**Natalie Berkman, OuLiPo and the Mathematics of Literature (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2022) xiv 326 pp. £51.85 ebook. £51.85 Pb. ISBN: 9781789977806**

In* OuLiPo and the Mathematics of Literature*, Natalie Berkman traces the origins of Oulipo and its connections to the history of mathematics. She explores the influence of mathematics on Oulipo, an avant-garde movement which produces experimental literature and art, and through close readings and genetic criticism, Berkman challenges C. P. Snow’s ‘two-culture distinction’. In a lecture on the two cultures, Snow differentiated between the Humanities and the Sciences, arguing that there is a ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ separating the two disciplines (6). Snow’s 1959 lecture was given just before the inception of Oulipo in 1960, and Berkman points out that Oulipo is an ‘interdisciplinary endeavour’ because of its engagement in ‘mathematical thought’ (269). This kind of thought, as Berkman defines it, is used in literature and mathematics when ‘recognizing abstract patterns and making generalizations’ (18).

In the introduction to the text, Berkman poses three general questions which are central to her thesis. These questions are underpinned by Berkman’s critique of the two cultures debate:

‘1. Given the ludic nature of Oulipo and its tendency toward humor, is it wise to take the members at face value when they declare an explicit mathematical project? In other words, is Oulipo’s use of mathematics a serious scientific exploration of language and literature or rather a symbolic, metaphorical reference to another discipline?

2. If Oulipo’s use of mathematics is indeed to be taken seriously, is it feasible? Mathematical language is a formal, non-natural language and seems incompatible with literary language. How then does Oulipo propose to write literature with mathematics?

3. If Oulipo is using mathematics to write, the resulting texts are meant to be read by a reader who may have little to no formal mathematical training. What can literature teach such a reader about mathematics or rather, about mathematical thought?’ (16).

In an attempt to answer these questions, Berkman explores mathematical thought through Oulipo’s pedagogical methodologies. Methods, such as the constraint, are aimed at teaching the reader different reading strategies. The mathematics within Oulipian productions is difficult, and Oulipians do not excessively simplify it, but its aims are to encourage active reading which is intended to be beneficial to learning, not just about mathematics, but also the structures of language.

In terms of the wider context, Berkman’s text is part of the Modern French Identities series, which includes studies on Modernism (Volume 50) and Camus (Volume 38). Berkman notes some texts in the wider field of Oulipo studies, such as Philip Terry’s edited volume *The Penguin book of Oulipo *(2019) and Dennis Duncan’s *The Oulipo and Modern Thought* (2019). In the introduction, Berkman evaluates the ‘State of the Field’, which is a good structural tool with which to discuss ‘constrained’ literature. These type of texts contain a constraint, which is a ‘rigorously defined rule for composition: sometimes a generative device that produces a text through an easily applied procedure; sometimes, it is rather a challenge that incites textual production on the part of an author’ (11). This section of the book also reveals Berkman’s major point in her thesis that Oulipo is ‘more relevant than ever’ in the age of Digital Humanities (13).

From the start of the text, Berkman explores the entanglement, or spiralled nature, of mathematics and literature. She chooses lesser-known, but important, mathematicians and writers to illustrate her point that mathematics and literature have intertwined histories. For example, although Berkman goes back to Euclid and famous Greek mathematics in Chapter One on ‘Set Theory’, she does not mention either Newton or Leibniz, two major and well-known figures in Western mathematics. This omission is partly due to the focus being on the (mostly) French group of mathematicians called Bourbaki, who are explored in depth so much so that the research does not suffer for these omissions. The author’s ideas are well developed, and the text represents knowledge of different areas of mathematics, as the variety of mathematical fields in the chapter titles show. However, although part of the Modern French Identities series, for a non-French speaker, the text’s untranslated French quotations come as a limitation; at times I felt like I was missing too much information. This may have been an Oulipian strategy, because it stresses the activity of the reader, and there is an essence of constraint here, which is produced by the French rather than the mathematical language. Yet, I’m not sure that Berkman’s monograph is a conscious attempt at constraint, or meaning to be self-reflexive in that way. It is, rather, an academic study intended for Anglo-French readers, as the rest of the Modern Identities series is. Another limitation is that there is not much engagement with other avant-garde movements, but Berkman reproduces quite beautiful Oulipo art, and these images complement the experimental, or potential, writing in a visual way, adding to the understanding of how the languages of mathematics and art combine.

At the end of the text, Berkman lists the aims of her research. One aim was to show that the ‘value of Oulipo’s production is not purely literary’ (270). She qualifies this aim by directing us to the relevance of mathematical literature to Digital Humanities, and to the contribution of literature, particularly, Oulipo, to mathematical thought. This engagement, Berkman argues, can help to ‘bridge the gap’ between Humanities and STEM fields (21). The obscurity of Oulipo, even in universities (perhaps less so in French universities), makes the ultimate aim of bridging of the two cultures seem optimistic, but the cultures have narrowed since Snow’s lecture. This monograph has demonstrated that mathematical thought and literary language can and do combine and mutually enhance each other. The text, finally, plays a part in narrowing the gap between the two cultures by providing examples of how Oulipian and mathematical histories intertwine, explaining that Oulipo is a major French iteration of experimental interdisciplinary work. With the rise of interdisciplinary research, particularly in the Humanities, it is important to consider how the understanding of different disciplines can contribute to knowledge, and this is what this monograph successfully does.

**Elizabeth Trafford**, Keele University