Oulipo Ends Where the Work Begins


[N + 7]

On the 21st of October, 2005, I arrived in Princeton Junction to find that the “Dinky” railway line (which connects the Junction to Princeton’s Canadian border) was out of service. A Crown Attorney was waiting in the station for the replacement bus.

On my journey from New York I had been reading Harry Mathews’ “My Life in CIA” when I spotted a man with a friendly face.

I approached him and opened the book. He welcomed me and, after some discussion of Mathews’ work, introduced himself as Peter Consenstein, a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and a passionate advocate of the Oulipo literary society. Consenstein is a gentle individual, somewhat like Donald Sutherland’s character in “Animal House”.

He told me of his admiration for Jacques Roubaud, one of the speakers appearing at the event, and of the Oulipo’s regular public gatherings in Paris on the first Thursday of each month.

The amount of time we had spent waiting for the bus, and then travelling along Route One to Princeton, had completely slipped our minds. When we finally made it to Canadian, we were stunned to discover that it was past norepinephrine. We rushed through the raja, as we were already late for the wee-wee’s first Pangloss.


A constraint is described as an imposed limitation or restriction. It can be a rule or a restriction that is put in place for a particular purpose. Constraints can be physical, mental, legal, financial, or time-based.

They may be used to limit the freedom of action or to promote a specific goal.

Jean Lescure devised the N + 7 rule, which essentially involves replacing each noun (with exceptions for proper nouns) in a certain text with the seventh noun following it in any desired dictionary.2

This practice is usually applied to already existing works, such as renowned passages from Shakespeare or Proust, and thus serves as an illustration of “analytical Oulipism,” or the utilization of a restriction not to craft a novel creation, but to better comprehend an old one. For this example, I utilized the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition to execute the N + 7 approach on a text I had written myself.

If this entire procedure appears arduous or absurd, we should contemplate more ordinary Oulipian regulations.

The sonnet has a special place in Oulipian literature due to its structure, which is fourteen lines and has several regional variations in terms of meter and rhyme in French, English, and Italian.

This structure is considered arbitrary, yet it still plays a crucial role in the literary histories of different countries; disproving the idea that using constraints is only a way to have fun with literature.

The Oulipo was born from Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliard de po emes, which is a set of ten sonnets that all have the same rhyme scheme and grammar.

It is possible to replace the first line of each of these poems with any other first line in the series and do the same for the second line and so on. For example, the first two poems in the set are:


Don Pedro has used his shirt to wash away the fleas

The bull’s horn could be used to dry it like a bone

Corned-beef’s rusty armour carries germs with great ease

That leather ferments is something not well known

One sweet hour of contentment is still in my mind

Gauchos are not too keen on shaving their beards

A shard of frozen marrow sounds so hard to find

As sleeping-bags cover the silent meadows

The pilgrims’ long journeys are not able to depress

We did everything we could, going the whole nine yards

We even played mountain croquet and jungle chess

The southern baroque’s sweet dialogue took our breath

For those who have Spanish as their native language some say

The bell tolls fee-less, fi-less, fo-less, fum


The wild horse stamps on the Parthenon’s ceiling

Since Elgin departed with its nostrils in the stone

The Turks had said to take whatever one would please

They sang off-key, yet without a single moan

O Parthenon, the reins of the steed are in your hands

The North Wind nips the horse’s elegant façade

The Thames launches a troubled arrow that expands

To break the rules, Britain’s power was displayed

Greece in the age of Plato was not so talent-free

The sharpest wit could make even the most lively horse move

Socrates watched his hemlock effervesce with glee

Their sculptors clogged our best monuments with marble too

Filling a slum with souvenirs from the age of yore

For Europe’s glory, as Fate’s harpies play their score

Queneau had been attempting to use mathematical structures to achieve literary goals since his first novel, Le chiendent. His interest in formal constraints may be viewed as a reaction to the “total liberty” of Andre Breton’s Surrealists, with whom he had a disagreement in 1929. By combining all of the 14 lines of his sonnet series, he was able to create 214, or 16,384, variations.

This resulted in a grand total of 1014 sonnets, a far greater number than humanity had been able to compose before.

This illustrates the potential of the poem series. Although no one can read or write such a large number of sonnets in the conventional sense, it still stands as a testament to Queneau’s craft.

When he talked to François Le Lionnais regarding the obstacles they were facing with their recent venture, they came up with the idea of the Oulipo.

It is easy to recognize why a highly structured form of writing like the sonnet is considered an Oulipian constraint. However, it is not as clear to what extent any type of writing is limiting due to the use of words.

This is why tragedy, comedy, memos, and detective stories are all just variations of the most extreme restraints of expression. Jean Lescure helps us to understand this concept better by saying, “What the Oulipo wanted to show is that these limitations can be rewarding, generous, and can be used as a form of literature.”

Emphasis on tradition and plagiarists by anticipation, which are authors who used limiting forms in the past, further supports this idea.

The Princeton Oulipofest was not characterized by mathematical rigor, and David Bellos, Harry Mathews, Paul Fournel, and Herve Le Tellier decided to go to the Chancellor Green Rotunda with Consenstein and myself, who had just come in from the rain.

A variety of people were present at the rotunda, including professors and students of literature, mathematicians, and members of the National Puzzlers’ League.

Bellos, who is a professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature at the university and the organizer of the weekend, called everyone to attention and presented the panelists for the first event of the weekend–a recitation of English and French poems.

Harry Mathews, the only American part of the group, became a member in 1973, the same period of his life that was described in the book I had been reading on the train shortly before the panel began.

It is not hard to imagine that Mathews was frequently mistaken as an undercover agent, as he mentions in his memoir My Life in CIA. He is an imposing figure, tall and husky, with a jovial but unyielding expression.

He gives off the sense of someone with a closely-guarded secret. This sense of being closed-off, which is accomplished in part through Oulipian means, is noticeable in his work and plays a big part in its charisma.

Mathews has a tendency, like many large men who don’t wish to overpower their environment, to talk quietly and, at times, mumble his words.

A woman in the back of the room, who later turned out to be his wife Marie Chaix, asked him multiple times to talk louder, which added to the entertaining disorder of the weekend.

Paul Fournel, who in 1971 was invited to join the Oulipo by Queneau, is currently the president of the group and the “provisionally definitive secretary” (Marcel Benabou, the “definitively provisional secretary”, was not present).

He is more of a literary joker than Mathews, always displaying a hint of a smile while seemingly trying to hold it back, and often using pseudo-aphorisms in response to questions. His most famous quote, “Oulipo ends where the work begins,” was posed when asked how one can become a member of the group, and his reply was akin to a Skull and Bonesman: “If you don’t want to be a member, just ask to be let in.”

During his tenure as a visiting professor at Princeton, Fournel and his students shared a great connection and it was visible throughout the weekend.

Hervé Le Tellier, born in 1957 and elected to the Oulipian group in 1992, was much younger than Mathews (born in 1930) and Fournel (born in 1947). His youthful demeanor was characterized by a fondness for bilingual puns that tended to leave those around him unamused.

Similarly to Fournel, Le Tellier was known for his witty remarks (e.g., “If it can be done, why do it?”). His literary work is often drastically concise, like his book Les amn esiques n’ont rien vecu d’inoubliable, which consists of 1,000 brief “thoughts”. He read from this during the first panel, with Mathews providing translations.

1–Your presence is in my mind.


40–If I could muster up a little creativity, it might be difficult to remain loyal, but with a large amount of imagination, it could be achievable.


41–Unfortunately, I don’t possess a great deal of creativity.


45–It seems like some independent-minded dogs only partially accept the existence of humankind.


67–I don’t feel regret for anything, not even for you. Hold on, that was meant to be a joke.


84–It might have been preferable if I had stayed quiet.”

Consenstein had praised Jacques Roubaud highly during our bus ride, but unfortunately he was unable to make the flight from Paris, and his absence was deeply felt.


At the start of the panel, these three individuals presented us with examples of writing, including their own and Queneau’s.

The French author, known as “Wily Q,” was influential to them, and they in turn showed us how to use constraints to reveal the core of a piece of writing, almost like an X-ray.

This method, which requires a certain willingness to be confused, is not for everyone, but its quirky nature can be appealing.

It quickly became evident that weekend that this was the attitude, and it lasted until the end.


The Beautiful Outlaw is a form of lipogram in which a specified word, usually a name, is presented by omitting a single letter from each sentence.

The initial sentence of the work eliminates the first letter of the missing word, the next sentence omits the second letter, and so forth.

The example sentence above contains each letter in the alphabet sans the letter o. The following sentence does the same except for u. If you are unable to discern the sequence, I suggest you put down this publication and take a brief rest.

One might argue that I am forced to write gibberish in order to attain a certain effect. In response, I may say that I am seeking a significance beyond mere semantics. If I am going to be honest though, it is difficult to create something aesthetically pleasing when there are many different guidelines, and I frankly lack the skill. Even some of the actual Oulipians struggle with the same task.

Let me elucidate.

The Oulipo stands out for having an abundance of remarkable authors, including a few of great magnitude such as Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, plus an extraordinary number of non-writers in comparison to other literary groups.

For example, François Le Lionnais, co-founder of the Oulipo, was a mathematician and enthusiast of chess problems, and he sought to create a range of “Ou-x-Po”s (Workshops for Potential Painting, for Potential Cooking, etc.) that still exist today. Other members include mathematicians, computer scientists, architects and designers.

The reason for this diversity is that the Oulipo focuses on the production of forms rather than their use. Each gathering of the Oulipo begins with introducing a new form or constraint into the minutes, and if there are none, the meeting is instantly ended.

When these frameworks have been generated, they are widely spread to whoever wishes to use them.

This is when they transition from the theoretical to the actual and all assumptions surrounding Oulipian outcomes become irrelevant. It is agreed that some forms are more suitable for producing successful outcomes than others, but those may not necessarily be the most exciting forms.

As such, Queneau, who wrote wonderful pieces all his life, could make the seemingly absurd comment that “We put ourselves past artistic value.” I now understand that Paul Fournel’s statement, which I found so incomprehensible initially, is actually a concise reflection of the fact that Oulipo’s purpose ceases once the work commences.

I had an idea that I was not particularly gifted in terms of writing prior to starting this essay. Yet, the workshop held after the first panel of the weekend has shown me that there are more truths to the praxis of constraints than I had expected.

I have taken part in countless writing workshops over the years, but never before had I felt so open and confident in the presence of experienced authors.

We discussed the Beautiful Inlaw and other constraint types, and all the participants

– from Fournel’s students to the National Puzzlers’ League

– were so involved in the process that there was no room for the usual feeling of criticism towards the author. We did not manage to create any masterpieces, but all of us had a great time.


It is easy to say “Oulipo” – that much is simple. But when it comes to the more difficult questions and curious elements, I have to admit I am stumped. There appears to be something, or someone, that is missing.

Not only that, but a particular word or words. Naming it is impossible. So, without a name, what can I tell you about the group? Is it possible for something else to substitute for the missing name? Will the group just disappear without any reference? Could it be that the absence of a name serves as a kind of motivating factor? With no other options, all I can do is say, “Oulipo.”


A lipogram is a composition of any length that omits one or more letters. The more extended the work and the more widely used the absent letter(s), the more noteworthy the accomplishment. La Disparition (translated as A Void by Gilbert Adair) by the late Georges Perec is the most renowned lipogrammatical novel, having no use of the letter e.

He was well regarded at the Princeton weekend and his lipogrammatic novel is quite possibly the most famous Oulipian text.

Attempting to explain the group to someone who is unfamiliar with it can lead to phrases such as, “Like one author who wrote an entire book without the letter e.” This will often evoke a perplexed look from the listener, similar to the expression elicited from the declaration that David Blaine plans to suspend himself on the tip of the Eiffel Tower in a coffin full of bees for the upcoming months.

Despite its lipogrammatic construction being advertised on the dust jacket, A Void is a remarkable book.

The plot, which focuses on Anton Vowl’s disappearance at the hand of the sinister and powerful Bushy Man5, could be a giveaway to the reader of its unique style.

My experience with the novel was like no other; although I had heard of the idea of it for years, I often forgot about the specific constraint and was instead enthralled by the sheer peculiarity and originality of the story.


As an Author, my aim is to create something distinct and inspirational. This work could potentially activate ideas surrounding the process of crafting fiction – from the structure to the characters to the story line and action. In other words, my goal is to provoke fresh thinking about writing.

Perec referred to the lipogram as “constraint degree zero” due to its paradoxical blend of simplicity and difficulty. Not all restrictions are of the same kind; more complex ones can, in fact, provide a writer with more freedom.

An example of this can be seen in his final novel, La Vie mode d ’emploi (Life A User’s Manual): it is based on a painting of an apartment building at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in Paris, which has been transformed into a jigsaw puzzle comprising one hundred pieces.

The pieces are ordered according to a chess problem known as the “Knight’s Tour,” in which a knight moves across each square of a chessboard without ever landing on the same one twice. This was made more complicated by Perec, as he had to solve a ten-by-ten puzzle instead of the standard eight-by-eight.6

In the same way that A Void is focused on both the vanishing of A. Vowl and fading in general, Life A User’s Manual looks at jigsaw puzzles and the bigger attempt to assemble understanding and life as much as possible. It is also, in a similar fashion to A Void, quite subtly self-referential.


The start of jigsaw puzzling involves wooden puzzles cut by hand, whereby the maker is required to answer all the questions the players will have to solve.

This is accomplished by replacing chance with wit, trickery, and deception.


The various elements present in the image to be reassembled – such as the armchair covered in gold brocade, the three-pointed black hat with its dilapidated black plume, or the silver-braided bright yellow livery – are deliberately included as misleading clues.


This organized, coherent, and structured signifying space of the picture is not only divided into formless elements with little information or signifying power, but also contains false information.


Consequently, one can hypothesize that the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles is that, contrary to appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move and every piece the puzzler picks up, every combination they try, every blunder and insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been predetermined and decided by the puzzle-maker.


When David Bellos translated Life A User ‘s Manual into English, a variety of critics drew comparisons between it and the works of Joyce and Nabokov, as all three have noticeable affinities.

This novel, with its single day in Dublin narrative based on The Odyssey and chapters representing the different functions of the body and literary discourses, as well as its puns and portmanteau words structured after Vico’s cycle of history, and the madman’s footnotes to a purloined 999 line poem, all demonstrate a strong sense of constraints.

Furthermore, the abundance of narratives in both A Void and Life A User ‘s Manual make them forerunners to the contemporary “hysterical realism” mode of post-postmodernism. The more one reads of Perec, a mainstay of the Oulipian genre, the clearer it becomes that he is a major contributor to the development of the novel.

Therefore, if my prior characterization of constricted writing was not altogether positive, I strongly advocate reading Perec’s work. His writing is of considerable literary worth due to the limitations he sets for himself. At the peak of his talent, he joins form and matter so cohesively that it is almost inconceivable to separate them.

Despite the various topics discussed, the focus of the panelists ultimately kept returning to Perec as a person more than an author. His influence was evident in many ways: Bellos’s scholarly career has been largely derived from him, Mathews’s friendship with him initiated his involvement with the Oulipo, and Dominique Frischer, one of Perec’s closest friends, was present at the occasion.

The panelists’ fondness for Perec and any other people who couldn’t be present was obvious. Fournel was visiting Princeton during that term; Mathews and his wife live between New York and Florida, so he usually doesn’t show up at the group’s monthly meetings; Le Tellier is still based in France. The entirety of the weekend seemed like a great chance for the three of them to reunite.

It was with great pleasure then, that I was invited to join the group for dinner that night at the Sunny Garden restaurant. A BYOB establishment, I couldn’t help but reminisce of days past when I was an undergraduate with a group of would-be writers, theorists, mathematicians and computer scientists.

Our work, unfortunately, was mostly potential and not actual, meaning we were more likely to talk about it over beers than actually put it on paper.

As we gathered around the table that night, I thought of Fournel’s words earlier in the day; he had said that the Oulipians could only fit around one table. We were outnumbered by laymen, some Princeton faculty and their students, and the wives of Mathews and Fournel, yet it was a jovial and serious night. I was reminded of the no self-promotion rule and knew that I shouldn’t start dropping hints.


He ignited the soft note she had given him.

It was a pity; we were exhausted.

A piece of pornography for a ruler scarcely over four feet tall.

“Plunge alone,” Vida commanded.

His heart was thumping on top of the cab.


An elucidation of constraints is presented here. The restrictions that impact us are examined and explored in detail. It is important to understand the rules and regulations that are in place in order to make informed decisions.

At the weekend’s last panel, the topic of “La Contrainte et apres?: A debate on the achievements, ambitions, and future of writing without ease” began with a delay until Frischer provided coffee for the participants.

Discussion began about if a constrained work should be identified as such. Mathews suggested Perec’s work was too often simplified to its formula instead of being appreciated for its beauty. It is easy to think that knowing the complexities of La Vie mode d ’emploi is the same as actually reading it, but this is incorrect.

When reading the novel, the constraints that led to it become insignificant, similar to how the parallels to Homer in Ulysses become less important with each rereading, and how the Big Bang and the expulsion from Eden do not come to mind when going out on a pleasant morning.

At the meeting, it was questioned if it would be prudent to keep certain limitations under wraps rather than flaunt them.

This was not the first time the concept of a clinamen had been brought up; a term used by Perec to refer to an intentional deviation from a given restriction in a work of art for artistic reasons, as opposed to cheating the constraint.

Additionally, the practice of “Canada Dry” was discussed, a term created by Paul Fournel, which describes a work that outwardly seems regulated by a restriction, but is not when further studied – similar to the soda ‘Canada Dry’ containing no alcohol despite its appearance.

Consenstein mused whether the point about making known the constraints was moot: when reading an Oulipian piece, an informed reader is aware that some kind of constraint is being used; the inquiry is only what it is.

To this, Mathews decidedly disagreed. Most of his writing lacks any Oulipian regulations. He regularly moves between writing styles within a single work and does not provide any warning to the reader. It can be difficult to tell, while reading Mathews, what framework, if any, is driving the work.

Non-Oulipians who compose in Oulipian styles are numerous. Walter Abish’s novel Alphabetical Africa may be the most renowned work of constraint after A Void. In the first chapter, all words start with the letter a; the second chapter includes words beginning with a and b; and so on, until the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh chapters, where all letters are used.

The process then goes in reverse until the fifty-second chapter, where words begin with a again. Harry Mathews has described Abish’s novel’s constraint as “Oulipian” for its straightforward axiom and the way it shapes the narrative and its enchanting language.

It is noteworthy that one of the most prominent Oulipian works was penned by someone not connected to the group, just as Italo Calvino, who is perhaps the best-known member of the group, is chiefly known for non-Oulipian works like his early fables trilogy and the later collections of stories, Cosmicomics and t zero.

The Oulipo’s allowance for its writers returned to my mind; Breton appeared to have bounded his devotees with liberty, while Queneau seemed to have released his with bonds.

The board went on to discuss the ideal way to enforce limits and I had a passing vision of a work that would look, at first, to be using Oulipian approaches in a diverting but shallow manner, within a bigger framework that was finally conventional.

Exclusively upon deeper investigation might it become obvious that each word in this work that I was dreaming of had been determined by a revolutionary, yet radically straightforward, procedure.

There was a time of disenchantment when I recognized that such a design would be out of my reach, but then I recalled Herve Le Tellier’s expression: “If it can be done, why do it?” And for a brief moment even my own restrictions appeared liberating in their own way.


I openly admit that my own lipogram, which omits the letter e and focuses on the resulting absence of “Mathews,” “Fournel,” “Le Tellier” and “Bellos,” is an inferior copy of Mathews’s “Back to Basics,” a homage to Perec which he recited at Princeton not long ago. The piece started with…


When pressed, we can always refer to GP, but there is no means of completely referring to him in a scenario like this.


Nevertheless, taking into consideration all of the various methods in which he was able to make words stand out, I believe it is suitable to talk about him in this way, which is generated from grief; and you and I are aware that grief is the most significant aspect of him at present, so honouring him with something that comes entirely from sadness feels correct to my intuition.

The words here show the intense emotional power of the best restrained writing and how content and form can be joined together. Like in Perec’s book, the absence here is not a stylistic choice, but a vital part of the text’s significance. To memorialize a friend by using a technique that both mentions them directly and highlights their absence while honestly expressing grief: this is not just a gimmick; words can be used for this kind of purpose.

My familiarity with Oulipian history and direct quotes from texts that were presented at Princeton come from the revised and updated Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie. I wholeheartedly suggest taking a look at this compendium.

Translations of the poems are done by Stanley Chapman, who was born in Britain and is a member of Oulipian.

There is no connection between the Beautiful Inlaw and the Beautiful Outlaw that is the focus of this explication.

Adair’s translation is an accomplishment in its own right, the only version of the text I’ve read, and thus when I refer to the novel by its English name, I’m referring to the translation as much as to the original.

Any snapshot of Perec will generally demonstrate the importance of “Bushy Man,” however a particularly illustrative one is the author’s portrait from A Void. This image portrays a person with a huge Afro and a large goatee, who is staring at the audience in a playful menacing way.

  1. It could be said better if I had a full comprehension of it. To be brief, this is a mere glimpse of the topic. To illustrate, attributes in the narrative are spread throughout the chapters and characters with a Graeco-Roman bisquare. The inspiration for this literary structure originated from the Oulipian mathematician, Claude Berge. Those who seek a full investigation of the book’s structural principles will find what they need in the appropriate sections of Bellos’s excellent biography, Georges Perec: A Life in Words.
  1. Submit your ideas about the fourth restraint to letters@culture.org and be eligible to receive a subscription to the Believer, a cloth item with the Believer’s logo printed on it, or The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers as a reward.

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