Thursday, December 15, 2005

Winter Journeys

I just finished a strange little book called Winter Journeys (if it sounds familiar, it may be because I referred to it once before, in this post). It's a collection of ten related stories by members of the French literary group the Oulipo (and the Oulipo, collectively, is listed as its author). Along with the earlier Oulipo Laboratory, it's one of two collections of translations from the group's series of limited-run pamphlets known as the Bibliothèque Oulipienne. Of the two, however, it is the less representative of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne as a whole, since most of it (based on the descriptions in the Oulipo Compendium) are exercises, essays and experiments such as those in the Oulipo Laboratory. Winter Journeys, on the other hand, are short stories -- of a particular sort, but stories none the less.

It all started with a short story by Georges Perec (1936 - 1982) called " Le Voyage d’hiver", or "The Winter Journey". It's a brief little tale, very Borgesian in spirit, about a person briefly finding -- and then loosing -- a book which proves to have been the source of all the best lines for a century of French poetry. Unlike the rest of the book, the story is comparatively widely published; it was first published in 1979, was translated into English in 1995 by John Sturrock, and is included in the English-language collection of Perec's writings Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. (The Sturrock translation seems to be the main one, the one included in all the published collections, etc; there is another translation, which I can't vouch for, but which is posted on the web if you want to have a look at it.) It's a neat little story, and on the strength of it I bought the larger collection. (I called it, as many others have called it, "Borgesian", put perhaps the piece of writing that I know of which it most resembles is Umberto Eco's preface to The Name of the Rose, where he makes up a story about how he came up with the manuscript you're about to read.)


This collection, I should explain, is a very rare book. It was published by Atlas Press in a print run of less than 1000 copies. (My copy is #288, which may mean that as of a year or so ago they've only sold that many -- but perhaps they don't sell them in order.) It's not in any library in the U.S. that I've seen (not at Cornell or any of the affiliated Ivy League libraries, not in Harvard's library and not in the Library of Congress); for the most part U.S. bookstores haven't heard of it, either. If you want to read it, you'll probably have to buy it -- and buying it directly from Atlas Press seems to be the best way to do so.

In any event, in 1992, another member of the Oulipo, Jacques Roubaud, published a short story which is a sort of comment on Perec's story -- a story about Perec's story, which implies (or assumes) that most of Perec's story was, in fact, true, but not all of it. (Roubaud's story also deals in some way with Perec's last, unfinished novel, 53 Days, but since I haven't read this I can't really comment on this aspect.) Roubaud's story was "Le Voyage d’hier", which sounds almost (but not quite) identical to the title of Perec's story; it translates as "Yesterday's Journey". This story completes, alters and plays with Perec's story, but doesn't seem to demand any further additions.

A few years later, it appears, many other members of the group decided to get into the act, and wrote eight more stories, each building on the last in a similar fashion to the manner in which Roubaud's story built on Perec's story. I can't tell from reading them if they all planned things in advance, making as it were a collective novel; or if it just hit the group like craze (each trying out outdo the other); or if they planned to do a series of them but each worked individually after seeing what the previous writers in the chain had come up with. (I'm rather curious, to tell you the truth.) The entirety forms a chain, each altering the next, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically -- adding new details to alter the meaning of what has gone before. (It reminds me somewhat of the comic strip Art Spiegelman did, "The Malpractice Suit" where he took an established cartoon and embedded it in larger drawings so as to totally change the meaning of each image (a few panels from it are here.)) All in all, there were ten stories -- Perec's original 1979 piece, Roubaud's 1992 follow-up, and then a series of eight more, half of which were first published in the Bibliothèque Oulipienne in 1999, half of which were first published in English translation in Winter Journeys itself (but which were published, in the original, in the Bibliothèque Oulipienne in 2001). Just as Roubaud's title did, the various titles are puns on Perec's original title in various forms. For the record, its contents are as follows:

Georges Perec, Le Voyage d’hiver (The Winter Journey)
Jacques Roubaud, Le Voyage d’hier (Yesterday’s Journey)
Hervé Le Tellier, Le Voyage d’Hitler (Hitler’s Journey)
Jacques Jouet, Hinterreise
Ian Monk, Le Voyage d’Hoover (Hoover’s Journey)
Jacques Bens, Le Voyage d’Arvers (Arvers’s Journey)
Michelle Grangaud, Un Voyage divergent (A Divergent Journey)
François Caradec, Le Voyage du ver (The Worm’s Journey)
Reine Haugure, Le Voyage du vers (Verse’s Journey)
Harry Mathews, Le Voyage des verres (A Journey Amidst Glasses)

Perec's story was, as I said, translated by John Sturrock; Harry Mathews, the American Oulipian, translated his own; all the rest were translated by Ian Monk. "Reine Haugure", incidentally, doesn't seem to exist; at least one web site claims that it is a pseudonym for Jacques Roubaud (which makes sense -- presumably once it became a group thing he wanted in on it, but didn't want to seem to do two pieces).

As a whole, I enjoyed the book tremendously. I will say that I found that it flags in the middle -- by the fourth piece the joke is getting a bit old, as well as drifting a bit from the original premise, a problem which increases in the fifth, sixth and seventh pieces -- although each of them has their good points, and it was only by "Un Voyage divergent" that I was starting to tire of the whole thing. But the last three each take a very different tack, and the collection rallies to end as strongly as it began. You definitely need to have a taste for scholarly mysteries of a slightly absurdist sort. But I found myself utterly entranced.

And for all that, I'm not (in some sense) the target audience. The basic story (although in the middle, as I said, it drifts off into other areas) is about late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century French poetry -- which I've read fairly little of (and that in translation or, in a few cases, with the help of an English-language crib). I don't have much invested in that tradition -- which, I think, one really should if the pieces are to make the impact they're supposed to. Oh, one can imagine that when you read a list about Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Kahn and Verlaine that it was about Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Frost and Stevens (not that the poets are alike -- I really wouldn't know -- but that the level of impact on French poetry of the first group is equivalent to the level of impact on English poetry of the second). But it's just not the same. -- Of course, anyone who really gets the impact can probably read these pieces in their original French (although I don't believe they've been collected in French, and the original Bibliothèque Oulipienne pamphlets are even rarer than the Atlas press book). And, despite not being its optimal audience, I did enjoy it, as I said. (There are also a fair number of Oulipo in-jokes that I noticed -- and probably many more that I didn't. A familiarity with the group and its works isn't essential, but it definitely helps.)

All in all, a very enjoyable read, and one which deserves to be far better known than it is -- easy to say, given that it basically isn't known at all. If you read the Perec story and enjoy it, I suspect you'll like the book overall (although the book takes on a bit more of a spy-story feel than Perec's story ever does -- although other works of Perec definitely are in that mode, and the spying is always centered around literary works) so do seek it out: it's not a book you'll stumble across.

(If you can read French, a brief summary of the book's contents -- with, so far as I can tell (I didn't take the time to decipher it properly), massive spoilers -- can be found here.)

Interestingly, it looks as if the series didn't end with those stories that were collected in Winter Journeys. Based solely on their titles -- I have nothing else to go on -- two recent numbers of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne look like they might be continuations of the chain. The first (#129, published 2003) pretty clearly is: it's called "Si par une nuit un voyage d'hiver". This is, of course, a direct reference to Perec's original story; it is also a reference to the novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino -- himself a member of the Oulipo. Its author is named as one Mikhaïl Gorliouk, a character in Winter Journeys (presumably this is another pseudonym for a member of the Oulipo, although I have no idea which.) The second case isn't quite as clear from the title; it (#139, published 2005) is called "Le voyage des rêves" (by newly-minted Oulipian Frédéric Forte), which continues the "voyage to" theme and thus seems like it might be related -- but of course I can't be sure.

These, of course, haven't been translated into English yet -- nor reprinted. But I am intrigued enough that, if I can find the time, I may seek them out in Cornell's library (which does get the Bibliothèque Oulipienne pamphlets) and see if I can decipher the French. Most of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne pamphlets are beyond me, being not only in French but based on puns, literary allusions, etc; but these stories are, for the most part, more straightforward, so perhaps I'll be able to make something of it. If I do, I'll post a follow-up.

In the meantime, journey safely, this winter.

1 comment:

DerikB said...

Nice write up, Stephen. I've had a copy of that on my shelf since Atlas put it out and have never gotten around to reading it. (For what it's worth mine is 215, and I've had it for a few years.)