Proteotypes: Painting at Dora

Proteotypes: Painting at Dora

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by FRANÇOIS LE LIONNAIS
translated by DANIEL LEVIN BECKER
François Le Lionnais is best known as the cofounder in 1960 of the OuLiPo. That group, made up of writers and mathematicians, invented rigorous constraints, often mathematical, to be imposed on literary composition.

Painting at Dora, first written in 1945 shortly after his escape from the Nazi forced-labor camp at Dora-Nordlingen, is not an Oulipian work. It describes instead a long, life-sustaining conversation with Jean Gaillard, a fellow-prisoner, about everything under the sun, but especially painting. Le Lionnais’ loving descriptions of pictures and the acts of imaginal “seeing” they provoked kept them both from despair. Seen simply as memoir, the book is a moving testimony to the power of art and of comradeship to make life bearable in the most adverse, soul-killing circumstances.

Towards the end, however, Le Lionnais describes another game he played alone. It consisted of “establishing communications between two or more works, or grafting onto one elements taken from the other.” Putting some lissome Fragonard nudes into Courbet’s somber A Burial at Ornans, for instance. Perhaps without knowing it, he was practicing a constraint, the chimera, invented centuries before the founding of Oulipo. It consists of replacing certain types of words in one text, nouns perhaps, with the same type of words drawn from another. But more important than the specific technique is the delight this game reveals Le Lionnais taking in the potential, the concept at the heart of the work of OuLiPo. No work of art is ever finished, he implies. It always contains more joys, more meanings waiting to be released. He makes only one exception to this rule:

…it seems to me nearly impossible to add or subtract anything in certain of Cezanne’s still-lives. I think particularly of those apples once unveiled at the Orangerie (at the back of the large oval room, to the left of the door): a certain barrier of potential hangs around that work, preventing one from penetrating it to modify anything. If it were not a joke to speak of the “thing itself,” it would be there that one should go looking for it.

The strong spirit that can lead a man to find “the thing itself” in a Cézanne rather than in the brutal starkness of prison-camp existence lights up this book from one end to the other.