OuLiPo, or literary International

Jacques Jouet in conversation with Piotr Kieżun · 4 November 2014

Piotr Kieżun: Have you written your daily portion of poetry?

Jacques Jouet: Not yet. I already have an idea, but I haven’t transferred it on paper yet.

I am asking this for I know that 22 years ago you set yourself an ambitious task of composing one poem a day. This commitment is not surprising in the light of the fact that you belong to the famous group OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle)* founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, that is by a writer and a mathematician. You release literature from contingency, subjecting it to so-called constraints. For example, Georges Perec writes a novel without using the vowel “e” – the most common sound in French. This immediately raises doubts if we are not dealing with focusing on the means rather than the end. Does the constraint to write one poem a day really allow you to enrich your writing or is it just a stylistic exercise, like regular practising your violin play?

Writing poems every day is rather an obligation and not a constraint in the sense meant by OuLiPo. And it by no means resembles a series of exercises. On the day when I started this experiment my life also changed. Of course, there is no difficulty with fulfilling this commitment from the point of view of mere production. I don’t spend 15 hours a day writing my poem of the day. But this regularity changes my life in this sense that each time I have to think of something to work on, I have to find a terrain for the poem, so that I don’t just make it, but also say something.


Fot. Isabelle Raviolo

But does it not become mechanical after a while? Several thousand poems which you have written admittedly is not the same as “One hundred thousand billion poems” by Queneau, which is a veritable verse-making machine, but with such a number it is hard not to get into a rut.

If I see a risk of my writing becoming mechanical, I intervene immediately. I search for different situations, I try to develop new procedures.

Many of my friends see the OuLipian constraints as a linguistic game, a charade, in other words – as good fun. At the same time, they think it is pure formalism which has little to do with true literature.

I am used to this kind of criticism. Also in France. People don’t understand the concept of constraints here. It is a way of expanding the field of literary possibilities. Besides, it is not a method recommended to all writers. In OuLiPo we are not proselytisers of constraints. For me personally using them allowed me to create quite differing works, which do not constitute any kind of monolith. As far as the charge of formalism is concerned, I admit that I am a formalist writer through and through. For me this is both an aesthetic, and a political attitude. You must remember that anti-formalism was, for example, a Stalinist argument.

This reminds me of the 1950s in Poland and the role played by abstract art then. It was not just an artistic gesture, but also a gesture of opposition to the totalitarian rule. In this sense being a formalist meant fighting for freedom.

Exactly. In a literary, aesthetic and artistic sense form is something which you cannot conquer or occupy, as opposed to meaning, which can be distorted in conversation, thinking, books and finally in politics. Of course, this is not to say that form is deprived of meaning. You can say that it is a place where meaning is irritated to the highest degree, driven to extremes.

The work of Georges Perec is a good example of that. His characteristic form of constraint was a lipogram – a work with a particular letter missing. This is not just a linguistic game. When Perec  writes “La disparition” (literally “Disappearance”, translated as “A Void”) without using the letter “e”, in this elliptical way he is speaking about the tragic fate of his Jewish family. And what lies behind Jacques Jouet’s constraints?

I don’t have a biography. From an existential point of view this is a stroke of luck. I prefer not having a biography to having a biography such as Georges Perec’s, with all his painful family stories. In fact, the example of Perec is very interesting. He is a writer who has based all his work on the experience of absence, disappearance. But it was only when he discovered the form of the lipogram for himself, he managed to describe this experience. Erasing the letter “e”, the only vowel in his surname, as well as a vowel which makes the existence of such words as père (father) and mère (mother) possible in French, was the purest act of formalism in his writing, but at the same time this was the only way he could describe his experience of disappearing.

Was it Perec who introduced you to OuLiPo?
In a sense, yes. I came across OuLiPo in 1978, that is when it had already functioned for 18 years. But I hadn’t known this group. I had started writing and publishing things. I was 30 years old and I was a rookie uncertain of himself. I signed up for a kind of workshop run by Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud and Paul Fournel, who already were established writers at that time. This was a revelation for me.

OuLiPo probably is the only so coherent, self-conscious, and long-established literary group in France. Maybe it’s because from the beginning it consisted not only of writers, but also of mathematicians, physicists or even biologists.

 It is not an exclusively French group. It does not create only French literature. Now we have two American, one British and two Argentinian writers. In Germany there was Oskar Pastior from Berlin. You could say that we are a kind of Fifth International of writers, but also specialists in natural sciences, like the mathematician Michèle Audin, who was recently admitted to the group; she was selected for her mathematical competence, and only then for her interest in literature. Remember that the goal of the founders of OuLiPo was not to create a literary group, but a group of researchers. Queneau and Le Lionnais were aware of the negative model, that is the surrealist movement, which Queneau knew very well, because he participated in it, and a positive model, that is the Bourbaki group set up in France – an association of mathematicians working at the École Normale Supérieure.

Does this mean that you treat literature as a natural science? In the post-positivist era this sounds very positivist.

The word “positivist” is somewhat exaggerated in this context. I would rather use the term “the spirit of the Encyclopaedia”, “the spirit of the Enlightenment.” The way OuLiPo perceives literature is closely related to knowledge. This means that we are remote from the romantic notions about writing. For the first OuLiPians a text is a solution of a problem in an almost mathematical sense. The constraint is a problem posed for the author and the work is a solution. But in contrast to mathematics there may be many solutions. Writing is like chess – a game of chess is a potentiality of a specific rule. In fact, chess was an important point of reference for François Le Lionnais.

It is interesting that you should mention chess, for in addition to chess being a combinatorial game, its essence is the relationship with the other person. We do not play chess on our own. In your two small books published in Poland by Lokator, entitled “My Beautiful Bus “and “The Savage”, I didn’t find any OuLiPian constraints. But there is something else – in both these novels you launch the narrative with an open question about the co-dependence between the author, the narrator, the reader and the protagonist. In “The Savage”, a fictional autobiography of Paul Gauguin, who creates fancy clothes rather than paintings here, you put the following words in his mouth: “Dress is interaction”. To what extent writing is an interaction with the reader, but also with other OuLiPo authors?

OuLiPo exists in order to develop constraints, procedures, but the works of OuLiPians are created independently from the group. People do what they want. OuLiPo does not supervise the authors’ writing progress. In this sense this is something opposite to the surrealist movement. Here there are no decrees, authorities, collective oversight of your work, nobody here is more “armed” than another person. This combination of formal conceits with personal freedom is very good. I once wrote that the most useful constraint is a constraint you can do without. This sounds like a paradox, by but I do believe it is true. In my texts I employ constraints in varying degrees. In “The Savage” there is an OuLiPian element. I wanted to tell a story about Paul Gauguin, so I took a somewhat artificial decision, very OuLiPian in its spirit, and I changed his artistic domain. This gave me an impulse to write the novel. If I chose Le Corbusier as my protagonist, I certainly wouldn’t write about him as an architect, but as a draughtsman or musician.

What about the reader? In “My Beautiful Bus” and “The Savage” you address the reader directly from the pages of your book, like authors of 18th-century novels. But to get in touch with the reader you sometimes use… mail.

For many years I have been writing “Les Poemes adresses” (“Addressed poems”), which I send at my own expense to people I don’t know. I have a plan to send poems to all people in the world. So far I have been taking the addresses from the French Yellow Pages. Every time I also give them my return address.

And the recipients respond?

Yes, of course. “Les Poemes adresses” is also a way of provoking people to read. Of course, this does not mean that everyone will start loving poetry overnight, but potentially it is possible. So instead of complaining that poetry is not very popular, which irritates me very much, I send a poem. If we are convinced that poetry is potentially for everybody, why shouldn’t we do it? This is a selfless civil act.


* OuLiPo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, Workshop of Potential Literature), an international group of writers and mathematicians, founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Its members include Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Paul Fournel, Jacques Roubaud and Marcel Benabou. Marcel Duchamp was a corresponding member. OuLiPo is one of the oldest literary groups still in existence. The OuLiPians construct their works on the basis of mathematical formulas and laws. The main task they set before themselves is finding so called constraints (contraintes) – formal procedures then imposed on a literary work. According to the OuLiPians themselves, the author is a “rat which constructs a maze and guides itself to the exit”. The most famous works using contraintes include “One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” by Raymond Queneau, a book of sonnets composed of five sheets of paper cut into horizontal strips, on which separate verses are written, and combining them makes it possible to create the eponymous one hundred thousand billion sonnets; Georges Perec’s novel “La disparition “written without using the letter” e “; “If on a winter’s night a traveller” by Italo Calvino, a hyper-novel – “a machine for multiplying stories”. Another OuLiPian challenge is finding “plagiarists by anticipation”, that is authors who had used constraints before the emergence of OuLiPo.
The interview was conducted during the sixth edition of the Joseph Conrad Festival in Kraków, of which Jacques Jouet was a guest. The editors would like to thank the Krakow Festival Office and Piotr Kaliński from the Lokator publishing house for organising this meeting.