Academic journal article French Forum

Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo

Academic journal article French Forum

Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo

Article excerpt

Founded in 1960, the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle can congratulate itself, should that suit its mood, upon forty-five years of uninterrupted activity. Or four and a half thousand years, since the Oulipo habitually counts its decades as millennia. (1) Even measured by a more secular calendar, the Oulipo has certainly shattered the record of longevity for literary groups, leaving Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism, Situationism, and so forth behind like so many sleek but abashed hares bested by the tortoise. What may be more astonishing still is the Oulipo's record of civility. No excommunications here, no ritual immolations, no spectacular autos-da-fe, no gore-drenched seppukus. Indeed, its rules provide that nobody, once elected, can quit the Oulipo--and even after their death, its members are not excused from the group. From the original ten Oulipians, the group has grown to include thirty-five, and, thus reinforced, its activity continues unabated today, in the very same spirit of vigorous, collaborative interrogation that animated its beginnings.

As intriguing and as vibrant as I feel the current activities of the Oulipo to be, I have recently been drawn toward those beginnings, rereading the Oulipo's foundational documents and first texts, and discovering in those halcyon days a wealth of interesting detail. In particular, Jacques Bens's book, Oulipo 1960-1963, in which are collected the minutes from the monthly meetings of the group in those early years, offers a font of Oulipian arcana, both greater and lesser. As the group moves from its first title, "Seminaire de Litterature Experi-mentale" to "Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle," and from the acronym "OLiPo" to "OuLiPo," one learns many important things, such as the fact that Raymond Queneau was bitterly disappointed by the size of the menhirs at Carnac when he finally laid eyes upon them in person, or that the contemporary crisis in off-track betting in France might be explained by the fact that trainers read Baudelaire aloud to racehorses (B 56, 230). One may revisit certain classic moments and savor them at leisure, like that epiphany when the fundamental vocation of the group became apparent, leading its members to agree upon this definition: "OuLiPiens: Rats qui ont a construire le labyrinthe dont ils se proposent de sortir" (B 43).

One of the issues that I have found to be most engaging is the question of Raymond Queneau's role in those early Oulipian years. It should be recalled that the Oulipo was first conceived (if not yet birthed) during a ten-day colloquium devoted to the work of Queneau at Cerisy-la-Salle in September, 1960. Moreover, it is generally understood that Queneau co-founded the group with his friend Francois Le Lionnais. I have claimed that repeatedly (1, 176, 183), as have a variety of other academics, for instance Marc Lapprand (9) and Peter Consenstein (16), as if it were a fact beyond dispute. The Oulipo says as much in the current iteration of its website, (2) where the Oulipian Herve Le Tellier, in his biographical sketch of Queneau, writes: "Raymond Queneau est l'un des co-fondateurs de l'Oulipo, avec Francois Le Lionnais." Upon close examination and further scrutiny, however, things may be a bit more complicated than that. On the same website, for example, Le Tellier describes Francois Le Lionnais as the "Fondateur et premier president de l'Oulipo," suggesting further that "il fut a l'initiative de la fondation de l'Ouvroir, en 1960," with no mention of Queneau.

If one leaps backwards over the decades--or rather the millennia--to the Oulipo's third official meeting, on January 13, 1961, one finds that Queneau himself was very much in agreement with the latter interpretation of events. There, the minutes record that Queneau took the floor at the outset of the meeting in order to emphasize and enter into the record two concerns that he felt to be of primordial importance:

  Raymond Queneau demande alors immediatement la parole pour regretter
  qu'on ait omis de signaler, au cours des deux precedents comptes

  a) que l'OLiPo a ete fonde sur l'initiative de Francois Le Lionnais;

  b) que le titre Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle a ete propose par
  Albert-Marie Schmidt. … 
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