Puzzles, constraints and cryptograms: An Oulipo beginner’s primer

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By Karen Langley

Although you may never have heard the name of the literary group Oulipo, there’s a good chance you might actually have read one of the members’ books. Authors like Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau are famous enough in their own right; but they spent much of their lives as part of an arcane group of writers apparently determined to make their work as authors as difficult as possible – as well as occasionally befuddling the reader!

Oulipo books

Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (in English, approximately “workshop of potential literature”) and Wikipedia defines this group as “a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques.” Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais as an offshoot from the “Collège de ‘Pataphysique” (another literary trope, invented by Alfred Jarry), the group’s most famous members (at least in the English-speaking world) are probably the aforementioned Queneau, Calvino and Perec; though as recent collections prove, there is a wide-ranging list of participants producing intriguing works.

The constraints used by the Oulipian writers are varied and fascinating; many are based on mathematical concepts or formulae, drawing in cryptograms, crossword puzzles and palindromes as well as games like chess. Ostensibly simpler works take on the challenge of leaving out one particular letter from a whole book. From my experience, deep knowledge of the technique used is not essential to the enjoyment of a particular book, though it must give the translators a real headache when trying to carry the constraint over into a new language! I do wonder if that’s why only certain Oulipian authors have become well-known in languages other than their native ones. A list of members of the group is available online, and touchingly includes all writers ever a member, whether living or no longer with us.

The idea of reading works produced using complex methods and strange constraints might seem intimidating; but as I mentioned, if you read translated European fiction reasonably widely, you may even have read an Oulipian book without knowing it. There are a number of wonderful works by the group available in English, and although I am by no means an expert, I *have* read a good few of these; so here are some suggestions of where to get started if you want to begin reading the works of this very intriguing group of writers!

Italo Calvino

I have to declare a personal interest here, as Calvino was the first Oulipian author I read, decades before I’d even heard of the group. His novel If on a winter’s night a traveler is often regarded as his masterpiece, and to someone who’d read a lot, but not a huge amount of experimental literature, it was a revelation. As well as being a clever take on the act of reading the new Calvino, it’s also an excellent piece of metafiction; the author breaks the Fourth Wall between author and reader from page one and it’s quite exhilarating. The book is considered ideal for someone who loves books and reading and it certainly is that; following the adventures of a reader trying to read a new book by their favourite author is funny, clever, intriguing and very thought-provoking. Calvino joined the Oulipo group in 1968, by which time he’d already published some fascinating and ground-breaking works (The Baron in the Trees, Cosmicomics); but many more were to follow. “Invisible Cities”, another masterpiece of imagination, is built upon a mathematical structure; and The Castle of Crossed Destinies draws on the imagery of Tarot cards. Calvino is a good entry point into Oulipian writing, and I’d highly recommend  If on a winter’s night… as a first read!

Georges Perec

Perec is arguably the most high-profile Oulipian, best known for his mammoth Life: A User’s Manual which despite using a complex series of constraints is actually incredibly readable. The book tells the story of the inhabitants of a building in Paris, ranging far and wide over past and present, telling any number of tales with any number of interlinking threads. It’s definitely Perec’s masterwork, but his works all take differing constraints and produce marvellous results. A Void, for example (in the original French La disparition) uses the lipogram constraint: in French, the letter E is completely absent, as it also is in Gilbert Adair’s masterly English translation. Another constraint used by Perec was the list format, such as in An attempt at exhausting a place in Paris in which the author sits in the same cafe day after day, observing the same scene over and over. Despite the repetition, variations creep in and this close study reveals that very little in life is actually identical. It’s all clever stuff, but never less than readable. Perec was of Jewish heritage, having lost his soldier father in WW2 fighting and his mother in a concentration camp; those losses inform his work, particularly W, or the Memory of Childhood, a powerful book about a Utopia gone wrong. Perec died at just 45, leaving behind a body of work, which is powerful, haunting and yet uplifting. I started with Life: A User’s Manual as my first Perec, though it *is* long; Things: A Story of the Sixties, with its take on the burgeoning consumer society, would also be a good introduction to this wonderful and thought-provoking author.

Raymond Queneau

Queneau’s importance to Oulipo can’t be overstated, as of course he was a co-founder; however, I do wonder if he’s been a little eclipsed by Perec’s reputation. However, Queneau’s works are shining examples of Oulipian wordplay, taking in all kinds of constraints, and one book in particular could well be a title of which you’ve heard! Zazie in the Metro was published in 1959 and was turned into a highly successful film, meaning that it’s probably been read by many, many people who’ve never heard of Oulipo and maybe never will! Queneau was known for his punning, and Zazie is a surreal tale full of the most wonderful wordplay; the English version is a triumph for Barbara Wright, Queneau’s regular translator. The Sunday of Life is another marvellous story, again laden with puns and humour, as well as containing some interesting ruminations on the passing of time. A more obviously Oulipian work is Exercises in Style which takes a short paragraph of description and then re-tells this in 98 different ways. You might think this sounds boring, but it really isn’t; it’s fascinating to realise how easily our perceptions can be influenced by the kind of language used, and it’s the sort of work which really makes you think about what you’re hearing or reading. If you’re new to Queneau, however, Zazie or Sunday are both great places to start and most enjoyable.

Harry Mathews

Mathews is possibly the best-known English-language member of the group and was the first American to be invited to join. A good friend of Perec’s (both men had translated each other’s writings), he was already working along Oulipian lines before becoming part of the group. A prolific author, he invented the ‘Mathews’ Algorithm’, a way of writing which involved changing elements around by a predetermined set of rules; truly, I think you may well have needed a mathematical bent to be a real Oulipian. I’ve not yet read any of Mathews’ works, but his first novel The Conversions (1962), with its noir trappings, sounds to me like a good one with which to start.

Women Oulipians

Well, here we hit a slightly knotty aspect. For a good part of its existence, Oulipo was a bit of a boys’ club; only a handful of women members have ever been invited in, and their works are only just trickling into English translation. Michèle Métail was the first to join in 1975, and Michèle Audin the most recent, in 2009. Audin’s book One Hundred Twenty-One Days has been translated into English, as has Anne F. Garréta’s Sphinx; the latter, which apparently tells a love story without revealing the sex of either character, sounds particularly interesting. I’d like to read both authors, and let’s hope more Oulipian women are inducted and translated soon.

Oulipian Anthologies

Fancy browsing Oulipo without committing? Fortunately, there are a number of collections of Oulipian pieces ideal for dipping into and for whetting your appetite, allowing the sampling of a wide range of authors. Slightly less fortunately, they’re all quite chunky… One entertaining volume is Winter Journeys which you could almost consider as a companion piece to Queneau’s Exercises in Style. Here, a short piece by Perec is taken on by other Oulipians who write a ‘sequel’ to that piece, and the resulting work reveals all manner of treasures. Translated by Ian Monk, himself a member of the group, it’s a rare and fascinating book.

Another anthology is All That is Evident is Suspect; edited by Monk and Daniel Levin Becker, it’s particularly special. It was the first book to feature, at the time of its printing in 2018, works by all 41 members of Oulipo (I’m not sure anyone has joined since); so it’s ideal for a wider introduction to the authors’ work than you can just get from reading the available full works in translation.

There are, of course, scholarly works on the group in circulation, but the most recent publication is a handsome clothbound hardback: The Penguin Book of Oulipo, edited by Philip Terry, an author and academic who’s also translated Oulipian work. One hundred different extracts promise all manner of delights, but Terry spreads his net further to include writers who’ve revelled in wordplay well before the Oulipians; an interesting take which could well reveal the roots and inspirations of the group’s members.


So those are just a few ideas if you fancy exploring some wonderful written works which are clever, moving, and entertaining, as well as full of humour and wordplay. From the Oulipian works I’ve personally read, it seems to me that the best have the ability to tell a fascinating story on top of an underlying structure of rules which may or may not be obvious; and the latter doesn’t always matter, because the Oulipian members really do know how to spin a great yarn!

(NB – No constraints have been used in the writing of this piece….)

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Karen Langley blogs at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, relishes wordplay and adores people who are clever with words!