Mathematician Michèle Audin, author of the wonderful new novel One Hundred Twenty-One Days, is a member of the Oulipo, the very selective group of writers who apply constraints to their works, and whose notable members include Italo Calvino (whose Invisible Cities is designed like a sine wave) and Georges Perec (whose A Void does not contain the letter "e"). Audin, whose novel depicts mathematicians in wartime using a variety of documents, gives us an inside look at the society--using Oulipian constraints.
Authors. Calvino, who I discovered when I was twenty in reading Invisible Cities; Perec, whose Life A User’s Manual I bought at random, just because it was a “big” book (and because bookstores have display tables), but then I hastened to read everything he wrote; Garréta, whose Sphinx I read as soon as it came out; Bénabou, whose name I learned in Life A User’s Manual and whose Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books I then read; Mathews, at first because he was friends with Perec; Queneau of course; and Roubaud.
But also a group. I read collective works, such as La Littérature potentielle (part of which appears in English as Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature).
And a culture. A myth? Sometimes I find myself writing a poem “all in a” or imagining a novel with a complicated structure. After all, I’m a mathematician.
The Exceptional Event.
And then, one day, the Oulipo becomes a reality for me: “it” invites me to a meeting.
Why? I sent a book I wrote to Jacques Roubaud titled Remembering Sofia Kovalevskaya in which I included mathematics and history, but also literary pastiches; he had spoken about it at a meeting, so I get invited to the next one. I accept, of course.
I am terribly awestruck, but immediately find myself at ease.
Let me tell you about it. The meeting takes place at a friend’s house (a friend from the Oulipo). They are all there. Not Queneau, or Perec, or Calvino, unfortunately (this is December 2008). But Garréta, Roubaud, and many others, whose names I know, and others I don’t know, but which I learn with astonishment and delight. The group is friendly, warm. The discussion is fascinating and effervescent (some can’t help making puns for every remark). The wine is delicious and the foie gras excellent. The meeting is serious, but also joyful and funny. I feel like I’ve found my intellectual family. And then it’s over. We say au revoir to each other out on the sidewalk.
As I leave them, I store up my memories of this exceptional event.
I read the books of Michelle Grangaud and all the other authors I met, Paul Fournel, Frédéric Forte, Jacques Jouet, Hervé Le Tellier, Ian Monk, and Olivier Salon.
One day I will write “I remember the day I went to an Oulipo meeting.”
Ah, but not just one meeting. Six months later, I receive a message from President Paul Fournel, who suggests I come back. Forever. I try my hardest to not rush into it, but I end up responding “Yes I will yes.”
I don’t know it yet, but I’m soon going to learn that co-options can only occur when the members are unanimous. And declaring yourself as a candidate forbids you from being co-opted (fortunately, I hadn’t even imagined I could be one!).
So, starting in July 2009, I participate, every month, in this exceptional event.
The Meeting, from A to Z.
The meeting starts at six o’clock. Today it’s at A’s house. For ten minutes, B, C, and D (including me), who are always early, wait in front of the door. Once everyone has entered and settled in, the President draws up the agenda, noting the names of those present and those excused (but only among the living Oulipians, the others are definitively excused “for reason of death”), including E and F who don’t come very often. We help ourselves to pre-dinner drinks. As in a family, we share our news with each other (illnesses, joys, deaths). G makes a play on words. We quiet down while the President signs Oulipians up for the “Creation” section: the rule says that, if no one signs up for this section, the meeting is cancelled. In March 2016, we’re up to the 665th meeting, and this has never happened… H and I, who are always late, arrive. J doesn’t drink alcohol, K prefers root beer, everyone has a glass in hand. The meeting begins. L is the one presenting a creation. Tradition requires that we continually interrupt the presentation to complain about the presenter’s never-ending sentences. A discussion follows. The ambiance is truly familial (which, as in all families, includes arguments, which are generally short). The next sections are called “Rumination” (in which we propose ideas, such as new constraints) and “Scholarship.” M speaks modestly about a new research discovery (for a biography about one of the founders). N found new “anticipatory plagiarists” (Oulipians before the creation of the Oulipo). There is discussion of a novel whose author we might invite to a meeting. We move to the table and the disorder intensifies. Especially since O is telling a joke about Belgians (again). P, who takes notes for the meeting minutes, protests. Everyone likes their meat rare. Q tastes the wine. R talks about the release of a new book (this is the “Publications” section). S tosses the salad for a long time (we never toss the salad so much, according to T). We discuss the website, oulipo.net. The puns burst forth. We pass on the “Actions” section. This concerns preparing for the Oulipo’s public interventions, in the form of readings here or there or collective works. U and V smoke by the window. W, who doesn’t like cheese, joins them. During dessert, we pick the date for the next meeting (one a month, twelve times a year, that’s the rule). X offers to host, which pleases everyone: the food will be really good. We talk about the next “guests of honor.” Y and Z, who live in the north of Paris, call a taxi. The others keep talking before heading for the metro.
That’s once a month. The rest of the time, it’s work. What have I done in the Oulipo? I’ve taken part in several collective works, notably Winter Journeys, but also Le Petit Oulipo (for children) and the Abécédaire provisoirement définitif (Provisionally Definitive Abecedary). I’ve written articles and presented at conferences. I’ve given public readings. I’ve learned a lot, about tons of literary subjects. For example, classic verse (Racine!), thanks to Valérie Beaudouin, and the circumflex, thanks to Bernard Cerquiglini. But I’ve also written books, including One Hundred Twenty-One Days, for whose form I used an Oulipian idea connected to troubadour poetry; La formule de Stokes, roman, (Stokes’ Formula: A Novel) inspired by the form of Michelle Grangaud’s two poetic calendars; and Mademoiselle Haas, in which I used several ideas, one of which came to me in reading the French translation of Fricciones by Pablo Martin Sánchez (a “young” Oulipian from Spain). Concerning troubadour poetry, I reflected on mathematical questions with Ian Monk—what a pleasure to talk about mathematics and poetry with a real poet! We used these ideas to write some “nonines.”
I still have tons of ideas, and I’m sure the next meeting will help me discover even more!