The Poetics of Constraint:
Paul Griffiths’ let me tell you
and the Oulipo

Philip Terry

In his short story “The Count of Monte Cristo”, first published in English in 1969, Italo Calvino gives us the following playful account of the writer Alexandre Dumas at work:

Let us call Alexandre Dumas the writer who must deliver to his publisher as soon as possible a novel in twelve volumes entitled The Count of Monte Cristo. His work proceeds in this fashion: two assistants (Auguste Maquet and P.A. Fiorentino) develop one by one the various alternatives that depart from each single point, and they furnish Dumas with the outline of all the possible variants of an enormous supernovel; Dumas selects, rejects, cuts, pastes, interposes; if a given solution is preferred for well-founded reasons but omits an episode he would find it useful to include, he tries to put together the stub-ends of disparate provenance, he joins them with makeshift links, racks his brain to establish an apparent continuity among divergent segments of future. The final result will be the novel The Count of Monte Cristo to be handed to the printer.

At least partly, this is an accurate description of Dumas’ working methods – he was indeed assisted with his plots by one Auguste Maquet, a failed scholar who provided him with historical and other material – but more importantly, it suggests that all narratives at the moment of composition form part of an infinite network of possible scenarios and alternatives, most of which will have to be left unexplored if the writer is ever to finish their work. This, in turn, suggests a way forward for the contemporary writer: if one were to resurrect the now forgotten alternatives of a past work, might this not enable a new and different story to take shape, a counter-story to the seemingly complete parent-text? Calvino here gives us the blueprint not only to much of his own fiction, “The Count of Monte Cristo” included, but for a rich seam of deconstructive contemporary writing stretching from Tom Stoppard and Angela Carter to Robert Coover and Peter Carey.

Like Stoppard before him, Paul Griffiths in let me tell you explores the margins of Hamlet, giving us the story of Ophelia, but there’s an added twist here – Griffiths tells the story only in the 481 words allotted to her by Shakespeare. This use of a restricted vocabulary is an idea Griffiths inherits from the Oulipo, or Workshop of Potential Literature, of which Calvino was a celebrated member. Yet it’s an idea which Griffiths, as a music critic, would also be familiar with from the work of composers who have worked with restricted palettes, such as the serialism practiced by Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Boulez. In literature its forbears include Perec’s e-less novel La disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void, as well as a growing number of works in English, including Richard Beard’s X20, a novel in 20 chapters covering the first 20 days after its hero gives up smoking 20 cigarettes a day, and Christine Brooke-Rose’s Next, a murder mystery about the London homeless, omitting the verb “to have”. In Griffiths’ case, as in all successful applications of such a constraint, the method springs almost naturally from the material. And miraculously, as we read, first line by line, then page by page, there is no sense of strain, just of a world, a voice, a story, beginning to emerge:

But now and again words come to me as if it rained words in my head – words given me by some other, as if I had no hand in what I say, as if all I may do is give speech, let the words come and come, and go on and on, and whilst they go on I cannot say what I would truly wish to say. I may do nothing, held still by my own words – if they are my own. My words go on, but I cannot speak.

The words describe Ophelia’s existential position, yet they describe too the struggle of the artist working under constraint, a constraint which, here, only accentuates what is inevitably the case in language, that is, as Beckett saw, the difficulty of saying “I”. And one is reminded of Beckett in more ways than this, for the pared down, minimalist, yet paradoxically acrobatic prose that results from writing in the 481 words that make up Ophelian, has much in common with the distilled prose of late Beckett.

Anyone can write using an Oulipian constraint, just as anyone can learn to ride a bicycle without using any hands, but a constraint properly understood, and properly followed, will unfold to reveal that which was always waiting to be told, and will finally do more to generate the story than it will to restrict it. One of the words that Shakespeare doesn’t give to Ophelia is “mother”, and this linguistic accident here serves to determine character. If Ophelia can only refer to her mother as “she” there’s a very good reason for this – she is cruel, selfish, bullying, unfaithful, and sexually insatiable, and likes nothing more than boasting of her conquests to her daughter:

Let’s say it’s like this: each of them will take himself out of his shirt, his long stockings (for I like them to wear long stockings most of the time), and so on. I may sigh, I may moan, to please them. They know I do it for them, and do not mind. How should they mind? They are mine.

Trapped in this domestic hell, Ophelia nevertheless, within her impoverished vocabulary, manages to express herself movingly on her childhood happiness, her love for her father Polonius, her care for and later estrangement from her brother Laertes, and her growing puzzlement in the face of Prince Hamlet himself. Yet the theme of language is never far away. In chapter 4 we meet it again when Ophelia’s maid takes her to visit a mysterious wise woman in the mountains, the Lady Profound, to discover her future. The theme of language, of words given by some other, is here explicitly linked to fate or, in narrative terms, plot, and this in turn is a theme that becomes increasingly central to the novel, both in the sense of fate as determinism and the sense of fate as something that can be wrestled with, as the maid literally wrestles with the Lady Profound at the climax of this chapter. Discussing the use of Oulipian constraints, the poet Jacques Roubaud has argued that the literary work written in such a way should always refer to the constraint under which it is written – here, as Griffiths links language in turn with fate and plot, constraint and theme become indistinguishable, like two sides of a Möbius strip. One of the criticisms often levelled at the Oulipo, is that while they have a great deal to say about form, they have somewhat less to say concerning content. Here, Paul Griffiths demonstrates how in the fully mature Oulipian work – and this is a novel that took its author 14 years to complete, twice as long as it took Joyce to write Ulysses – form and content are one.

One aspect of the novel’s questioning of plot is experienced in the way it suggests counter-narratives to its parent-text. At one point there is a hint that the king may have been suffering from long illness, and that he died of natural causes. At another point there is a faint suggestion that he may have taken his own life. Then there is Ophelia’s lucid judgement on Prince Hamlet’s legendary madness: “I know there are some that think his father’s death made a difference to him, that he was all right before that. But believe me, he was not.” Then, in a passage which offers a luminous new perspective on the “To be or not to be” speech, Ophelia laments the passing of a now distant time when she and Hamlet could speak to each other from the heart, discussing memory, the existence of God, elections, and “being and non-being”. Now, she laments, it is not like that at all:

Now I’ll say something, and I’ll look at him, and he’ll have his head down, his hand over his eyes. If not that, then he’ll go on with some argument, on and on, whilst I’ll be left with nothing to say, and indeed there’ll be nothing to say, for in the end, in all these words, he’ll keep his own counsel.

One of the pleasures of the book is to see its words constantly throw up new surprises, with changes in context creating changes in meaning: a reference to the game Go (a favourite of the Oulipo); occasional flashes of contemporary idiom in phrases like “How’s things?” and “It’s your call”; affectionate echoes of modern subculture in Ophelia’s brother and his pale make-up wearing gang “The Violets”. Then there are some wonderfully distilled reflections on and refractions of music – “Without affection music means nothing”, an observation which may be applied to writing under constraint as much as composing under constraint – culminating in a Beatles song rewritten in Ophelian. And there are numerous passages where the exquisiteness of the thought is breathtaking, and one can’t help thinking that without the constraint the thought would not have been possible:

I have come to know how good, how right, it is to find a hand in mine, not locked but loosed there, touching. There’s a difference now, as I do not have to say. Still, here on the brow of the mountain, with my little brother, this is, I believe, where I find what it’s like to have a hand in my own, find how it would please me – the joy it would give me to know that some other is truly there, with me, as close as a hand’s touching.

A hand is affection. A hand is honour. A hand is honesty.

A hand is mercy, the hand of one to another, a hand to help.

It is holy, the touching of a hand.

A hand given is one of the gifts of the heart.

Increasingly, as the narrative moves towards its conclusion, there is a sense that Ophelia must escape the fate awaiting her in Shakespeare’s play. And our sense of this is only heightened when, on a visit to the royal palace to say her goodbyes, Ophelia, in a quintessentially Freudian scene, reminiscent of one of the key moments in Dora, is sexually propositioned by the new king. If Hamlet has been seen by many as representing the prince trapped in an oedipal triangle, a triangle whose tensions can only be resolved tragically, by violence, here, equally, we could see Ophelia as trapped in a parallel triangle of incipient sexual abuse. It’s a situation which in many writers would lead us inexorably towards a tragic climax, but in Griffiths’ remarkable retelling, Ophelia has the strength, and the lightness, to walk away:

I go out now. I let go of the door, and do not look to see my hand as I take it away.

Snow falls. So: I will go on in the snow. I have my hope with me, and a staff in my hand.