-Reviewed by Claire Trévien–
The following review is going to cover two pamphlets by Hervé Le Tellier published by the Oulipo society. Pre-supposing the readers of this review to be a) not fluent in French and b) not familiar with the Oulipo school outside, perhaps, of Queneau and Perec and possibly believing it to be a dead specy, I’m going to treat this as more of an introduction and taster of the type of writing created by this less well-known member of the Oulipo group. Le Tellier joined the Oulipo group in 1992 and the following pamphlets date from 1995 and 1997.
The first, and oldest of the two, is À bas Carmen! (No 77) and is a typical example of Oulipian playfulness and attachment to tricky restrictions. The pamphlet consists of 26 short texts, each containing the entire alphabet in order (with a few exceptions, each explained in the footnotes) whilst the title of these texts also progress alphabetically. For instance the first text is named ‘Apprentissage, grâce à Aragon’ (which consists simply of the alphabet) whilst the last text is titled ‘Zed vers A’ and, as the title suggests, reverses the exercise by starting with the letter Z (Zolg) and ending with the letter A (auriculaire).
As Le Tellier says in his preface, this technique is not a new one, he cites for instance a 1504 poem by Destrées, but also the more recent efforts of fellow Oulipian Queneau in Morale élémentaire where he uses the concept in a cyclical manner: ‘Attendre dans les ajoncs, attendre dans les bois, attendre dans les champs’ etc.
It’s a difficult constraint to manage, Le Tellier isn’t afraid to use a variety of techniques to sustain it. He uses for instance a one-sided phone conversation (‘CIA’) or translates a made-up language (Grand-Singe). The Grand-Singe, or Big Monkey, is a recurring character in Oulipean writing* and allows both a playful layering with a mock-translation and mock-commentary on said translation, as well as surprisingly and seemingly accidental, beauty. We are told in the commentary to the piece that the form employed by the Big Monkey is a bzee-bur (literally: cold-foot) an eight-line poem whose syllabic length is 5, 6, 5, 7, 5, 7, 5, 8 with, traditionally, an abababcb rhyme scheme (though the Big Monkey is excused here from following the rhyme scheme due to the alphabetical constraint). The ‘translation’ of the poem is made up of very simple language that sounds like sayings: ‘Rouge est le grand-singe et rouge le soleil, / un bon fusil est un fusil tordu.’ (Red is the big-monkey and red is the sky / a good gun is a crippled one’).
Seriousness isn’t an objective, but nevertheless, many of these poems have a weird beauty to them. The last three letters of the alphabet are to blame for the inevitable descent into silliness: the text ‘Oxbridge’ may start quite sanely with ‘Andrew Browser, conservative deputy, était fin golfeur’ (‘Andrew Browser, conservative deputy, was a fine golfer’) but it inevitably ends with the mouthful: ‘un volumineux Whig xanthoderme y zonait’ (‘a voluminous yellowing Whig was hanging out there’). However, sometimes the effect is less strange, as with ‘Numérique’ where the computer jargon carries the weight during an IT diagnosis:
‘Néanmoins, on prédit que rapidement surgira, triomphant, un vainqueur:
« Who ? Xerox ?
(‘Nevertheless, it was predicted that there would rapidly be a winner: / “Who? Xerox?” / “Yeah…”/ “Shit!”)
The next pamphlet, Un sourire indéfinissable: Mona Lisa, dite la Joconde, sous 53 jours différents (No. 84) is more accessible depicting, as the title suggests, the Mona Lisa through 53 different points of view. It is a warm-up to his later work Joconde jusqu’a cent: 99 + 1 points de vue sur Mona Lisa where he doubles the output. Reverence is not a part of this pamphlet: the Mona Lisa dies for a wee whilst posing for the painting and a pizza delivery man confirms an order for a ‘Mona Lisa Crusty Crunch pour trois’. The past intermingles with the present with no concern for sense, the Mona Lisa’s mother is re-imagined Jewish, or with a Corsican brother; Sherlock Holmes, a child at the Louvres, a pervert on the phone: these are just some of the cacophony of voices that comment on the painting or interact with a different version of the Mona Lisa. As with À bas Carmen! The technique of the one-sided conversation is used, whilst the Big Monkey is also present. Different styles and techniques are employed to sustain the exercise: Mona Lisa appears in a song, an octosyllabic couplet or as a wartime transmission from Radio-Londres: ‘“Mona Lisa n’a pas envie de rire”. Je répète : “Mona Lisa n’a pas envie de rire.”’ (‘”Mona Lisa doesn’t feel like laughing”. I repeat: “Mona Lisa doesn’t feel like laughing.”‘) Diagnosis of the Mona Lisa by specialists outside of the realm of the art have the peculiarity of being insightful as well as amusing, such as this one by a Morpho-Psychologist :
‘Type apathique-nonchalant, nEnAS – non-Émotif non-Actif Secondaire – type Louis XVI, introvertie, dominée par les signes de Venus et de la Vierge’
(‘Type apathetic-nonchalant, nEnAS – non-Emotional non-Active Secondary – type Louis XVI, introverted, dominated by the signs of Venus and the Virgin Mary’)
Leonardo appears too, asking the Mona Lisa out for a drink or in a game of ‘spot the mistakes’ as if the pamphlet were an elaborate game of hide and seek, a hunt for that elusive smile. At the end of an email, Leonardo signs off to the Mona Lisa with this:
‘Je pense à ton 0(:-} indefinissable. A toi. Ton Leonard’
(‘I’m thinking of your indefinable 0(:-}. Of you. Your Leonard’)
Not quite a love-letter, this irreverent pamphlet is nevertheless as indefinably touching as the Mona Lisa’s smile itself.
Not just a collection of circus-tricks, these pamphlets by Le Tellier, more than a decade after their publication, show us how language can be stretched and toyed with surprising vivaciousness. Whilst these efforts carry an inevitable twinkle in the eye, the craftsmanship and labour that led to these texts is not to be dismissed unthinkingly, and could serve as the basis for new, equally surprising and inventive efforts.
*The comments refer to Le chant d’amour grand-singe. Un corpus lyrique méconnu, recueilli, traduit et commenté par Jacques Jouet, another Oulipean pamphlet, whilst a lexic has been compiled by Francis Lacassin in Tarzan.