The Penguin Book of Oulipo already feels indispensable. It’s also a welcome celebration of the contribution of literary translators, including Bellos, Gilbert Adair and William Weaver, to the popularising of this initially reclusive group. Terry’s anthology connects us to a wider world of Oulipian wordplay, and beyond. Perhaps that’s the point. After all, as Calvino reminds us in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, there are certain fountains that “once you drink from them, increase your thirst instead of slaking it”.
The quality of work in The Penguin Book of Oulipo is varied, but failures are part of the Oulipo experiment. The line-up – more pieces by Queneau, Perec and Calvino than by women – reflects Oulipo’s men-only origins. The weakest link is the supplementary material, which displays a sloppiness surely at odds with Oulipo’s taste for precision: no author index, notes which annotate only a fraction of the work, and misspellings and referencing errors. It makes the book more of a brain-bending experience than even the founders of Oulipo would have intended.
Unfortunately, though, The Penguin Book of Oulipo is a frustrating business. There is no problem with the selections themselves: Philip Terry – himself a fine formalist poet and a distinguished translator of Oulipo – has put together as good a tasting menu as any. The 100 examples of Oulipian and relatedly formalist work here, including precedents, descendants, and a scattering of graphic pieces, maintain an almost uniform virtuosic ingenuity, and reward reading, even en masse.
In other senses, however, the editing feels lazy. Terry’s introduction (arranged alphabetically, of course) does almost everything except introduce Oulipo, while the entries (undated, and arranged according to a logic I have yet to discern) are annotated with Antarctic sparseness, and their formal constraints are noted only in an index. It made it all seem less an adventure than an obstacle course – and that, more than anything else, seems against the spirit of the Oulipo themselves.