I’m the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin), available from Zero Books. Here’s an expanded version of the list of essential Oulipo books that can be found at the end of The End of Oulipo?
Invisible Cities — Italo Calvino
Calvino wrote this novel shortly after his legendary translation of Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers introduced him to Oulipo. This account of numerous cities of the mind that Marco Polo recounts to Kublai Khan bears the clear mark of Oulopian writing and may be Calvino’s best book.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler — Italo Calvino
This famous work by Calvino begins a new, different novel with each chapter. Alternating chapters about a reader trying to read this excessively strange book tie it all together.
My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 — Harry Mathews
A fine Oulipo entry into the genre of autofiction, here Mathews recounts his experiences as a pretend member of the CIA. As an ex-pat writer in Paris, many suspected Mathews of being a CIA in disguise, and when no one believed his denials he decided to go with the flow.
Singular Pleasures — Harry Mathews
Another one of Oulipo’s famous dare books, this one finds Mathews recounting 62 short tales of masturbation. As an added bonus, this book is illustrated by the Italian painter Francesco Clemente.
Life A User’s Manual — Georges Perec
Perhaps the biggest, most ambitious and encyclopedic novel to ever come out of Oulipo, we are fortunate that Perec finished it before succumbing to cancer at the far-too-young age of 42.
A Void — Georges Perec
Probably the most daring and most famous book to come out of Oulipo, here Perec writes (and Gilbert Adair translates) a full novel without the letter e. The playful story perfectly matches the form, as it’s all about a certain “Anton Vowl” who has gone missing.
Exercises in Style — Raymond Queneau
The great ancestor of constrained writing, here Queneau retells the same short incident 99 times. A virtuosic execution of a daring idea, this book is also a testament to the art of translation. As translator Barbara Wright puts it, the book is “a profound exploration into the possibilities of language.”
The Blue Flowers — Raymond Queneau
Perhaps the most untranslatable book of any Oulipo writer, this book tells twin narratives: the story of the Duc d’Auge at 175-year intervals is joined by Cidrolin in the present day. As the two dream of one another the narratives interrelate in this extremely dense philosophical novel, bringing in everything from Finnegans Wake to Hegel.
The Great Fire of London — Jacques Roubaud
A relentless anti-novel, Roubaud began writing this book in 1961 and then started taking it apart in 1983, when his beloved wife, Alix, died prematurely. The result is a staggering mix of constraint, philosophical digression, and raw emotion.
Some Thing Black — Jacques Roubaud
Declared one of the greatest works of poetry to come out of Oulipo, this is Roubaud’s tribute to his wife, Alix, after her premature death from pulmonary embolism. It has been translated into English by one of the language’s greatest living poets, Rosemarie Waldrop.
Alix’s Journal — Alix Roubaud
An ideal accompaniment to some thing black, this is the genre- (and punctuation-) defying journal that Alix kept as a photographer and writer. It shows equally why Jacques was the right partner for her and what an unfortunate loss her early death left the writing world with.
Hervé Le Tellier — The Sextine Chapel
Like a cross between Exercises in Style and Singular Pleasures, this book presents variations on the theme of sex between over 20 partners. As time passes their interlocking connections come to resemble the tangle of humanity on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The Writings Of Marcel Duchamp
Though his art tends to overshadow his writing, Duchamp was a member of Oulipo in good standing. These writings include his “Texticles,” as well as notes on some of his most famous works of art and two interviews.
Suicide — Edouard Leve
Though Leve was not a full-fledged member of Oulipo, he might have one day become one had he not committed suicide ten days after delivering this final work to his publisher. The marks of constrained writing are in evidence in this short, powerful meditation on suicide, just as they are in the other four fictions Leve published before his death in 2007.
Eunoia — Christian Bok
Though Bok is not a member of Oulipo, his book deserves a place on this list, as it goes A Void one better: each of the five chapters in this short work uses only words containing one of the five vowels. Thus one chapter has only words with a’s in it, another i’s, and so on.
Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature — Warren F. Motte Jr.
A collection of critical writings from Oulipo members brought together by one of Oulipo’s most astute critics. This book makes the perfect introduction for the budding reader (or practitioner) of Oulipo.
More from Conversational Reading:
- Not Even Death Can Save You Artforum reports on the recent gathering of Oulipo in NYC: As noted by poet and memoirist Honor Moore (the Host), the six readers are Oulipians...
- Life A User’s Manual Big Read Schedule In this post you'll find the reading schedule for the 2011 Life A User's Manual Big Read, plus a list of resources and books you...
- Happy Birthday Oulipo November 24: The French experimental writing group "Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle" was founded on this day in 1960. The name translates as "Workshop of Potential...
- The Genius of What Is Possible In English Fascinating conversation between Adam Kirsch and Ilya Kaminsky on what translation can and can’t do. I’ll grant that Kirsch is well-informed, and his concerns are...
- Believer in Oulipo The Believer looks at the members of Oulipo. The Beautiful Outlaw is a type of lipogram (for more about which, see below) wherein a...
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