In 1960 the French novelist, poet and encyclopedist Raymond Queneau, together with his friend Franqois Le Lionnais, a mathematical historian and chess expert, founded a research group, the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature. Usually called the Oulipo, this assembly of writers and mathematicians set out to see what use, if any, could be made of mathematical structures in writing, the notion of mathematical structure soon broadening to include any method of quasi-mathematical strictness. The most notorious example of such a method is Georges Perec's novel La Disparition (A Void), written entirely without using the letter e.
Almost forty years later, the group is still going strong, in spite of the deaths of several of its most distinguished members—Queneau, Perec, Marcel Duchamp and Italo Calvino. In France, it was for many years thought of as a daffily eccentric irrelevance. Subsequently, works such as Perec's Life: A User's Manual, Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, and the present editor's Cigarertes gave the group's work a certain credibility, and by now its presence in the literary world is widely acknowledged, if hardly approved of. OutsideFrance, however, the Oulipo remains regrettably unfamiliar.
This selection is drawn from a forthcoming survey of the Oulipo and related groups, Oulipo Compendium, to be published next fall by Atlas Press (London) in both England and the United States. The selection offered here is by necessity an arbitrary one: suggesting the full range of Oulipian invention and rediscovery would require far too many entries for a literary review. Work by non-Oulipian writers has been used whenever it provides the liveliest illustrations available. The name of the Oulipian responsible for a method is given in parentheses in the presentation of each entry. When not otherwise indicated, texts are by the editor.