Daniel Levin Becker, I salute you

Behold the right, honorable Daniel Levin Becker:

From my ’04-’05 photo reel: Daniel modeling the chef’s apron of a Nantais host mother.

Daniel and I crossed paths in Nantes back in 2004-05. We were among a horde of American (and one Canadian, I should add) students getting university credit through the Institute for the International Education of Students — IES.

This was the year of my living as a free-wheeling characterological amalgam of Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, and Henry Miller — minus the writerly discipline of the trio, if you can imagine what that might mean… I would be lying if I said I didn’t have boatloads of fun. (In fact, no small amount of joy was generated in an unforgettable bar I thought of as the drunken boat, itself a tugboat — ‘Le Remorqueur.’)

What do I remember of Daniel? A nocturnal, ambulatory conversation during which he remarked that he found the format (cover design, spine labelling) of French books more tasteful and appealing than American editions. His saying, over an open-air picnic in the Cours Cambronne, that when he wrote his memoirs he would entitle them Wine in the Park. Loaning him Borges’s Collected Fictions.

Four years later, in 2009, while listening to this Bookworm podcast, I was jolted to alertness when I apprehended that this former classmate had become a full-fledged Oulipian. (I knew some Oulipo basics then because I had acquired the Oulipo Compendium, issue of the magnificent Atlas Press, some years prior.)

Do you know the Oulipo? I’ll restrain myself to some skeleton basics. Oulipo: acronym, meaning: Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature). Membership in the group is a formal matter, and it includes writers and mathematicians who apply combinatorial and permutational procedures to texts. Working within tight self-imposed textual constraints is their bag. The most famous of Oulipian works is La Disparition by Georges Perec, a novel that’s a lipogram for its exclusion of a single letter, the alphabet’s most common one, E. (If you’r uninitiatd to lipograms, viddy a handful of Dan’s in this 2009 intrvw transcript, also a good short intro to Oulipo.) Other notable Oulipians are/were Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud.

Daniel’s election back in the late oughts brought him a trinity of distinctions: he became 1) the youngest of the group (and he still is); 2) the only American (excepting Harry Mathews); and also 3) the only vegetarian (!) of the (living) Oulipians. (Dietary matters aren’t as out-of-the-blue as they might seem, given that regular Oulipo functions include meals together. ‘The culinary part is a source of unending angst,’ Daniel confessed when I congratulated him on his election to the circle…)

Many Subtle Channels is published this year by Harvard University Press. It’s as good a place as any — better than most, although the Oulipo Compendium, edited by longtime member Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, merits mention in this regard — to get a handle on the Oulipo. (I’ve read excerpts and snippets of MSC. I tell myself I’ll not read it until I read a few more core Oulipian texts than I already have.) It’s a little astonishing to me, — worthy of acknowledgement, certainly, although I’ve not seen this fact considered in and of itself by anyone yet — that Harvard University Press is the book’s publisher. That’s a rare credential for any writer under thirty! Levin Becker also had a brief feature in the Wall Street Journal. He’s given readings and held public discussions with Joshua Cohen and Scott Esposito and written reviews for the American Book Review. He is the reviews editor at The Believer. Listen to him interviewed at length here.

I just noticed that his lowercase initials, used for a Twitter handle (@dlb), exhibit bilateral symmetry, are an optic palindrome.

Kudos to this rising young American writer!

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