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Inspired by constraint

AN OULIPIAN LIMERICK

Said a boy to an elderly bather

Who reminded him of his dear father,

"Sir, the pit of your navel

Is full of green gravel

And your ear's overflowing with lather."

_ An eye-rhyme limerick by Harry Mathews, from Oulipo Laboratory

Remember the Surrealists? Those poets, novelists and artists who smashed every rule they came across? Well, meet their counterparts: the Oulipians. They are a group of writers and mathematicians who never met a restriction they didn't like.

Oulipians not only don't want to dispense with rules; they want to discover ever newfangled ones. Where others see limitations, these guys see potential literature. Constraint, they argue, is the mother of literary invention.

Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature) has been meeting in Paris regularly for 35 years. Back in the '60s, when the group began, it couldn't have been very fashionable to talk about rules and constraints. But now, in a more restriction-conscious time when three strikes and you're out isn't just a baseball phrase, the Oulipians could catch on.

After all, these guys are not your average stuffy rulemakers. Just saying no has never been so much fun.

Oulipian member George Perec, for example, wrote an entire book without using the letter e. Published in France as La Disparition, it appeared last year in English _ still e-less _ as The Void (Harvill/Harpercollins World, $24). Critics had a field day with this literary e-jaculation, playing the "look no e's" game in their reviews. "Eeeeeeeeeek," cried Los Angeles Times critic Richard Eder, after trying to write without the letter e. "One paragraph is all I want to do of this."

Such literary constraints traditionally have freed the creative spirit, not restricted it, argue the Oulipians. Poetry flourished when it was written under specific rules and regulations such as the classic sonnet's fixed number of lines, meter and rhyme scheme, they point out. Even Perec's bizarre choice of restriction _ the voluntary omission of a specific letter from a text _ actually has had a long literary heritage. The form is called a lipogram.

"The Surrealists thought that it was necessary to break all the rules to free the unconscious. We believe if you take away rules, what you get are things that aren't free at all. Writers become restricted by their times or by the mechanisms of language," says Oulipian Marcel Benabou. Rules and constraints, on the other hand, paradoxically can free you, he adds.

Benabou's first Oulipian novel, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books has recently been translated into English and published in the United States ((University of Nebraska Press, $25). In it he has not only restricted himself by dividing his chapters by mathematical formulas, but he has posed a typical Oulipian paradox with the book's title itself. How could he have not written any of his books when we, in fact, have a book, written by him, in our hands? His circular explanations around such language, like ever expanding concentric circles, form the core of the book, which is a fascinating rumination on the act of writing itself.

Such mind games are an Oulipian trademark. When Benabou joined the group, he was appointed as the group's definitively provisional secretary. "Definitive for Oulipo, provisional for me," smiles Benabou. French novelist, poet and amateur mathematician Raymond Queneau was the group's first provisionally definitive secretary.

When Queneau founded Oulipo, he was working on a mathematically challenging literary task: the compilation of 100,000,000,000,000 poems. Other Oulipians have tackled equally daunting projects. Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is part mystery (someone has been sabotaging the printing of books all over the world: chapters from one book are popping up in other books, and a Female Reader and Male Reader set out to find out why) and part literary tour de force. Various chapters of the novel are written in the literary styles of famous authors.

Calvino is the only Italian Oulipian, but not the only non-French member of the group. There is also an American Oulipian: Harry Mathews. Mathews, who divides his time between Paris and Key West, is one of the translators, editors and contributors of an Oulipo sampler that will be published next month by Atlas Anti-Classics and distributed by Serpent's Tail.

Oulipo Laboratory ($15.99), which presents six examples of Oulipian works, is a playful introduction into the Oulipian universe. Calvino's contribution, entitled "How I Wrote One of My Books" (Oulipians love to echo each other's titles), presents the mathematical structure of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Mathews offers up a loopy series of "eye-rhyme limericks" which rhyme on the page but not in your ear.

No one can ask to join Oulipo. In fact, if anyone does, they are automatically disqualified. The only requirement seems to be a sense of order and a love of humor. There are two women in the group _ Michele Metail, who studies ancient Chinese poetry, and Michelle Grangaud, a specialist in the anagram. "Both women are named Michelle," joked Benabou. "Maybe that's another rule." No one is allowed to resign from the group _ not even the dead. The Oulipians routinely include the names of deceased members such as Queneau, Perec or Calvino in their roster of 30 members.

Oulipo's regular meetings are, as might be expected, strictly rule-bound. Each is divided into five sessions: creation, erudition, rumination, action and small talk. During the time for "erudition," past examples of rule-obsessed literature are discussed. But the Oulipians don't call the writers who were doing unconsciously what the Oulipians are doing consciously their predecessors: Instead they call them "plagiarists before the fact."

The Oulipians are masters at turning language on its ear like that. But it's not just for fun that they poke at words and twist their works into contortions. They love literary games, but the games are played, as Eder puts it, "for real stakes, in some cases breathtakingly large ones." By placing literature in a straight jacket, they dare it to break lose _ and Houdini-like, it often does.

Meanwhile readers, who are also hemmed in by the Oulipians' restrictions, are also forced to break free of their own comfort zones. Reading a book without e's, the most common vowel, is "like getting a splinter in the eyeball," says Eder. With an Oulipian work, we cannot read like we have read before.

Not that all literature should be Oulipian. Even the Oulipians don't believe that, which sets them apart from their more dogmatic Surrealist brethren. "The Surrealists thought they had really discovered the truth," says Benabou. "Not us. We know very well we haven't found the truth. We know very well what we are doing is only one possible path for literature to go down."

But should we be having this much fun and still call it literature?

"When they are the work of poets, entertainments, pranks, and hoaxes still fall within the domain of poetry," Francois Le Lionnais, a chess master who helped Queneau found Oulipo, reassures us in his contribution to Oulipo Laboratory. "Potential literature remains therefore the most serious thing in the world."

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