Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Void: Book without the Letter E

After I wrote (in an earlier post) about OuLiPo and constraint-based writing, I decided to read A Void, a translation by Gilbert Adair of the French novel La Disparition by Georges Perec (1936-1982), which avoids all words with the letter E: a lipogram. I expected the language to be stilted, that perhaps this book was a novelty at best. Surprise! It is funny and witty, and the plot kept me keep reading. Not only was Perec a masterful writer, but so was Adair (1944-2011).

The summary on the back is also E-less, but I have neither the patience nor the skill to write this post as a lipogram. So, there shall be Es.

Opening the book, I was wary: would I be able to read it? Would it make sense? I was worried about archaic language used as work-arounds, and I was completely conscious of searching every word for Es. It began violently funny and funny how violent: a description of starvation that could be humorous? "You'd kill your own kith and kin for a chunk of salami, your cousin for a crust, your crony for a crouton and just about anybody at all for a crumb" (viii). Welcome to this world. Could Perec/Adair refrain from using the pronoun "he" for the first protagonist Anton Vowl? He does. The only noticeable word replacement is "whilst" for "while." We see the sly writers' workings with, "'And now for a public announc—'…Damn that static!" (4). And we're off!

Insomniac Vowl is searching his rug for a "missing strand" (6), and he hallucinates or dreams of a bookshelf with 26 numbered books, but number 5, of course is missing (E), and there is no gap for it. This is "a void," (13) or one of many. The number 5 becomes symbolic, the pivot for many of the following plot twists. Suspicious, I went back to the table of contents and mai oui! There is no chapter 5 here, either. Vowl keeps a diary, which lists many activities that seem strange to him, including, "a compositor at a printing plant wilfully [sic] vandalising his own typographic apparatus" (26). French and Italian phrases are employed to avoid the words "yes" and "me" (28). Vowl disappears. Aha! 
It is a mystery. The hunt for the missing person is on, and along the way we discover complications and new plots.

Vowl's diary is the source for numerous texts within the text, primarily rewrites of famous poems and stories sans E. Moby Dick is one of the first (short! 69-73), later we find "Living, or Not Living" by William Shakspar, "Vocalisation" by Arthur Rimbaud ("Vowels," with reference to the E omitted) and "Black Bird" by Arthur Gordon Pym (104-108). When you get to "Quoth that Black Bird, 'Not Again,'" you realize where you are. But how is Arthur Gordon Pym a stand-in for Edgar Allan Poe? I chased AGP down to a novel by Poe: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), which turns out also to have been an inspiration for Melville's Moby Dick  (1851). This is way too clever for me, and I know there are other literary allusions I am missing. Ah, so perhaps that is part of the conceptual point: finding the void in the reader's knowledge as well. Even if you don't get them all, the allusions are fun.

A "zahir" appears, definitely (more sleuthing here) in reference to a 1949 story El Zahir by Jorge Luis Borges: the translation of "zahir" is "the surface, or apparent meaning of things" or "something that creates an obsession," which is the subject of this entire book.

The book even refers to itself (or its author) as one character expounds to another, "It was born out of a mad and morbid whim: that of wholly satisfying a fascination with linguistic gratuity, with proscription and subtraction, that of avoiding any word striking its author as too obvious, too arrogant or too common…from constraint is born autonomy" (177-178). And later, even more clearly as a character strives to remember a book "that would contain a solution to his plight" was it, "La Disparition? Or Adair's translation of it?" (201).

Another notable play with words on page 212: "Alas and alack for Alaric and his lass!"

As I read further, I decided that the main word consciously avoided is "death" (décès in French). Amaury, one of the other characters, in a much longer monologue, says, "It is, I say to you, by our saying nothing, by our playing dumb, that this Law of 'an I for an I' that's pursuing us today is still so strong…Nobody's willing to talk about it, to put a word to it, so causing us all to fall victim to a form of damnation of which nothing is known." (197). An article about Perec suggests that La Disparition refers not only to disappearances, but to the Holocaust. His father was "killed in action…and his mother died in a concentration camp."  Perec was saved by relatives, who changed his name from Peretz to Perec, to avoid sounding Jewish, and this linguistic change saved him. 

The previous passage perhaps confirms the truth that death is unavoidable and also a mystery, but reading it within the context of Perec's life gives it an even darker meaning. It is possible he was treating heavy subject of Nazi occupation with many layers, including comedy and metaphor, to make it readable. My first impression was that while it may color the writing/reading, it was a bit of a stretch. But by page 244 and this line, "this man in whom such wrath was stoking up such fanaticism and who would go all out to find us," I wasn't so sure. Page 265 brought sharper focus: "…why not you? By rights, your surviving such a holocaust is illogical."

The wild ride eventually stopped, all mysteries were raveled or unraveled or left with just a void; they were quite complex and became stranger and stranger as the historical link seemed clearer, or at least more plausible, if not a bit depressing. In the postscript, Perec described the reason he undertook the task and the hope that he would be able to go deeply into his imagination in a way he couldn't without the constraint. He wrote, "Initially I found such a constraint faintly amusing…it took my imagination down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways, I couldn't stop thinking about it…at last giving up all my ongoing work…" (282). Did it work? The turnings of the ending were almost too confusing, but overall, worth the read. The fact that it had a constraint did not hurt it in the end, it was actually important to the plot. I think this is an excellent example of a book where form and function are intertwined and necessary.

Once he finished La Disparition, Perec collected all the Es he had avoided, and in 1972 wrote a new book entertaining E as the only vowel called, Les Revenentes.


Mary V Marsh said...

I read Life A User's Manual and I had heard about this book but was afraid to try it, thank you for forging ahead for all of us and this detailed and hilarious description!

Alisa said...

Thanks, Mary! And Hello!