Harry Mathews

Writing from Oulipo


December’s Words Without Borders is an Oulipian special. Daniel Levin Becker introduces the issue:

The Oulipo — ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature, a Paris-based literary collective dedicated to exploring how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints borrowed from linguistics or mathematics or parlor games — presents an uncommonly acute challenge to that expectation. To write an Oulipian text is both to draw a picture and to solve a puzzle, and more often than not these two missions blur together to the point where it becomes impossible to discern where the language ends and the meaning, such as it is, begins.

Oulipian Melville


An engaging essay in Appendix Journal, ‘The Curse of Coherence: Cold War CIA Funding for Oulipo’s Confidence-Man’, puts forward the idea that Herman Melville‘s The Con-fidence Man was given the Oulipian N+7 treatment.

I chanced upon the intimation of American author Harry Mathews’s involvement in a CIA-funded Oulipian translation of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man in the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was researching Mathews’s novel Cigarettes. Fragmentary data suggested a covert narrative: that CIA operatives, working with the expatriate American novelist, hired members of the French experimental writing coterie to translate Melville’s novel in the early 1970s as part of a larger project of cultural influence. If the history suggested here proves true, it will demand critical re-assessment of Mathews’s work, that of the Oulipo, and possibly even that of the so-called New York School poets, with whom Mathews has always been closely connected.