I talk about it often and though it’s in my past, I still learn many things from this one experience. My senior year of college was devoted to completing a thesis for my degree in German Literature. I knew it was a huge part of my college career; the school I went to drilled this fear and love of the thesis in all students, practically from the first day. So, yeah, I had plenty of years to deal with the impending final test that is the senior thesis, but I really never thought of the lasting effects this overglorified paper would have after I left college.
Nearly two years out and I still watch interviews of Herta Müller (the writer whose depressingly lyrical prose made up most my life that year) and read new articles on her writing. She’ll always be a part of me, I get it, and sometimes I think maybe I keep going back to this because it was one of the best things I did in college. What I mean by ‘best’ is of course, one of the assignments I spent most of my time on; it was something I actually cared about.
And so, when I started reading a new piece in The New Inquiry (I swear I read other magazines… TNI bloggers are just so great!) last week on a French literary movement from the 1960s I was immediately intrigued to learn more. I’m a pretty trusting person so my first stop is Wikipedia… then maybe Google Scholar before I do a quick email and facebook check (Dear GOD adult-ADD is real) and as I skimmed through the information I noticed that one of the more famous members of this group was a German-Romanian poet whose work helped me in many ways with some of the more technical analysis for my thesis. Without getting too deep into it, Oskar Pastior’s deconstructivist poetry deeply influenced Müller in her own exploration of dissociative vocabulary and style. Pastior and Müller were to work together on her 2009 novel Atemschaukel; unfortunately Pastior passed away in the beginning stages of research.
Having read Pastior’s work, it is easy to see his place within this group. One of Pastior’s techniques dealt with semantics. Using words twice-removed from their objects, he’d create open-ended mazes that allowed for the profundity of his work to resonate among his audience. This French literary group worked also wished to explore and experiment with certain technicalities in literature: from style of writing, to basic linguistic structure. The members of the Oulipo movement (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop of potential literature), from what I’ve gathered wrote to provoke and change the representation of reality in literature. Constrained by the history of literary writing, these writers deconstructed and rearranged every aspect of their work to create a new reality in which their writing could be sustained.
The one thing I find most interesting of the Oulipo movement is precisely this idea that one can control style in order to bend, strain, and break the rules of writing. Yuka Igarashi writes on the republication of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style in “Exorcisms in Style”: “Though it’s tempting to see Exercises in Style as a showcase, a dazzling display of the many ways to tell a story, the truth is that most of these exercises don’t make very good versions of the story at all. Either they’re plain incomprehensible or they’re forced and awkward.” Precisely through this breakdown of the story and subsequent tinkering and restructuring Queneau creates completely new stories, and yet – we know that it’s all the same story. Style very much dictates what can and cannot be used in a story, and yet with these various stories in Exercises in Style, Queneau just as easily proves that the content itself can find its way through any form of style and inevitably leave an impression.
…the book’s ad nauseam variations mount a challenge to the primacy of style and the preciousness of language. The crucial word in the title is not “style” but “exercise,” with its connotations of both the physical and educational drill. It suggests that you can throw on and throw off a multitude of styles, or that you might cycle through a host of them to give the writing a workout. For Queneau, language is meant to be pushed around and played with, stretched and bent and chopped and tested.
The story cannot survive in an alien style. Though it’s valuable for a writer to experiment and practice new writing styles, it’s equally as important for the writer to understand the content of her writing and be exclusive to what works. Queneau’s Exercises in Style explains the essence of the Oulipo movement, an attempt to reconfigure the ideals of the literary tradition. There is nothing wrong in these exercises in style, on the contrary, his work brings to light the importance of experimentation.