Language Games



Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Caite Dolan-Leach remembers her first encounters with Oulipo.

Meeting of Oulipo in Boulogne. © Archives Pontigny-Cerisy


By my last year of high school, French was the only class I bothered to attend with any diligence. I was too busy organizing my escape to far-flung climes; a foreign language was the most likely thing to help me secure this imagined, overseas future. I would skip PE to memorize verb conjugations, sitting in the high school’s abandoned auditorium, mumbling to myself in the dark. I think the janitor who occasionally walked in on these foreign monologues was a little frightened of me.

I stumbled across Queneau’s Exercises in Style while browsing the chipped and nibbled pages of the French section at a local used book sale. I was thrilled by the book’s concept, but quickly bored with its execution. Written by one of the founding members of Oulipo, a group that uses constraints of language to spur on creativity, Exercises in Style is a single story told ninety-nine times, each time in a different style. Other members’ works include books composed using mathematical problems derived from chess games, dismembered sonnets, and lipograms. At the time, I liked sprawling, character-driven novels, and this book was stripped of character and even plot. I bought the book—it cost just fifty cents and appealed to my literary vanity—but I’ve still never finished it. 

A few years later, I was living in Siena, Italy, and I spent much of my time in the university library, because it had been there for six hundred years and I was hoping to soak up Italian by historical osmosis. I checked out the complete works of Italo Calvino, but this tome, too, sat languishing, and I launched into an impossibly dense history of political philosophy in Italian instead, suspecting that I had perhaps bitten off more than I could linguistically chew. I eventually returned the Calvino without having made much headway.

Still later, in a Paris apartment filled with books, the man who would become my husband handed me a copy of Perec’s La disparition while we lay in bed and asked me if I could spot “anything off” about the text. There was, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. When he pointed out the missing E’s, I was bowled over, and we spent a few hours munching through the initial chapters, which would probably have sounded weird in our foreign accents even had all the vowels been accounted for. I still don’t really know how the book ends—we got hungry and scampered off to a bistro and a bookstore, where we acquired a copy of Beckett’s First Love, and I read that instead, leaving Perec behind.

This man and I later translated a novel together by a French experimental author who wrote “conceptual novels” that are really only novels if you agree with Queneau’s sweeping, inclusive definition of the term as “an indeterminate number of apparently real characters … across a long moor comprising an indeterminate number of pages … ” The experimental author’s novel was written using only the grammar and vocabulary permitted to highbrow French newspapers (imagine having to write as if you were a journalist for the New York Times then add some fussy grammar conventions), and there are no proper nouns anywhere. Translating it occasioned some deeply creative compromises; now I wonder if translation may be the ultimate form of constrained writing.

When I set out to write a novel myself, the book that became Dead Letters, I didn’t realize that I was one of the mordus de littérature: the “literature-bitten.” I wanted to write something that was a page-turner, something that was plot driven and hemmed in by the traditional rules of thrillers and mysteries. I cared about genre and about poking at its boundaries. There needed to be a slightly dim sidekick, I realized. There should be the suggestion of a sinister social underbelly and a whiff of drugs and sex, I saw. Chapters must end with page-turning epiphanies, and descriptive scenes must be kept to a (relative) minimum. Red herrings and locked rooms are necessary. I didn’t think of these impulses as literary, Oulipian constraints, until I realized, halfway through my first draft that the mystery’s clues were appearing in alphabetical order, a sequence that was arbitrary yet necessary.

We are constrained by language, Oulipians point out, whether we readers and writers acknowledge it or not. Pale Fire and The New York Trilogy and Shakespeare’s sonnets and the newspaper, all of which I have obsessed over at different bookish moments, are constrained in their own ways. I had quite inadvertently written a text with an Oulipian backbone and was enjoying the afternoons devoted to doodling sentences that contained every letter of the alphabet, upsizing and plumping my novel with pangrams. Oulipo was having its way with me, and here I am, playing their game, another rat trying to write my way out of a maze of my own making.


Caite Dolan-Leach is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of Dead Letters, published this month by Penguin Random House.