Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Writings of an Oulipian Critic

[Updated with new links, November, 2011]

In the course of my recent investigation of Walter Abish's novel Alphabetical Africa, I came across a review of the book by Louis Bury which was done in the constraint used by the novel itself (or, more precisely, half of it: Bury's review was in 26 paragraphs, corresponding to the first 26 chapters of Abish's 52-chapter novel). It was quite well-done, a clever conceit -- and one of the few interesting things I found written on Abish's work.

Investigating, I found that Bury -- who is teaching literature at NYU while finishing up his Ph.D. in English at CUNY -- is working on a fabulous-sounding dissertation, titled Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint. When completed, it will consist of 99 short chapters -- each itself written under a constraint, often (always? I'm not sure) the constraint of the work which the chapter itself discusses.

It's a fabulous idea: the only parallels I'm aware of are Ian Monk's univocal defense of three of Georges Perec's linguistic experiments (including his two univocalisms), "Perec's Letterless Texts" (scroll down), and a number of lipogrammatic reviews of Georges Perec's lipogrammatic novel La disparition (including, most notably, Ian Monk's lipogrammatic review of a lipogrammatic translation of it (scroll further down)). But of course Bury is attempting this on a grand scale.

It might objected, with some truth, that this is a bit of an obvious move -- to write about a constrained text using the constraint in the critical discussion. In reply to this objection, I would concede the point, but nevertheless defend it on two (related) bases:

First, while it is obvious, I think it is a powerfully and effectively obvious move rather than a dully obvious one. One major (and I think underappreciated) artistic effect is the retrospectively obvious move which rings with all the power of the beautifully inevitable: think of the rhyming word which you see coming, but which nevertheless hits home when it comes, or the beautifully inevitable ending of much classic tragedy. Obviousness is not always a negative criticism in an artistic context.*

Second, while doing it once (as more than one reviewer did in reviewing Perec's lipogram lipogrammatically) is a cute trick, doing a whole book of them rises to another level: a genuinely interesting Oulipian work.

Like some -- but not all -- Oulipian works, this one feels to me as one that ought to be done once: multiple versions would degrade rather than enhance the idea. But once can have all the power of the beautifully inevitable.

-- If, of course, it's done well. About which only time and the finished work will tell. But so far the evidence is that Bury is himself an effective Oulipian critic.

One thing to note is that the work as a whole is an Oulipian pastiche: the 99 clearly marks Bury's Exercises in Criticism as a pastiche of Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, a revising of that work of fiction into the medium of criticism (just as Matt Madden reworked it in his own brilliant revision into the medium of comics). So Bury's work itself serves as a translation of, or comment upon, Queneau's.

And the actual chapters, at least those published so far, seem to me to be well done also.

I did not see a single place in which the links to those pieces which were already published were gathered; so I asked (by email) Bury himself, who kindly supplied a series of links to those already-published pieces as well as his permission to gather them here.

So, the thus-far published pieces of Louis Bury's Exercises in Criticism:
Those seem to be all that he's published so far. Bury tells me that more excerpts will be published next year; if I see them (or if he tells me about them) I'll add them to this list. (Update: the last six items on the list are new as of November, 2011; thanks to Bury for emailing to tell me about them! I've taken the liberty of quoting his description of the first three of them from his email to me.)

Personally, I can't wait to read the entire book. It sounds like an Oulipian classic in the making. I suspect that those of my Noble Readers who are fans of constrained literature will agree. If you're in that category, check out Bury's work for an appetite-whetting preview.

* Similarly, what is obvious is not necessarily all that easy to see. If I may be so pretentious as to quote myself: a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote an undergraudate thesis (on J. L. Austin's essay "Pretending") which, done in a rush, had its problems; but it contained the following footnote which I still think, years later, makes a good point -- perhaps an obvious point, but not one I've ever seen made elsewhere -- albeit perhaps not quite as clearly as I would have liked it to:
It may be wondered that someone needs to show us what is obvious. This sense of oddity is caused, I think, by not thinking hard enough about how the word "obvious" is used. If asked to say what obvious means, we would probably say something like, "what is obvious is seen at a glance". If we look at how we use it, however, we often say something is obvious when we could not see it ourselves ("How could I have not have seen it? It's so obvious"). A good example of an Austinian situation, that we do sometimes do not know exactly what our words mean, how we can mistake them for something less subtle (for "obviously" obviously has something to do with being able to see at a glance--often we do see, and we think we should see, what is obvious at a glance) than they in fact are.

** Although these links are in some irritating embedded format that only worked for me in Safari, not Firefox.


phosphorious said...

I de-lurk only long enough to say, in response to your remarks on Austin, that the phrase "It goes without saying. . . " cannot be completed in a way that would make it true.

But perhaps that was obvious. . .

Stephen said...

Phosporious: I tackled that issue here.

phosphorious said...

And in fact managed to complete the phrase more or less truthfully!