Why are French literary tricksters Oulipo now so hot?

Paris (AFP) –


The winner of France's top literary prize Monday is a mind-bending bestseller called "The Anomaly", whose brilliant time-shifting tricks have sparked comparisons with "The Matrix".

Even before the work by mathematician and journalist Herve Le Tellier picked up the Prix Goncourt, critics were saying its story of a flight to New York that is lost in time demanded to be made into a television series.

Le Tellier heads a secretive group of literary tricksters called Oulipo...

-- Ouli what? --

Oulipo, or more accurately OuLiPo, which stands for "OUvroir de LItterature POtentielle" -- meaning workshop for potential literature. Don't worry, even in French it sounds pretentious.

Originally a secret society, and still shrouded in mystery, it was founded in 1960 by a group of mostly French writers and mathematicians.

They believe mathematical techniques and rules and constraints are the mother and father of all real invention.

-- Like what? --

Words games and palindromes (words that read the same both backwards and forwards) are their bread and butter.

Take "The Void": the French novelist and Oulipo member Georges Perec famously wrote the 300-page novel in 1969 without using the letter "e" -- the most common letter in French.

While his reputation has since fallen into a void in English, the Italian Italo Calvino also experimented with Oulipo as did the grandaddy of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp -- he of the urinal fame.

- -Sounds a bit complicated? --

Not always. Sometimes it can be simple and ingenious, like Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau's classic "Exercises in Style", which is one story re-told 99 different ways.

But it has to be said that "snowball" poems, where each line is a single word that gets one letter longer every line, or lipograms with verses that omit letters that go below the line such as "p", "j" or "y", might not be everyone's cup of tea.

-- Why would you want to do that? --

For the the hell of it, of course. Queneau's "A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems" (1961) includes 10 sonnets that if divided into strips can be recombined 100,000,000,000,000 different ways and still rhyme.