A playful illumination of the complexities, mysteries and absurdities of an obscure French organization devoted to “potential literature.”

Serious wordplay abounds within the experiments of the Oulipo, a Paris-based collective devoted to systematic literary exploration, constraints that free the mind and imagination (such as writing a novel without using the letter e), and devising “real solutions to imaginary problems.” The organization’s pantheon includes Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, while fellow travelers could range from Vladimir Nabokov to Paul Auster. Much of the writing focuses on the processes of writing and reading while an emphasis on language as language trumps such conventional notions of “realism” in character and plot. Words on a page may not be more, but they are never less, than words on a page. American author Becker served an apprenticeship as an archivist before joining the organization in which “anyone who asks to be a member of the Oulipo thereupon becomes inadmissible for life.” The author is also the reviews editor for The Believer, and his self-deprecating reminiscences humanize the book well beyond literary theory, while his tone renders even extended examinations of the organization’s theories and history more palatable than expected. One work is praised for the “Zen-by-way-of-Kafka simplicity of its zero-sum goal,” while the masters rise above mere experimentation: “Like Perec, Calvino was great at bringing humanity into what could otherwise be a soulless structural shell game.” There is a strong mathematical, even scientific, component within the philosophies of these theorist-practitioners, whose field of inquiry (like so much else) has been transformed by computer technology. But there’s also a disarming element of whimsy: “Like any literary treatises worth their salt, the manifestos are unsatisfying; their saving grace is [their]…tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the notion of the manifesto in the first place.” Destined to delight a small, select readership—the Oulipo wouldn’t have it any other way.


Pub Date: April 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-674-06577-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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