Minute-Operas – Frédéric Forte (Translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel)

Recently I have been posting a few thoughts about books from members of the Oulipo (“The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle”) and thought it relevant to repost my thoughts on the 2016 NLTA National Translation Awards for Poetry shortlisted ‘Minute-Operas’ by Frédéric Forte.
Frédéric Forte was elected a member of the Oulipo in 2005, shortly after the publication of ‘Minute-Operas’, and two of his other works appear in the recently published ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect- Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, “99 Preparatory Notes to 99 Preparatory Notes” (tr. Daniel Levin Becker) and “The Pitch Drop Experiment” (tr. Ian Monk).
My original post was back in 2016 and the author was kind enough to visit and comment:
It’s such a pleasure to be read so far from France, very heart-warming…
By the way, the minute-operas are also 3 inches long in the original version, just by chance. Designing the form, I measured a Jacques Roubaud’s sonnet (in one of his Gallimard books) as a benchmark, and it was… 7,62 cm long, which appears to be 3 inches exactly! Very incredible when the work goes this way.
Thanks again for your time and commitment.
This in response to my comment:
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”.
Reading more Oulipoen works I have revisited ‘Minute-Operas’ and am still amazed by the typographical delight and the stunning array of word games. If you are interested in the works of the Oulipo this is one to add to your collection – my mind hasn’t changed in 2 and a half years.

Messenger's Booker (and more)

First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).
Stepping into Frédéric Forte’s work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word…

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All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018 – Edited by Ian Monk & Daniel Levin Becker


The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (‘Oulipo’) was created in Paris in November 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau. The Oulipo would seek out, according to Raymond Queneau, “new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” The application of mathematics and the sciences to literature, more specifically formal constraints, is used to liberate the writer’s creativity.

There are (or have been) forty -one members of the Oulipo, some are deceased, and the newly published collection ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, contains works by every member to date. The book contains fifty-four pieces, one co-authored.

The book opens with a short work by founder Raymond Queneau himself, undated and titled “Slept Cried” (translated by Ian Monk), it is a single page “elliptical evocation of the whole of existence”, a pertinent way to open the collection;

Started this diary today: desirous as I am to note down my first impressions. Unpleasant.
Hot milk, as they call it is disgusting: not nearly as good as amniotic fluid.
Having been washed and rubbed down, here I am still blind, back in my crib. Very interesting.
Slept twenty hours. Cried four. I quite clearly am not taking to hot milk.
I also pooed: in my linen.

To close the piece, after an “interruption of seventy-four years”, the diary is revisited. Is the Oulipo “extremely tired”?

As per any collection from a variety of writers this book is uneven at times, some pieces feeling clunky in their construction, this could be as a result of the translation as a constraint in French would be difficult to translate into English using the same constraint (for example, the piece “Invisible Cities: Lille” by Olivier Salon (translated by Ian Monk), “is a lipogram variant called a bivocalism: like the city’s name (Lille), it contains no vowels besides E and I.”)

Having said that the vast majority of the collection is very readable, stimulating and intriguing.

The piece by Italo Calvino “How I Wrote One of My Books” (translated by Iain White) “outlines the algorithm governing the interchapter narrative in his 1979 novel ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’. Calvino stipulated that the explanation was never to be published in Italian.” Having read Calvino’s book twice before I now feel the need to revisit it for a third time given the complex algorithm in play.

I have previously referred to two pieces, from this book, regarding the structure of Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ however the collection is not simply explanations as to the constraints used by the writers in other works, in fact these are minimal, generally consigned to the short explanatory paragraph accompanying each piece.

Some personal highlights, Latis’ “The Atheist Organist” (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) a small sample of his novel that contains “seven prefaces, a preface to those prefaces, a post-face, a postlude and no actual novel.” Jacques Bens “How to Tell a Story” (translated by Daniel Levin Becker), a short story taken from ‘Nouvelles désenchantées’ a collection that was awarded the 1990 Prix Goncourt de la Novelle (the award for short stories).

On Tuesday, April 25, 1989 – which was the Feast of Saint Mark, one of the four evangelists and, accordingly, one of the patron saints of writers – at around ten past two, a student in the sixth grade at the Collège Saint-Jean raised her hand and asked:
“How does one go about telling a story?”
Matthew had not been expecting this.
“Which story?” he said.
“I don’t know, just a story!”
“Well, that’s just it, you need to know, because not all stories are told in the same way. Look, let’s take the first idea that comes into your mind. It might be about a situation, or about a character. The story would develop differently depending on which. And usually you have both at the same time, because it’s rare to have one without the other. Then you have to give your hero a name, which is always sort of complicated. What’s your name?”

“Poems of the Paris Metro” by Jacques Jouet (translated by Ian Monk), fifteen and a half hours in the creation it was written covering every station in the Paris Metro, where the first line is composed mentally between the first two stations, it is then written down when the train stops at the second station, and so on. Stanza breaks are made when you change train lines, the work was based on graph theorist Pierre Rosenstiehl’s “Frieze of the Paris Métro”, a piece where he planned out the journey, so Jacques Jouet could write his exhaustive poem. Here’s the first few lines;

If governing, governing the coming hours, is more a matter of surprising myself than                                                      planning ahead,
the first few minutes have already rather put me out.
I have more than enough time to explain why.
Outside, I had hoped for slight rain so as to enter into the concept of shelter,
keeping a slight wetness, on the backs of my hands, for my thirst,
but this night at 5:30 a.m. was dry and mild and black like a black dress lit up from inside
by a body standing up in its fullness.

Jacques Jouet’s other contribution, “The Republic of Beau-Locks” (also translated by Ian Monk), is the first book in an ongoing serial novel, one I now need to hunt down.

Seven novel outlines by Paul Fournel, retells the same story from seven different perspectives, the piece translated by Daniel Levin Becker, it is playful and although a repetition the narrative shifts dramatically, voices include a parrot and a bunch of flowers.

Anne F. Garréta’s “N-evol” (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) opens with a set of six “givens”, starting with “1. the obsolescence of the novel, its inadequacy to everything a subject today might live, observe, experience, and think; 2. The boredom provoked in me by reading a “contemporary” novel;” the piece then observes various activities in nightclubs, toilets, using the voice of the DJ (sound familiar to readers of Garréta’s “Sphinx”?).

There is a very moving graphic piece by Étienne Lécroat (translated by Matt Madden), “Counting on You”, an homage to Lécroat’s sister who died just before her fiftieth birthday, it commences with a panel containing fifty words and a drawing with fifty strokes, then moves to a panel with forty-nine words and a drawing with forty-nine strokes and so forth until an empty final panel. A beautiful homage indeed.

Other notable, enjoyable pieces are Jacques Roubaud’s “Arrangements” part of his ‘Great Fire of London” project, this piece using 111,111 characters, Bernard Cerquiglini’s collection of emails presented as “A Very Busy Year”, Daniel Levin Becker’s “Writer’s Block” a consideration of a concrete sculpture using 999 words to ask 99 questions, the contemplation of a wordless poem by Marcel Bénabou, and Eduardo Berti & Pablo Martín Sánchez’s absurd “Microfictions”.

Overall the work is a wonderful introduction to forty-two different writers all using constraints within their work, and a great starting point for readers who are interested in the works of the Oulipo. An extensive coverage of the styles and types of works and one whereby you can have a taste of a writer before delving further into their work. If you want to add something a little different, something experimental and thought provoking to your library, look no further.

If you are interested in the list of the 41 members of the Oulipo please refer to my previous post about Georges Perec here.


Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (tr. David Bellos) – the tables and lists


To continue my posts about literature that has unusual, or strict, structures. I’ve been fascinated by the works of the Oulipo for some time, and I eagerly awaited the publication, in late 2018, of ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, edited by Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker. Naturally the book contains a few references to Georges Perec and his novel ‘Life A User’s Manual’. The “game” continues as I further explore the constraints, rules etc. that Perec employed when writing this book.

‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’ contains writing from the (current) forty-one members of the Oulipo. The piece ‘Un bilboquet d’ébène á boule d’ivoire’ (translated as “Ebony Cup and Ivory Ball”) by Marcel Bénabou, “subtly encloses a phonetic equivalent of its author’s last name”,(note, I’ve made the reference bold and underlined in the title). This is apparently a “trick borrowed from Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’, whose text contains echoes of the names of all the Oulipians at the time” of publication.

So a digging around is required, another game to play with Perec’s novel (translated by David Bellos), let’s start with the members of the Oulipo in 1978 the year the book was published in France:

Noël Arnaud (Founding Member)
Marcel Bénabou 1970
Jacques Bens (Founding Member)
Claude Berge (Founding Member)
André Blavier (Foreign Correspondent)
Paul Braffort 1961
Italo Calvino 1974
Ross Chambers 1961
Stanley Chapman 1961
Marcel Duchamp 1962
Jacques Duchateau (Founding Member)
Luc Etienne 1970
Paul Fournel 1972
Latis (Founding Member)
François Le Lionnais (Co-Founder)
Jean Lescure (Founding Member)
Harry Mathews 1973
Michèle Métail 1975
Georges Perec 1967
Raymond Queneau (Co-Founder)
Jean Queval (Founding Member)
Jacques Roubaud 1966
Albert-Marie Schmidt (Founding Member)

Twenty-three names that could be echoed within “Life A User’s Manual”, however Perec may have not used his own name for the “game” so I could potentially only be looking for twenty-two.

For interest (and completeness) sake let’s add the remaining members of the Oulipo (joined after 1978)

Michèle Audin 2009
Valérie Beaudouin 2003
Eduardo Berti 2014
François Caradec – 1983
Bernard Cerquiglini 1995
Frédéric Forte 2005
Anne F. Garréta 2000
Michelle Grangaud 1995
Jacues Jouet 1983
Hervé Le Tellier 1992
Étienne Lécroat 2012
Daniel Levin Becker 2009
Pablo Martín Sánchez 2014
Clémentine Mélois 2017
Ian Monk 1998
Oskar Pastior 1992
Pierre Rosenstiehl 1992
Olivier Salon 2000

Even the Wikipedia entry for Perec’s novel contains an explanation of the lists he used in composing the work, however I again refer to ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, and specifically the entry by George Berge written in 1967 “Letter to Jacques Rouband & Georges Perec”.

Dear Friends,

If our project concerning the use of orthogonal Latin squares is still on the table, as I hope it is, I think one of you will need to take the initiative to convene the sub-sub-co-committee. In the meantime, however, I am sending an extremely rare specimen, found recently by Parker for n = 10: (p32)


Using my previous post about the 10×10 grid employed for Perec’s novel  , we can see a strong resemblance between George Berge’s letter and the structure of Perec’s novel.

However instead of a simple “ten texts…in which there appear ten characters” with “two attributes, denoted by a capital letter and a lowercase letter”, Perec created a complex system of forty-two lists of ten things. Forty of the lists are broken into ten groups of four, with lists 41 and 42 being “couples”, to add complexity to the puzzle, list 39 is “Manque” (lack) and list 40 is “Faux” (false), these lists were simply numbers 1-10, however if Perec consulted the “Faux” bi-square and found, for example, a “6” in a given cell, he would ensure that the chapter corresponding to that cell would do something “false” when including the particular fabric, colour, accessory or jewel the bi-squares for the lists in group 6 had assigned to the cell/chapter in question.


Here is the “List of Lists”



Thanks to “Ex Libris: Architecture + World Literature” blog (blogs.cornell.edu) for the lists, there was a lot of internet trawling to find them. I have used the official Oulipo site for the list of current members (and members joining dates) at http://www.oulipo.net/

Hoping the “clues” I have posted here lead to further revelations when reading Perec’s novel, you might be able to spot which list is being used in which chapter!!! One day I may get to the riches and anomalies contained in “The Fifty-first Chapter” the only one oddly named (the rest are simply “Chapter xxx”) and the lists that it contains, or maybe the list of 107 “Stories narrated in this manual”…maybe not, after all it’s just a game.

EDIT – I had missed one Oulipien from the list (that’s what happens when you transpose) – apologies to François Caradec (even though he’s deceased), I’ll make up for it by looking at his ‘Dictionary of Gestures’ (tr. Chris Clarke) sometime in the future.

Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (translated by David Bellos)


UserManual…play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged in with precise limits of time and place. There is a place for play: as needs dictate, the space for hopscotch, the board for checkers or chess, the stadium, the racetrack, the list, the ring, the stage, the arena, etc. Nothing that takes place outside this ideal frontier is relevant. To leave the enclosure by mistake, accident, or necessity, to send the ball out of bounds, may disqualify or entail a penalty.
Roger Caillois “Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p6

Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a place for play, a 580-page game, ninety-nine chapters structured “with precise limits of time and place.”

Here is a work that can be examined on many many levels, today I have chosen to look at the structure of the book, the “play”.

Imagine a building, (possibly) nine storeys high, with a basement, an entrance hall, stairwell, lift and various apartments, no need to image too hard, at the conclusion to the novel there is an outline;


Let’s break these rooms down a little further, ten sections, over ten storeys in height, 10×10 – one hundred evenly sized squares:


I would love to add a credit to the creator of this “map” however all sources (Pinterest etc) do not quote a source.

Let’s now remove the façade from the building and take a snapshot of the detail in each of the squares.

Enter the stairwell, up to half way (the square marked “1” on the image above), you are a knight, the chess piece, and from here you are to move in an ‘L’ shape, you will either move two squares sideways and then one square up or down, or two squares up or down, and then one square sideways. Let’s make this a little easier, as I made my way through the book, I highlighted the completed squares on a printed grid using a different colour each time I completed a part of the book.


Perec’s novel is a giant chess game, in fact it is many games, chess, a jigsaw puzzle, solitaire, and then there are games within the games;

Let is imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible, intact entirety.
In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion. (p117)

At the novel’s core, and he does sit near the centre of the building, is Bartlebooth and his mission to paint five-hundred watercolours at various locations on the planet, have the paintings made into jigsaw puzzles, which he will complete and then return those paintings to their place of origin and have them reduced back to blank paper. “A fragment of the world” that is futile, “A single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.”

Throughout this journey, there are hundred and hundreds of asides, games played in rooms, crossword puzzles, futile meditations, hints for the reader to solve the unsolvable, and a cast of thousands (well probably 100’s, there is a 59 page Index listing all of the references, it forms part of the game – as well as a checklist for “some of the stories narrated in this manual”).

As the reader travels into the depths of a painting, or along with an historical story, you are stopped in your tracks and returned to the concrete world of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, the building where you will need to move as the knight into another space, and another puzzle.

Sometimes Valène had the feeling that time had been stopped, suspended, frozen around he didn’t know what expectation. The very idea of the picture he panned to do and whose laid-out, broken-up images had begun to haunt every second of his life, furnishing his dreams, squeezing his memories, the very idea of this shattered building, laying bare the cracks of its past, the crumbling of its present, this unordered amassing of stories grandiose and trivial, frivolous and pathetic, gave him the impression of a grotesque mausoleum raised in the memory of companions petrified in terminal postures as insignificant in their solemnity as they were in their ordinariness, as if he had wanted both to warn of and to delay these slow or quick deaths which seemed to be engulfing the entire building storey by storey; Monsieur Marcia, Madame Moreau, Madame de Beaumont, Bartlebooth, Rorschach, Mademoiselle Crespi, Madame Albin, Smautf. And himself, of course, Valène himself, the longest inhabitant of the house. (p127)

The book contains such oddities as family trees, newspaper articles, map titles, visiting cards, shop signs, chessboard diagrams, advertisements, to name only a few items, keeping the playfulness bubbling along.

Ahhh, but there are one hundred squares, and only ninety-nine chapters? Yes, there’s a blank square, a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, how could a user’s manual on life be complete?

Returning to Roger Caillois;

Thus games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe. It is to the point that if a game with rules seems in certain circumstances like a serious activity and is beyond one unfamiliar with the rules, i.e. if it seems to him like real life, this game can at once provide the framework for a diverting make-believe for the confused and curious layman. Once easily can conceive of children, in order to imitate adults, blindly manipulating real or imaginary pieces on an imaginary chessboard, and by pleasant example, playing at “playing chess.”
“Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p9

I urge you to step into 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, dressed as a knight of course, head up the stairs, and take your instructions from Georges Perec, you’ll enter a second reality!

Minute-Operas – Frédéric Forte (Translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel)

First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).
Stepping into Frédéric Forte’s work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word creations then perform on this stage created on each page. It is probably best to cite an example.
This example showing the passing of time, the polar opposites of marking off weeks but stating that during a “poem’s construction you never count your days”, ageing and creation (in the wings) whilst the seconds pass on the stage. Complexity all on a single page. To quote the ‘Preface” from “The End of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement” by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esosito;
The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The work which results may be “complete” in itself, but it will gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint.
The poem I have used as an example doesn’t actually fall into the Oulipian section of Frédéric Forte’s work, which in fact comes in phase two, but the concept of the paradox and liberation are stunningly obvious.
This is a collection that forces you to pause, as if in an art gallery, to observe, linger, absorb, reflect before moving on, each poem an artwork in its own right, a creation that can work on numerous levels, artistically, literary, poetically, theatrically or even structurally.
Phase two’s poems come with a “Detailed index of fixed forms” where the poem uses existing poetic forms, either traditional or invented by the Oulipo. Another example for you;

Here the detailed index explains that the poem is a “Quintina. Level-5 quenina. In (central pillar of a house [the title of the poem]) the permutation operates on punctuation marks.” Permutations boundless in this example, I‘ll leave it for you to ponder.
This book is not only a feat of typographical wonder, to even contemplate the translation that would have been required, is a feat in itself. For example, the oulipo ‘heterogram’ “invented by Georges Perec. The letters chosen by the poet (the ten most frequently used in the French alphabet, plus one) cannot be used again before the whole series is completed. In the poem ‘(whistle statue II)’ the letters “SILENTBAROU” go through various iterations as words (eg. Silent Bar: our tale is….) eleven times until they end with the words “burial stone”. How on earth did this originally appear in French and how did the translator make it coherent in English? I’m still astounded, initially upon reading the poem, again when taking my notes, and now when attempting to explain it.
The cover of the book tells us that the content of the poems “also constitute, in their cryptic way, a journal of the poet’s life during the period of composition (2001-2002): his love life, the loss of his father…” unfortunately this depth was something that was personally lost in the translation. Whilst the word games, and cryptic style was extremely impressive, the content, as a cohesive whole, seemed to fall by the wayside.
Phase two of the book containing fifty-five word games for you to explore slowly, wonder upon, stretch your limits, refer to the index and back to the poem, research, ponder. An absolute marvel of potential literature. The first fifty-five poems more structured within the space confines, created by the poet, or simply the limits of the page, but still wonderfully rich and detailed in their construction.

A collection that I think would not be out of place in an art gallery. Illuminating and one I will revisit often, if simply just to be stunned at the creation involved.
In a nut shell this is a book I can’t adequately review, here’s what others have said….if that helps…
“A book as intriguing (by its staging of typographic variations) as it is invigorating (in its micro-narratives).” —Emmanuel Laugier, Le Matricule des Anges n°67 (octobre 2005)
“Extraordinary inventiveness…funny, original, brilliant” —Jean-Michel Espitallier, Caisse à Outils: Un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui (Pocket, 2006)
“positively acrobatic, even balletic” – ALTA Blog
How about you buy a copy and see for yourself? I can guarantee literary lovers, Oulipo readers and poetry aficionados will not be disappointed.