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.