Friday, July 15, 2011

A Void (La Disparition)–Georges Perec

A Lipogrammatic Synopsis ---- which with artful constraint will focus savor, nay passion and by addition of vigorous acuity and highbrow purport, may transplant mirth as though a frolicking Pan full of ambrosial liquor.

As his country is torn apart by social and political anarchy, Anton Vowl, known capricious kook and insomniac, is missing. Ransacking his Paris accommodation (turning all up and down, all in & out), his top, top pals scour his diary for hints to his location. At first look, nothing is in plain sight, all is myopic, but Vowl's inclination for word play, notably  for "lipograms" (compositions in which a particular symbol, pictograph or syllabary is A.W.O.L.) is commonly known. But as his chums start to work out Vowl's word labyrinth’s, tracking through various trails amongst Vowl’s data, his companions start to go missing, 1 by1 by 1, and with  mystifying Fortuna. Through this story you and I follow Vowl’s cohorts, trailing (magnifying glass in hand)  through a Gordian knot of distractions, convolutions & fog bound motifs, forming a Rubics squarish form of a madcap roaming, with foul play and slayings a constant quandary and a garishly Faustian conclusion. A Void is a philosophical whodunit, a bloodhound, P.I., a shoofly  story, chock-full of plots and unfolding's, of trails in pursuit of pathways, it’s as though Dr Watson’s brainy companion was caught running through a phantasmagoric vista, with  brushwork by Miró * or his kind .

All of which affords this books author occasion to display his virtuosity as a lingual magician, acrobat, and lugubrious buffoon, a mad calculus doctor piling word upon word in a foolish, rash, cloud-soaring ziggurat, a monstrous burj of Babil.

It is also a flagitious  garrulous  stunt: a 280 odd folio fiction that on no occasion  puts to work a  particular symbol that falls twixt D and F.  Adair's translation, is also mind-bogglingly astounding  and full of dark art, it also constricts it’s wording choosing to follow its original  authors lipogrammatic constraint and in doing so fashions a book that has no ilk, no comparisons, that  lights its own trail with  lamps and flash bangs, prior to skipping, dancing, tripping, prancing, 1 instant a figurant or Prima, anon a hippopotamus, an aardvark. A non-tabloid with an autonym such as “Chrono”  broadcast this summary  "a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana of humour, pathos, and loss.".

Wikipedia (Miro - Tilled Field)



The Biography

Georges Perec was the only child of Icek Judko and Cyrla (Schulewicz) Peretz – Polish Jews who emigrated to France in the 1920s, moving to Belleville,  a working class district of Paris. Perec’s father  died in 1940, as an enlisted soldier in the French army and his mother perished in a concentration camp, probably in Auschwitz. From 1942 he was raised by his paternal aunt Esther and her husband David Bienenfeld, a successful pearl trader and was officially adopted by them in 1945. After graduating from a boarding school, Perec went on to study history and sociology at the Sorbonne and started writing reviews and essays for the Nouvelle Revue Française and Les Lettres Nouvelles. Between 1958 – 59 he served in the army, on discharge he married  Paulette Petras and spent a few years in Tunis, working as an archivist at the Neurophysiological Research Laboratory attached to the Hospital Saint-Antoine where  he remained until his literary activity allowed him to support himself financially. He died of cancer at the age of forty-five in 1982.

Perec's first novel, Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties) was awarded the Prix Renaudot in 1965. His most famous novel, La Vie mode d'emploi (Life: A User's Manual), was published in 1978. Its title page describes it as "novels”.


The Details

A Void is Gilbert Adair’s translation of the original French novel La Disparition (The Disappearance) by Georges Perec, written in 1969 as a  lipogrammatic novel, it is written in its entirety without the letter E, following Oulipo constraints. Georges Perec was a member of Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo), in English, Workshop of potential literature, a Paris-based group of writers founded by Raymond Queneau in 1960. Oulipo attempts to expand literature by the use of formal patterns from other domains such as mathematics, logic or chess, these constraints are used as a means of triggering ideas and inspirations. Perec himself has used palindromes, lipograms & the  Knight's Tour .

Knight's tour (wiki)

By choosing this constraint you deprive yourself with one essential article “The” and approximately two thirds of the English language, In French Perec’s native language the situation is even worse, with only around an eighth of the vocabulary left  for use

Warren Motte, writing an article on Perec in the literary magazine Context, interprets the themes of the book as follows.

"The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning. Perec cannot say the words père ["father"], mère ["mother"], parents ["parents"], famille ["family"] in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec. In short, each "void" in the novel is abundantly furnished with meaning, and each points toward the existential void that Perec grappled with throughout his youth and early adulthood. A strange and compelling parable of survival becomes apparent in the novel, too, if one is willing to reflect on the struggles of a Holocaust orphan trying to make sense out of absence, and those of a young writer who has chosen to do without the letter that is the beginning and end of écriture ["writing"]."

In French, the phrase "sans e" ("without e") sounds very much like "sans eux" ("without them"), another encrypted reference to loss

In the afterword of this book Georges Perec, states

But I ought admit right away that its origin was totally haphazard, touch and go, a flip of a coin. It all got out of hand with a companion calling my bluff (I said I could do it, this companion said I could not); and I should admit, too, that so inauspiciously was that launching pad, I had no inkling at all that, as an acorn contains an oak, anything solid would grow out of it. Initially I found such a constraint faintly  amusing , if that; but I stuck to my guns. At which point, finding that it took my imagination down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways.


An Opinion

Georges Perec goes on to say that he couldn’t stop thinking about it to the detriment of all his other projects, now in my small way I came to understand this obsession, whilst writing the synopsis and final conclusion although they only total 500  words it also became all absorbing, left me constantly working out  word combinations,waking from dreams with half remembered solutions, possible replacement for my usual language choices, scouring dictionaries, thesauruses etc., trying to find the right words to convey the idea of the tale and my joyous love of it. Georges Perec is seen as a literary experimentalist, who was intrigued by the question of form, he once suggested that his work was dominated by four major themes “a passion for the apparently trivial details of everyday life, an impulse toward confession and autobiography, a will toward formal innovation, and a desire to tell engaging, absorbing stories” This book is a fantastic, capricious, incredible, wonderful, hallucinatory, delight, it made me think, it made me laugh, really laugh.


A Final Conclusion - In which with sly confabulation and brash hubbub, I solicit your  appraisal.

Now that my cunning articulation has put this locution/opinion within thy company, I’m surmising a grin with stunning alacrity has burst upon your physiognomy, if this is so, if my ruminations upon said book bring forth a liking, a passion, nay an anxious torrid compulsion to own this fantabulous work, may I humbly but with burning ardour applaud your  scholarly, highbrow smart thinking and  acclaim your accord, thus with jovial  thanks I go forth and part your  auspicious company.

Thanks Parrish.

I read this book in tandem with Gina Choe At  Gina Choe blogs books in translation and she has written a fantastic post on this book, she also has a bit of an Oulipo mania, so has a wealth of other information on this fascinating subject. Please take the time and check  her site out.

Georges Perec(wiki)


Georges perec(Scriptorium)


* Joan Miró


  1. Love how the synopsis at the top, and your paragraph at the bottom, follow no 'e's. I tried this book, became horribly lost halfway through and abandoned it. Did you notice, though, that the second part of the book is missing? I think it goes from part 1 to part 3 to follow the missing e as part 2 would correspond to e in the vowels: a,e,i,o,u. Perec and you are far more intellectual than I.

  2. p.s. Totally off subject, I love the Oulipo template on WordPress, and even found one for Blogger. Perhaps I will use it for my blog again one day knowing its background. Not to mention its simplistic beauty.

  3. great review love the fact you did it as well missed the e and the knights tour widget is great fun ,all the best stu

  4. Hi Bellezza, yes I did, Perec's a. Intellectual, I just obsess about things I love & this really grasped me, hence obsession, my Lipogram merely started with the intro - which increased & became the description, on which I then found myself becoming fascinated by, could I increase it, add detail. Much to my wife & daughters amusement, then one day it reached 350 words, but I kept coming up with new combinations. I'd stop leave it for a few days then start, it really did take over my thought processes & about month in total to write as I kept adding bits to my wifes annoyance & laughter.
    Try one It's great fun, but beware also addictive.

  5. Thanks Stu, as I said above the Lipogram was fun to compose, if slightly addictive(very) . The Knights tour is entertaining isn't it, came courtesy of the great Wiki, & was used by Perec in Life, a users manual, which is on my list of books I must read now.

  6. Suffice it to say, I am most impressed by your ability to write without an e! (An interesting task I may set before my students, and self, in the autumn.)

    Even the stupid word verification can't follow such constraints, at least in the case. My word is "supecoa". ;)

  7. Remarkable that you were able to accomplish this without using the letter e. So in awe. Great job.

  8. I wonder if, when one read this book without prior knowledge that it lacked an e, whether one will eventually discover the trick?

  9. Gary, you have blown my post out of the water. WELL DONE with the lipogram!!! And the "sans e"/"sans eux" point--I had missed that!
    Thanks for linking--I've updated my post with yours as well.

    And it's becoming more and more clear that I need a new blog name. What a boring name that is also a sentence!!

  10. Ciao Bellezza, should be a fun challenge for your students, let us know how it goes.

    Hi Lena, Thanks and congrats with the Nikki Giovanni Interview & spotlight poetry comp, seems to be going really well.

    Hello Rise, Great question & one I'm not sure of, I think what would probably happen, is that you'd become aware of something slightly strange, which would build within you. Whether you'd obsess enough to track the issue or you'd just become absorbed in the writing will depend on the kind of reader you are, or the reason behind your reading of this book (criticism, educational etc.)

    Hi Gina, Thanks for the inspiration for the original read & your comment, as for my "sans" quote it was about a months obsessional googling, writing etc. Any ideas on a name & will it be translation related, something like Lingua Franca?

  11. I cannot believe you managed your own review without that lovely letter between D and E. Amazing! I'm going to give this one a try.

  12. Hi Col, try it, all you need is access to a couple of dictionaries & a thesaurus, but be warned it promotes obsessional behavior & can lead to addiction.

  13. Gosh, that sounds like a real intellectual challenge and it obvioulsy got under your skin - much as my Austerlitz review did with me.

    "it also became all absorbing, left me constantly working out word combinations,waking from dreams with half remembered solutions. . ." - but perhaps I wasn't quite in that condition! And to manage so many words without a letter between D and F - what an achievement. It reminds me slightly of Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea which is similarly constrained by the availability of particular letters!

    A great review - you deserve a medal for that one Parrish

  14. Thanks tom, I've been enjoying your Austerlitz posts, Yes this writer definitely got under my skin want to read more of his work, as for the Lipogram,try one it;'s is an entertaining way to spend some time.
    PS. Googled Dunn's book & sounds like something I'd enjoy, so thanks for that.

  15. That is a most unusual book! I trust that writing a summary didn't cost you too many pains... ;)

  16. Hi Tony, It took about a month of nightly obsession, but was enjoyable in fact became addictive & would be heard chortling away to myself, if I created a phrase that I particularly liked - had my wife & daughter worried for a bit.

  17. Great review ... and I guess the good thing about such a challenge is that it really makes you think and would stop you ("you" as in "one") from reaching for the next cliche or piece of jargon in you review.

    Did your wife and daughter join in the game?

  18. Fantastic job on your e-lessness! Would love to see you review more of Perec's books and try your hand at some of his other tricks.

  19. Hi whisperinggums, yes trying to find ways just to not use words such as, the, he she, they & at the end of the synopsis I placed a quote from a Newspaper, but couldn't use the papers name, as it had an E in it.

    Hello Isabella, have considered other ones & not just Perec.


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Thanks, Parrish.