February 2012
Daniel Levin Becker

La Bibliothèque Impossible

A Parisian collective fascinated by the possibilities of literature beholden to mathematical rigor keeps half a century's worth of documents in a surprisingly questionable state of alphabetization

Discussed: Commendable Futility, Constraint-Based Mix-Tape Curation, Hapless Indentured Servitude, Books as Alien Species, Pseudonymous Erotica, Sweet Anagrammatic Nothings, Anticipatory Plagiarism, Poets Whose Works Should Be Perforated, Fjord Waltzes, Sonnets as Fruit Flies, The Pleasures of Self-Enshrinement

Thirty years to the day after the death of Raymond Queneau, I am in an ornate reading room at the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal, a massive eighteenth-century edifice hulking on Paris's near-Left Bank behind a twisted metal sculpture that allegedly represents Arthur Rimbaud. Along with bookbinding curiosities, medieval manuscripts, and prison records from the Bastille, Arsenal's holdings have recently grown to include the archives of a literary collective called the Oulipo—Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or "Workshop for Potential Literature." Tonight's mini-gala is intended to commemorate not the opening of those archives to the public—they are still not consultable today, except by special permission and prolonged maneuvering through the Kafkaesque labyrinth of French library bureaucracy—but the idea of their at least being kept someplace august and official, rather than at the ninth-arrondissement apartment of Marcel Benabou, the Oulipo's definitively provisional and provisionally definitive secretary.

Besides the two dedicated champagne-pourers in the corner, everyone in the room is swirling around in varying states of hobnobbery: library undersecretaries, branch curators, and nearly all the living members of the Oulipo, about half of whom I am meeting for the first time. There is Benabou, a former history professor with owly eyes; Paul Fournel, a diplomat and cyclist and the workshop's current president; Jacques Roubaud, an endlessly venerated poet who still states his profession on paper as "mathematician (retired)." There is Anne Garreta, an unrepentant postmodernist who wears a leather bomber jacket; Herve Le Tellier, a newspaper wit who is never on time for anything; Olivier Salon, a high-school math teacher who looks like a good-natured pirate or a twenty-second-century librarian, depending on whether he is wearing his glasses. There is François Caradec, a literary biographer whose eyebrows and mustache make him look like a well-dressed shih tzu; Paul Braffort, a computer scientist from before personal computers existed; Michelle Grangaud, who once published a book consisting entirely of anagrams made from the names of Parisian metro stations; and Jacques Jouet, who once spent fifteen and a half hours composing a poem by visiting every station in the Parisian metro system at least once, writing one line per stop. (He then did it again a few months later, with the route reversed.)

There is Paulette Perec, the widow of Georges Perec, author of La Disparition (A Void), a 311-page whodunit that recounts the disappearance of the letter e from the world—without ever using the letter e. Hearing about La Disparition in a French-lit survey course during my freshman year in college was my first exposure to the Oulipo, and its impact on me was immediate and visceral, not least because a year and a half prior I had made myself a mix tape of songs whose titles and artist names did not contain the letter e either.[1] Perec's gesture—his "commendably futile literary contortion," as Ben Schott put it—appealed to me not only because it suggested that writer's block could be circumvented by treating a text like a puzzle to be solved, but also because it hinted at a theretofore unsuspected population of people who thought the way I did about language, who probably also edited graffiti in public bathrooms and jeopardized romantic relationships by correcting inconsequential confusions of which and that. To my retrospective relief, I do not know that Paulette Perec is Paulette Perec while I am chatting with her, so I do not tell her any of this.

For the most part, I know the people around me solely as literary figures. I have come to Paris on a research grant to apprentice myself to them, somehow or other, and in so doing to learn about who they are as actual people—whether to consider them harmlessly fascinating weirdos or, as I have both hoped and feared since the moment I learned about Perec's e-less exploit, kindred spirits. So far I have been to only one of the Oulipo's monthly readings, where the woman seated next to me learned I was American and told me that personne n'est parfait—nobody's perfect—and to two readings by individual Oulipians, at the first of which I introduced myself to Benabou and promptly mispronounced the name of the street onto which I had moved that afternoon. And now I am at Arsenal, knowing little more than that the Oulipo has recently moved its archives here, and that it may be in the market for a slave—its word choice, not mine—to help put them in order.

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  1. Tie for most ostentatious inclusion between Xzibit and Tha Dogg Pound.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Daniel Levin Becker is reviews editor of the Believer. "La Bibliotheque Impossible" is adapted from Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, which will be published in April by Harvard University Press.

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