By Chris Clarke
I remember watching Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971 in film class, and I recall the feeling of sitting in that dark Simon Fraser annex classroom searching for patterns that eluded me. Hmm, in the past three shots, the traffic has been moving to the left. Maybe THAT means something. Never mind, now it’s going to the right. And . . . we’re back to Stonehenge. Is the camera spinning to the left? Back to the Baader-Meinhof gang. It doesn’t make sense that a work of art can be without a plan, and for good reason—it rarely ever is. But this is simply the way the human brain is wired, it likes to put things into neat little boxes, to keep everything organized, neat and tidy. When that doesn’t work, it can be a marking experience, and one that changes your approach to reading, whether it’s a film, a book, music, the plastic arts. At least for a time, until you once again grow used to the expected.
The way we read a text is conditioned by who we are: what we’ve read, where we’re from, how we have learned to think. And for the reader of an Oulipian text, it’s possible to approach a text in one of two ways: the referential reading or the autoreferential reading. As Hervé Le Tellier tells us in Esthétique de l’Oulipo,
It’s possible to approach an Oulipian work as a naïve reader. Keeping only to texts with complex structures, out of Life: A User’s Manual, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, [Roubaud’s] Hortense cycle, [Le Tellier’s own] The Sextine Chapel, or [Jouet’s] 107 Souls, not one requires an instruction manual to provide enjoyment to the reader. The same could be said of many lengthier texts, where the constraints are a writing mechanism for the author and never a prism through which to read. This is sometimes the drama of the Oulipian text (and here Life: A User’s Manual comes to mind): that the revelation of the work's constraints risks eclipsing all reflection on the fiction in favor of a discourse that is perhaps excessively academic—and all of this for something that is, after all, no more than the skeleton of the work. [my translation]
So, let me ask the question: should the Oulipian constraint be evident? Must it? While it isn’t really my question to ask, it is by no means a new question. Apparently this has been a topic of discussion within the group since more or less the beginning. Some of the members think it better to leave the constraint out in the open, some prefer to keep it to themselves. Georges Perec, for example, often spoke openly of his constraints. Italo Calvino sometimes wrote texts of explanation. And yet Raymond Queneau let his float away in the breeze once they had served their purpose.
Of course it depends on the sort of text and the type of constraint. It wasn’t Perec’s fault if one of the first critics to review his lipogrammatic novel La Disparition (in English: “A Void”, at least in Gilbert Adair’s translation) failed (allegedly) to notice that the novel didn’t contain the letter E. Perec described his constraints and the act of using those constraints as échafaudage, which means both “scaffolding” and “construction, elaboration.” Both an act and a device. And while Queneau had, among other elaborate constraints, a series of “Queneauian” numbers known to some of his friends and colleagues, it would take a researcher a lifetime to figure out all the ways he applied them, for as soon as he was done with it, the scaffolding was removed and all that remained was the finished construction.
Marcel Bénabou addresses this issue in an essay entitled Display/Conceal. He breaks the options down into three main groups, “forced revelation, external revelation and internal revelation,” and then notes several exceptions. One of these exceptions is François Caradec’s delightful little text Un coup de fil peut sauver une vie, which Words without Borders has offered up under the English title The Life You Save May Be Your Own (as translated by the enigmatic and recondite Dara Keck). In this text, Caradec manages to playfully stick a finger right in the eye of the argument. It consists of a series of forty contrepèteries Canada Dry, and although he tells the reader as much, he’s toying with them all the same. The contrepèterie is similar to the English spoonerism, but it differs in several substantial ways: first, it is almost always intentional, whereas Spoonerisms are as often as not unintentional slips of the tongue. Secondly, the contrepèterie is almost invariably dirty. And third and most significantly, the contrepèterie has been drilled into the collective consciousness of the French reader, and maybe more importantly, the Oulipian reader.
Le Canard enchaîné, a weekly satirical newspaper active in France since 1915, has for over sixty years now published a weekly column entitled Sur l’Album de la Comtesse. Each week this column features a first series of contrepèteries linked to current events followed by a second batch of unrelated examples. The newspaper’s readership has been puzzling these out and forming reading habits since the early fifties. While this reading practice hasn’t entered into the English tradition in the same way, the base manipulations are equally possible and the habits can be learned. Add to this the fact that from 1957 to 1984, this column was edited by Luc Étienne, a prominent French ‘pataphysicist and, since 1970, a member of the Oulipo. He published the definitive book on the subject, L’Art du contrepet, in 1957. I’ll be the first to admit that these contrepèteries can be quite hard to figure out; deciphering them takes practice. But as is often the case, after a time, patterns begin to emerge as the faithful reader grows familiar with the list of words that come up on a regular basis. That’s where Caradec comes in. With Un coup de fil peut sauver une vie, he’s trading on these reading habits. He’s composing his own contrepèteries from this same list of words, with the same rhythm and feel as those that graced the pages of Étienne’s column for so long, but they simply don’t work. Try as you might, you won’t find the dirty little chuckle hidden in these sentences, because it isn’t there.
In doing so and with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Caradec answers the question of whether or not the Oulipian constraint ought to be visible—whether in this case it truly consists of a constraint or simply of a “rule” or “method.” In using a pattern so familiar and so closely linked to the Oulipian tradition, Caradec has presented the constraint, waving his hands and yelling “Over here, over here!”: the échafaudage has been left up for all to see. But it hasn’t been used to build anything. And what better way to answer the question? There is clearly no right or wrong answer to this question, as each Oulipian works in his own way and will continue to invent and to write as he sees fit. And after all, in making evident a constraint that he has been careful not to use, Caradec has used the constraint in the way constraints were always intended to be used: to create something new.
Published Jan 24, 2014 Copyright 2014 Chris Clarke