Thursday, November 19, 2009

pretenzioso? me?

I had to do a quick run down to Tesco to pick up some lunch supplies earlier, and happened therefore to be in the car with Radio 4 on between 11:30 and 12 o'clock. This enabled me to catch a few brief snippets of a programme about Oulipo, the French experimental literature group (it's a portmanteau word formed from "ouvroir de littérature potentielle").

I'm vaguely familiar with Oulipo through having read a couple of novels by two of its more well-known members:
  • If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino. You can gauge quite quickly whether you're going to enjoy this or not by deciding whether you're intrigued or enraged by this opening paragraph:
    You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.
    If you just want a Proper Ruddy Story with no authorial intervention and general post-modern dicking about, then you might be best advised to look elsewhere. That would be a shame, though, as it's great. I also notice that Sting's new album has a title which is a nod to this novel. Pretentious? Lui?

  • Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec. Back when I used to have a summer job in the Town Bookseller bookshop in Newbury (on the canal bridge in the town centre, here) I recall conducting a lengthy search on behalf of a customer for this book, which I'd never previously heard of. We did eventually manage to locate a copy for him, which I had a sneaky flick through before handing it over. Incidentally the Town Bookseller later became a branch of Ottakar's (who, as you'll discover if you click on the link, were themselves later taken over by Waterstone's), and is now a Cornish pasty shop (apparently it was a Costa coffee shop for a while as well).

    Anyway, my point, such as it is, is that when I eventually decided I wanted to read L:AUM it was a great deal easier to find as there were handy things like Amazon around to help me out. And a strange and mysterious book it is too (though also sad, funny and all sorts of other stuff). On the surface a series of eccentric and occasionally interlinked tales concerning the residents of a fictional Paris apartment block (and therefore less obviously experimental than the Calvino novel), the novel's underlying architecture is built according to an extraordinarily involved and complex set of rules and constraints, of which the Wikipedia article has a good summary.

    It's very entertaining, though the hoops Perec has to jump through to obey his own self-imposed rules make some of the chapters a bit odd (some are just long lists of the contents of a room, for example). I strongly recommend giving it a go, though.

    Perec's other experimental literary exploits include writing an entire novel without using the letter "e", and constructing the world's longest palindrome (a mind-melting 5000+ letters long). And that hair/beard combo was pretty extraordinary, too.

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