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.
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. Read More