Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Some Restrictions May Apply

Christian Bök's Eunoia

by Christian Bök
Coach House Books
112 pages The Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Oulipo for short: it means “workshop of potential literature.” It also means “sewing circle of potential literature.” The ouvroir, or sewing circle of well-to-do ladies, would knit woolens for the needy. The Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians who have been meeting regularly in France for over 40 years, create new literary forms, and sometimes revive little-known ones for us, the needy. Out of this generosity came the constraint for Christian Bök’s book (poems? novel?) where successive “chapters” (Chapter A, Chapter E, Chapter I, Chapter O, Chapter U) employ only words with that vowel. The constraint is called a univocalism, employed with great effect by Georges Perec in Les revenentes using only E’s (translated by Ian Monk as The Exeter Text: Secrets, Jewels, Sex). What Bök has created here is something rich and strange. The word “eunoia,” meaning “beautiful thinking,” doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, or any other I’ve seen for that matter. Bök’s epigraph does cite its use in a poem, “The Triumphs of Temper” by William Hayley (of William Blake’s circle), so I take the author’s word that it exists. Yet it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume it was Bök’s own creation. After all, Bök created languages for two TV shows, Earth: Final Conflict and Amazon. The Indo-European roots section of the American Heritage Dictionary (third edition) lists “eu-” as meaning “lacking” or “empty,” the extended form including “void.” This cleverly summarizes Bök’s project of vowel elimination and at the same time pays homage to his predecessor Perec, whose La disparition (a novel without the letter E) was translated as A Void by Gilbert Adair. Poking around trying to find a root for “-noia,” I found “oi-no,” which means “one” or “unique,” again signifying Bök’s project of using one vowel at a time. If we stick with the Greek, “eunoia” means (as my nephew the Greek scholar tells me) something perhaps closer to “goodwill” or “kindness” (eu=good, noos=mind/thought/purpose). Nevertheless, beautiful thinking, goodwill, kindness, unique void: all of them work for me. You could also call it beautiful sight, beautiful sound. The other shortest words with all the vowels—sequoia, eunomia, eucosia, douleia, among them—all have seven letters. Bök had to do them one better (or one less) by choosing “eunoia.” Note also that the title of the last piece in the book, “The New Ennui,” seems a kind of smeared anagram of “eunoia.” Critics remark that all Oulipian works using a given constraint will sound the same. Yet Perec’s The Exeter Text, the chief precursor for Bök, is quite different from Eunoia. Eunoia is in the present tense, The Exeter Text in the past. Compare these sentences describing debauchery from Bök and Perec: Bök: “She sheds her velvet dress; then she lets repellent men pet her tender flesh. Her lewdness renders even these lechers speechless. She resembles the lewdest jezebel.” Perec: “Her lewd feelers caressed me between the theyeghs, weyle vehement me pecked her cheeks, temple, neck. Her pert, speer-like brests skewered me. Then, leyek the Eblé, when the eastern freeze meyde the French retreet, the member went berserk between her, then keyme. The frenzee releesed revenents wherever we peered! ‘Begetters!’ screeched Estelle. ‘The sperm peerces me!’ She released the effervescent member then, between her teeth, she bezelled the breef yet repeeted sperm-jets.” I can tell the difference. Can you? The Exeter Text is a continuous narrative sustained for some 50 pages, wherein Perec is not compelled to use correct spellings. In fact there are progressively more misspellings and the story becomes more smeared as it goes along, as if in his widening gyre the center could not hold. As David Bellos put it in his introduction to the English version, “it bends and twists spelling rules with unrivalled inventiveness. It is as much an exercise in how far you can go in orthographic incorrectness—without losing the reader—as a strict exercise on an alphabetical trapeze.” Or as Harry Mathews wrote in the Oulipo Compendium: “The liberties taken with its orthographic correctness make a perfect match with its libertine content.” Bök, on the other hand, compulsively uses up all available univocal words (or at least 98 per cent, according to his afterword) with strict spelling in his rock-solid blocks of text, and he sets himself other guidelines as well: each chapter must contain something about the art of writing, a feast, a pastoral scene and a “prurient debauch”—in other words, the traditional subjects of poetry. His ideal is that no word appear more than once. The result is a parade of scenes (rather than one continuous narrative), luxuriant and exhaustive, in which one finds rich spoils of exquisite beauty (“a charm that can trap what a Cathar savant calls an ‘astral avatar’ ”), regular-sounding phrases (“part man, part bat—all fang and claw”) and repulsive ugliness (“a phantasm that can snarl and gnash at a carcass”). All in the same sentence. The univocalism has produced a funny retelling of the Iliad in Chapter E, but also this three word gem translating Basho’s most famous haiku: “frog, pond, plop.” The original Basho is usually translated something like this: “The old pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of the water.” Carmine Starnino, in his recent review of Eunoia in Books in Canada, cites the following sentence: “when French jewellers embezzle De Beers, the stern execs there never detect the embezzlement; hence the theft seems perfect.” Starnino writes that this sentence “never experienced real struggle because it’s been made to struggle only with Bök’s rules and not with any ideas.” In fact it’s an allusion to The Exeter Text, where a planned jewel heist is at the center of the plot. It’s an homage to Perec, in this book with many such homages. Homages are a common theme for poets through the ages, so you can hardly say this passage lacks struggle with ideas. It’s precisely Bök’s struggle to say something in response to his forebear that energizes the passage. One must struggle as a reader as well to get the goods. Bök has included some hilarious commentaries on his own writing, anticipating the criticisms to come: “We detest these depthless pretenses—these present-tense verbs, expressed pell-mell. We prefer genteel speech, where sense redeems senselessness.” (He then goes on to retell the Iliad.) Another: “Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing shtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nitpicking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz—griping whilst criticizing dimwits, sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplistic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.” In an adroit move, Bök mentions Tlooth, a novel by Harry Mathews, the only member of the Oulipo from the U.S.: “Profs who gloss works of Woolf, Gogol, Frost or Corot look for books from Knopf: Oroonoko or Nostromo—not Hopscotch (nor Tlooth).” (Of course he missed a chance for Omoo there.) One problem with the writing in this book is Bök’s penchant for the subject word also acting as verb or object, a device I initially liked, but which becomes tiring (as in the following examples): The trestlemen erect trestles; the
   smeltermen erect smelters.
the Greek pretenders pretend.
The steersmen steer
fermenters ferment
belchers belch
Whirlwinds whirl; driftwinds drift And so on. You get the drift. Yet even in these brief tidbits you see the array of sounds and colors this “constraint” allows. Liberation through constraint is as central to Oulipian writing as it is to traditional uses of form. Also, Bök often succumbs to the temptation to put in something just because it’s there and it fits. “How now brown cow” is less than effective as an end to the O chapter, yet it’s refreshing to see these “ready-mades.” Why not throw them into the pot? Eunoia contains additional works, gathered in a second section entitled “Oiseau,” the shortest word in French containing all five vowels, and also thereby an homage to Bök’s French predecessors. The poems round out his homage to the vowels. “And Sometimes” is written without ANY vowels, except words with Y, and achieves a hushed, smoky quality of meditation. (No Lynyrd Skynyrd, sadly.) “Vowels” is an anagrammatic poem in which the word “vowels” is re-formed as a meditation on love. “Voile” and “W” pay their respects to Rimbaud and Perec, respectively. “Emended Excess” contains all the remaining words Bök did not use in Eunoia’s Chapter E, and ends on a note of homage to Perec by deftly echoing his themes, particularly in Life a User’s Manual, where, despite the character Bartlebooth’s attempt to destroy all the painting-puzzles he has created (to go from nothing to nothing), something remains after he dies: “hence, we see selected references get deleted (nevertheless, Perec’s creed gets expressed; nevertheless, Perec’s tenet gets preserved).” Hostile critics complain that the Oulipo revels in its forms and not expressions, that they prefer process over product. Or, as Paul Hoover put it in a recent essay discussing James Schuyler, “Unlike the poems produced by the technically inventive Oulipo group, Schuyler’s work has emotional intelligence.” Nonsense. Take a look at Harry Mathews’s Trial Impressions, a book of 29 variations on a single air by John Dowland (“Deare, if you change, Ile never chuse again”). The results range from the plastic to the profound, with all manner of warmth and coolth in between. Look at Mathews’s Out of Bounds, a sonnet-seeming series of poems, and tell me, Ramón Fernandez, if you know, what Oulipian methods were employed. Would anyone say Italo Calvino lacked emotional intelligence? Yet he was a member of the Oulipo, and his novel The Castle of the Crossed Destinies was written using a tarot deck and what the images suggested as they were unveiled. And what about Perec’s Life a User’s Manual? The point here is that there are many types of constraint, some hard and exerting great pressure, some soft. Raymond Queneau made the statement, “Oulipo: rats who construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.” The labyrinth can be simple or complex. The univocalism is a very hard constraint, and very visible, so with Eunoia it’s impossible to avoid seeing his method at work, and that’s part of the point, as Jules Verne put it in Michael Strogoff (and the epigraph to Life a User’s Manual): “Look with all your eyes, look.” That’s part of the beauty. It’s no surprise that Bök is also a visual artist (his work is on the cover, a visual rendering of Rimbaud’s poem “Voyelles,” where each vowel is assigned a color). As he allows his one vowel per chapter, he also organizes them into 11, 12, or 13 lines per page, giving the finished product a sturdy, yet elegant beauty. When I finished the book I thought these pages should be chiseled into granite tablets and set on display, where you could wander at will among them.