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Essex author receives Book of the Year honour

  • Date

    Wed 16 Dec 20

Black and white image of coding

An Essex book celebrating France’s longest-lasting literary group has been named one of the Books of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement (TLS).

The Penguin Book of Oulipo, by Professor Philip Terry, was named in the prestigious list twice, by authors Mark Ford and Gabriel Josipovici.

Professor Terry’s anthology brings together 100 examples of Oulipian works.

Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, Oulipo is a style of writing characterised by the development of new literary constraints, the most famous being the lipogram where certain letters are omitted.

All literature has constraints – sonnets have fourteen lines, novels are divided into chapters – Oulipo’s originality is that it invents new ones, then offers them to writers to use if they want to.

The group has generated a great variety of works, from Georges Perec’s e-less La Disparition to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

We talked to Professor Terry about his inspiration for the book and how Oulipo is more relevant today than you might think.

What inspired you to write about Oulipo?

"In February 2018 I received an email from Simon Winder at Penguin Books asking me if I’d be interested in curatiing an anthology on the Oulipo group. This sounded too good to be true, and at first I suspected a wind-up. The clue was in the name, I thought: Winder.

"'What should I do?' I asked one of my closest friends, Liz Vasiliou. 'Just say ys,' she replied, with a nod to Perec’s e-less novel.

"Simon Winder it turned out was an inspired senior editor who had been involved in many of the innovations that have recently reinvigorated the Penguin list, such as the Penguin Freud. It was a coincidence that the commission arrived during the ongoing Brexit negotiations, but I was pleased to be bringing some European culture over the channel just as we were leaving the EU."

What attracts you to Oulipo?

"It’s different, it’s fun, and it’s non-commercial – and that in a book market that is increasingly dominated by conglomerates, authors’ agents, and ever more homogenised genre writing.

"It’s also great for teaching creative writing, as it helps overcome writer’s block. If you ask a student to write something without an e, they become so focused on the difficulty of the task, that they forget all about their nerves when it comes to putting pen to paper."

How does Oulipo relate to your wider research?

"Just as you see maths wherever you look in the world, once you understand Oulipo, which has strong links to maths, you tend to see it wherever you look. Oulipo itself opens onto the wider world.

"Recently I have been working on storytelling with refugees in Palermo. They invented games for storytelling where you begin by choosing a place, a character, an object and so on and make a story using these ingredients. That’s Oulipo."

Who do you think your book appeals to and how is it relevant to them?

"The blurb on the back of the Penguin Modern Classics edition says something like ‘This playful selection is for all lovers of word games, puzzles and literary delights’. I’d agree with that – but it is also for potential writers who want ideas and techniques to help them with their writing, particularly if they are interested in doing something new and challenging.

"It’s also a reminder to everyone that being human is about sharing ideas and having a bit of fun. And that subjects we tend to see as separate – like writing and maths – have a lot in common. Now that coding has become an important part of the arts this is becoming more and more obvious, but Oulipo realised this sixty years ago."

What’s next for your research?

"I’m translating Proust’s enormous novel In Search of Lost Time, but not the whole thing. Rather I take the first sentence, 'For a long time, I went to bed early', and translate this in 1,000 different ways, so as to uncover the richness of this opening sentence."