, most weightless, and the most non-religious book I can find.

On other days, I exit the area to find the external world transformed and coded as if it is softly voicing anagrammatic phrases to me from placards and bread store windows, as if it is shining an accidental alexandrine in every sentence I hear on the metro.

I feel my mental patterns evolving bit by bit, in an Oulipian fashion. Yet, I am unable to tell if this is the understanding and exhilaration that I had hoped to find in France or yet another form of defeat.

On the better days, I apprehensively notice the potential literature of my contemplations; on the slow days, I list and classify them – observations, compositions, and the unclassifiable – in the expectation that I will be able to decipher them later.

The amount of business and casual talk has stayed the same over the years, as shown in the archives. Back in 2001, Benabou organized a gathering to discuss Oulipo’s current situation and what the future holds.

  • Where do we stand concerning the concept of restriction?
  • Have we come together as a collective of literary individuals?

What would be the best way to reestablish contact with mathematicians?

The queries are similar to the three questions Jacques Bens posed in the minutes he submitted following the inaugural gathering of November 24, 1960.

  • What can we anticipate from our investigations?
  • To what destination these paths will take us?
  • What destination should we head towards?

It is not a surprise that the second and third questions have been distinctive since the start.

It would be unwise to believe that distinct avant-gardes had not already had a say in our views of art by the time the Oulipo came along, but in 1960 structuralism and postmodernism were not as much a part of daily discourse as they are today.

Literature was still thought of as something that just occurred. Inspiration was not discredited or overthrown as a creative model; the term experimental in art was more of a label for the odd and the unclassifiable.

The Oulipo’s explorations being seen as experiments–that is, attempting hypotheses to gain factual data–was quite revolutionary, even seen as reckless from a particular artistic standpoint.

Artists have control over the muse and go wherever they decide; experimenters, whether with the human genome or with the Roman alphabet, sometimes end up at a different place than they initially desired or foresaw.

The founders’ approach to differences was to make it clear that the purpose of their exploration was not literature but to gain a better understanding of its structures.

When he was interviewed on the radio in 1962, Queneau quickly emphasized that he was conducting an experiment and not looking to create literature.

He also explained that the focus of the exercise was not the original sonnets, which he referred to as fruit flies, nor was it the haikuesque poetry that ensued from stripping them down.

Instead, the goal was to demonstrate how language clothed as literature could be altered and still be called literature.

Queneau suggested to the critic that a new literary school could be formed by using the experiment’s results, but he maintained that this was not the objective.

The Oulipo has been around for fifty years, and most people are familiar with its literature rather than its methods. This has raised the question of whether it is a “literary group,” with many members reflecting on the answer.

The group has moved away from the mathematical aspect of its work, yet its self-examination continues. The Oulipians are still posing the same questions they did several decades ago and responding through their texts.

I can only assume that the Oulipo is so protective of its archives because not only does it bring pleasure, but it also allows for self-reflection.

It may be difficult to see the good in such a task when paper cuts and wrist cramps come from entering tedious data on a keyboard.

However, the archives contain some of the most intriguing finds, such as typos, postal oddities, and books with peculiar preface instructions.

My months of archival service did not significantly increase my writing knowledge, but I gained insight into how these people viewed the world and how it influenced their writing.

The people who make up the Oulipians are meticulous even with their most minor details, and they take great care to ensure that even the most everyday language usage is attractive.

Fournel, for instance, used to send out invitations with ‘IF coming THEN will dine OR will not dine’ tree diagrams. Caradec was always ready with a pun, even if it didn’t necessarily serve any purpose.

Mathews once replied to an invitation in French, but since he did not know how to type accents, he had to use words that did not have any.

Metal went a step further and sent in thirty-three variations of the RSVP coupon, eventually concluding that she would not make it.

From my point of view, this archive’s virtue is evidence of a sense of kinship between people who revel in the concept of leaving a mark on the paper.

It illustrates the shared sensibility that connects the Oulipo, as well as those who are not members for any differentiating reason, such as not speaking French or having passed away centuries ago.

This is why it is worth celebrating a room that not many are allowed to enter.

The words of Le Lionnais in 1961, while they were preparing their first collective publication, foreshadowed the archive’s importance, both in its self-importance and actual significance: “Let us not forget that posterity is watching, gentlemen.”

Xzibit and Tha Dogg Pound tied for the showiest inclusion.

I am still perplexed by the purpose of the word and in that evaluation.

  1. La Disparition has been translated into Turkish ( Kaybolu ş ), Russian (Исчезание), and Japanese (窳愔) by devoted fans.

This makes the English translations (A Void, plus the unpublished A Vanishing and Vanish ‘d!), German ( Anton Voyls Fort Gang ), Swedish ( F orsvinna), Italian ( La scomparsa ), Dutch ( ‘ t Manco), and Spanish ( El secuestro, which omits an instead of e ) appear less impressive in comparison.

In response to an article about the Oulipo, a reader wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, which included two shorter phrases that were derived from a magnetic alphabet that had been stuck to the fridge door.

These phrases were “Given mazy web of phlox, duck quits jar (31)” and “Judges vomit; few quiz pharynx block (30)”.

Despite numerous attempts, nobody has yet managed to compose an isopangram – a phrase featuring all 26 letters of the alphabet only once – that does not need a great deal of clarification, such as what a “fjord waltz” entails.


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Different ways of removing plagiarism include altering the structure of the text without changing its context or semantic meaning. This can be accomplished by rewriting the content in an entirely new format.

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