29 September 2012

Zazie And The Oulipians

"Man oh man do I feel like writing a little poem
Oh look there’s one passing by now
Here poem poem poem          
Come here  and let me string you
On the string of my necklace with all my other poems
Come here ad let me ix you
In the firmament of my complete works
Come here and let me empoet you
Let me enrhyme you
let me enrhythme you
let me enlyre you
let me enpegasus you
let me versify you
let me prosify you

Aw nuts
It got away"
-      a poem by   Raymond Queneau,  translator unidentified, reprinted from Many Subtle Changes

Cherchez la femme.   Without a little girl named Zazie there might never have been a group called Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), or OuLiPo for short. Without Zazie there would not have been an academic colloquium (perish the thought!) on Zazie's creator, Raymond Queneau.  Without Zazie, the participants would never have met again in the basement of Le Vrai Garcon, a Paris restaurant,  in 1960 to form a group the Village Voice would describe as a. "largely male gathering, whose docket of activities suggest a Rotary Club meeting on LSD."   I get ahead of myself.  Very well, I get ahead of myself.

Raymond Queneau was an established but  minor author and manuscript reader for Gallimard when he published Zazie dans le metro in 1959.  Queneau had written in 1937, "Anyone can push an indeterminate number of apparently real characters in front of him like a gaggle of geese, across a long moor comprising an indeterminate number of pages or chapters.  The result, whatever else it may be, will always be a novel."   And also a sensation..

 "We live in a world which, we pretend, is one, but instead is multiple and changing – and we try to deal with that contradiction."  - Louis Malle.  Malle was the right  filmmaker to adapt  Zazie to the screen in a dizzying, jump-cutting visual style that correlates to Queneau's dazzling wordplay.
While her mother has a weekend fling with her lover, Zazie is left with uncle Gabriel, a cross-dressing nightclub dancer and, rumor has it, a "hormosessual."   All the ten year old wants is ride the  Metro but it is closed.  The workers are on strike and the streets of Paris are clogged with cars.   Zazie is wise to the ways of lubricious adults, telling how her mother hit her (late) father over the head  when he came home drunk, but was acquitted.  

Visual slapstick and verbal satire ensue as Zazie evades her keeper to explore the city on her own.  By the time the show goes on that night, Zazie is exhausted and sleeps through a food fight, a fire, and the trashing of the nightclub.  What does it all mean?    When Zadie demands that uncle Gabriel tell her the truth, he responds “The truth! As if you knew what truth was. As if anybody knew. The Panthéon, the Invalides, the Gendarmerie, the Madeleine, all a lot of hooey!”

After Zazie, the time was ripe for oulipians. New members were 'co-opted' based on their   talent for mixing mathematics and verbal jiujitsu.   In Georges Perec's novel A Void, a man named Anton Vowel disapperas, taking the letter 'e' with him -  it never appears in the book.  Consider the words of  Paul Feval, a mid-nineteenth century French author of potboilers.  "I am working for people who are primarily intelligent, rather than serious."   In that spirit Queneau removed the "unnecessary" bits from Mallarme's sonnets, turning them into haiku and created A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems out of ten of them by cutting and pasting the remains.  Marcel Duchamp joined the group in 1962, although their aesthetic relied on the constraints of form.  Unlike the anarchic surrealists, oulipians even invented new forms,  My favorite is the perverb which splices together two proverbs, as in "A stitch in time gathers no moss."  Once you accept the idea that there are hidden forms, you can;t resist looking for them everywhere
Alfred Jarry, who invented ‘pataphysics  (“the science of imaginary solutions”) in 1911, was the true parent of OuLiPo.  The Beatles paid tribute to him in song, in  Maxwell’s Silver Hammer:  "Joan was quizzical/ Studied pataphysical/ science in the home."

Jacques Roubaud, a model of the interfering author, warned "each detail of this chapter must be observed with the strictest attention, for each is important in its own way and will not be brought up again."  Advice he applied to describing his heroine, Hortense, a beautiful 22 year old philosopher. Equally lubricious,  Harry Mathews in Singular Pleasures wrote an entire book of prose poems devoted to masturbation.  He said the oulipians "made me fell like someone who has been denying a shameful habit only to discover that it is perfectly honorable." 
In 1995, Herve Le Tellier invented  an imaginary Kantian philosopher named Jean-Baptiste Botul.    Bernard-Henri Levy quoted Botul in a 2010 essay on Kant's work, falling for the oulipian prank - never a good idea if you want to be taken, and Levy does.  Zazie could have told him.

Note: In keeping with French practice, I refer to the group oulipians without capitalizing their name.
Many Subtle Changes: In Praise of Potential Literature  by Daniel Levin Becker, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 2012.

Rene Magritte - Descent of the Garden Gate, 1928, Museee Magritte, Brussels.
All others are film stills from Zazie dans le metro, a film by Louis Malle, cinematography by Henri Raichi, 1960, Astor Pictures, France.


Timothy Cahill said...

But Botul was articulate about Kant in ways few others are. It was irresistible. Magnificent post.

Jane said...

Tim, you're right about Botul's place in the pantheon of philosophy. And B-h. L. richly deserved to be oulipianated. This was a tough article to write as so much had to be left out for clarity's sake.
P.S. Fixed a couple of typos. Sometimes I wish I had internet service at home, but am already paying for cable service without owning a tv.

phheww said...

"…primarily intelligent, rather than serious." What a splendid quote to find for this article. Thanks for all your work. I 've been reading and re-reading it for a long time now.

Jane Librizzi said...

Phheww, welcome. That quote made me think, too.
I'm so happy that you enjoy the site. Please add your thoughts on anything you find here, as that makes it more interesting for us all. Thanks.