We at Concept love literature. You can probably tell from the amount that we’ve written about it. Well, it’s national book lover’s day so we thought that we’d look at something a little bit different to the standard “100 books you need to read before you die”, “what the Concept team are reading” or “why we love such-and-such a title” fare. Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the world’s most obscure works of literary genius.
Daniel Levin Becker is the youngest member of the Oulipo, a largely French speaking literary group that place constraints on their own writing. Ouilpo is an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which roughly translates to “workshop of potential literature”. The group produces littérature potentielle, which it defines as "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy."
Getting an idea of what this means is simpler than it might sound. The Oulipo use a series of, generally mathematical, constraints on their writing in order to inspire them to write. Here are a few examples that they’ve developed over the years:
1. S+7, sometimes called N+7: Replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. For example, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago..." becomes "Call me islander. Some yeggs ago...". Results will vary depending upon the dictionary used. This technique can also be performed on other lexical classes, such as verbs.
2. Don’t use the letter ‘e’: Georges Perec’s novel La disparition and its English translation, The Void, don’t utilise the letter ‘e’ even once in their 300 pages.
3. Conceptual: Raymond Queneau's Exercices de Style recounts the same inconsequential episode ninety-nine times, where a man witnesses an inconsequential altercation. Each retelling is from an entirely different narrative voice.
Becker’s book is a history of this movement and, based on his sense of humour, he’s the perfect person to tell such a bizarre story. Why not read his description of the conditions for membership and make up your own mind?
‘One becomes a member first by attending one of the Oulipo’s monthly meetings as a guest of honor and presenting whatever it is of one’s work that dovetails with oulipian interests, then by being unanimously elected by the group. One can avoid becoming a member very easily: by asking to be a member and thereby becoming permanently ineligible for membership. After one is inducted one cannot quit or be kicked out; the only official way to leave the group is to commit suicide for no purpose other than to leave the group, and to do so in the presence of a notary. A few people have distanced themselves from the group’s activities by just sort of ceasing to participate, but they’re still officially considered members, just inactive ones. This includes dead members.’
The literary canon has a habit of excluding women. So, whilst this blog was just going to look at novels and books, we made the decision to take a look at a woman history has discarded.
Vivienne Eliot was married to T.S. Eliot. That’s where most people’s knowledge of her ends. She was involved with the Bloomsbury group, although not much liked: Virginia Woolf once called her “the bag of ferrets Tom wears around his neck”. She also wrote a great deal of short stories, mostly autobiographical, which the Bloomsberg group and Tom described condescendingly as an activity to calm her “nerves”. The vindictive attitude toward Vivienne shown here is repeated throughout her life. Notably, the journal that she co-edited with her husband, The Criterion, was cancelled after complaints that it unveiled too much of the personal lives of her contemporaries. When it began again, renamed as The New Criterion, she was banned from contributing.
The Eliot’s divorce was brutal. Tom instructed his business partners and friends to cut off all contact with her, to avoid any mention of where he might. Her mental health, unsurprisingly, had already deteriorated considerably and she spent the rest of her life moving through asylums. Even today it is impossible to gain access to the majority of her writing without asking the permission of Tom’s second, now deceased, wife Valerie. The best we have is the heartbreaking advert that she tried to place in a newspaper after the more famous Eliot left her:
‘Will T.S Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932.’
Space poetry hasn’t ever really been in fashion. Perhaps now, with the growing popularity of science fiction, superheroes and supernatural thrillers we might finally be ready for Harry Martinson’s Aniara. We catch digital animals on our phones so this can’t be that far-fetched anymore, can it?
Well, Aniara stretches for 103 cantos. Its subject? The terrible tragedy that awaits a 4,750 m (15,580 ft) long and 891 m (2,923 ft) wide space ship. Originally, this vessel was now headed for Mars, complete with a cargo of colonists. Unfortunately, an accident causes it to get knocked off course, sending it out of the solar system and into an existential crisis. Whilst you might have heard the plot before, you definitely haven’t seen it done like this. We warn you: it’s weird.
‘With all the high-strung thousands here on board
it’s good to hear the placid intonation
of our astronomer when he reports
on pre-goldondic times and glaciations.’
Whatever you’re reading today, we hope you’ve enjoyed our list. It’s also possible that you might need some glasses to keep up with Oulipo experiments, the desperate plight of women through history or cosmic jaunts told via epic poetry. If so, we’ve got you covered. Come in and get tested for a varifocal lens in Gosforth or Tynemouth. These lenses fill the role of both distance and reading glasses, making reading easier on the go.