However Obliquely: Georges Perec’s “La Disparition”

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What do you call a fish with no eyes? A fsh.

What do you call a novel with no E’s? La Disparition.

The origin of this literary curio was, according to its author, Georges Perec, “totally haphazard, touch and go, a flip of a coin. It got all out of hand with a companion calling my bluff (I said I could do it, this companion said I could not).” What started as “faintly amusing, if that,” ended up taking Perec’s “imagination down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, plunging into it again and again, at last giving up all my ongoing work, much of which I was actually about to finish.” He did finish this one, and in the 40-odd years since its publication in 1969, it has become one of the flagship texts of the French avant-garde group Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature, OuLiPo for short—a flagship text even if a) it’s not considered Perec’s best work (1978’s Life A User’s Manual generally is) and b) as a simple linguistic constraint, it only represents a fraction of the group’s many interests (which range from antique poetic forms to the intersection of computers, mathematics, and literature).

La Disparition French edition

I said that La Disparition—literally “the disappearance,” or, in Gilbert Adair’s 1994 prize-winning translation, the only complete published English translation, A Void[1]—is a novel with no E’s. Yes, at nearly 300 E-less pages, this novel is a monster example of what’s known to the OuLiPo and other folks interested in the zanier potentialities of language as a “lipogram.” A lipogram, as defined by the Larousse dictionary (whose definition Perec seems to OK in his own “History of the Lipogram” essay), is a “literary work in which one compels oneself strictly to exclude one or several letters of the alphabet.” Perec explains that the word for the constraint comes from the Greek leipo, “I leave” and, while offering alternate spellings in various languages, notes that in English they say “lipogram or, occasionally, letter-dropping. This, of course, when they do say it, for most of the time they do not say it at all.”

The idea of a book-length word game might amuse, puzzle, or annoy you—at least I think my reaction to hearing about A Void comprised all these feelings. “Wow! I wonder what that would look like? But how could such an exercise produce Art? And who even cares, Georges?” In his recent and engrossing book on the OuLiPo, American member and Believer reviews editor Daniel Levin Becker observes that “people regularly beg off taking the time to read La Disparition, because they know what the trick is: it’s a book without the letter E.” I think I felt that urge to dismiss it, too, though less because I craved books with trickier tricks than because the idea of actually reading the thing seemed tedious. Still, somehow I ended up with a $5 used copy jammed in with the other P’s on my shelf, and sometime this summer I decided—flat out of conventional inspiration? sick and tired of the psychological realism I’ve been struggling to write these past two years? in need of fodder for an MQR post?—to give it a go.

Right away I was having fun, thanks as much to the weird circumlocutions created by avoiding the most common letter of the alphabet (in English or French) as Perec’s sometimes-cheeky, sometimes-bawdy, always-playful sense of humor. So, instead of the protagonist’s “ears,” it’s “his auditory organs (as doctors say)” that get cleaned in the first chapter. At the funeral of a minor character, Hassan Ibn Abbou, it’s not OuLiPo grandfather “Raymond Queneau” who makes a cameo—can’t be, can it?—but “Raymond Q. Knowall.” With every line, every word, every syllable (check out for yourself the book’s E-less yet metrically intact renderings of famous poetry like “William Shakspar’s ‘Living, or not living’ soliloquy’ or “John Milton’s On His Glaucoma”!) you get a real sense of the “fun” Perec had writing La Disparition, the fun that he talks about in the book’s postscript: “fun, principally… in my ambition of participating, of collaborating, in a common policy to adopt a radical, willfully conflictual position vis-à-vis fiction, a position that… might still chart a path along which fiction could again find an inspiration, a charm, a stimulus, in narrational virtuosity of a sort thought lost for good.”

A Void English edition

Alongside this fun comes a good bit of awkwardness, as you can see in the above quotation. Perec’s sentences in this novel are often dense and convoluted—recall as well the “linguistic highways and byways” mentioned earlier. Part of my reading experience, for the first 50 or so pages, included tripping over the word-toys Perec has left scattered about and picking up after him by “translating” his solutions to his lipogrammatic constraint into their more common, off-limits counterparts: ah, so “blood is racing through his body” because it can’t race through his “veins,” “18 springs pass” because “eighteen years” can’t. These kinds of textual speed bumps can be part of the “fun,” part of the reader’s conversation with the writer, or they can be distractions that cause others to put the book away, if not in frustration than because they’ve seen all they need to here. But in my opinion pushing through the remaining 250 pages is absolutely crucial to experiencing A Void.

Part of what kept me going was trusting that what the writer was up to would transcend the level of language. Indeed, by studying the table of contents, I could see that Perec had used the local lipogram in E as a structuring principle for the novel at large: there are 26 chapters—well 25, once you notice that the fifth one is missing (and marked by a blank page between the end of chapter four and the start of six). But wait, there’s more! The novel’s central character is a man named Anton Vowl. Its plot? Vowl goes missing.

Still, considering we’ve got a mystery story on our hands, a whodunit, aren’t we still in the realm of fun and games (and awkwardness—trust me, the plot manages to sidestep, spiral, and spawn just as frustratingly and deliciously as the language itself)? Yes and no. Watch how Perec weds the fun with the grave: “‘Now, apart from a handful of scraps, you still lack information on Anton’s abduction and Hassan’s… passing away.’ (Prim Olga was always loath to say that basic D-word that for many in our civilisation is still a major taboo.)” In this example, Perec isn’t merely avoiding the word “death” in a clever way and then—cherry on top—pointing his cleverness out to us. Sure he’s doing that, but he’s also dropping us clues to help us solve the more abstract mystery of his novel: not “What happened to Anton Vowl?” but “What is all this actually about?”

A novel missing a letter, a novel with a missing protagonist—such a novel just might have something to say about absence. This is why, for me, reading past those first stilted 50 pages is so essential to being moved by this book. To begin with, that stiltedness itself is what alerts us to an absence in the first place (keep in mind that early readers of La Disparition wouldn’t necessarily have known about the lipogram going in—in fact Levin Becker quotes a disappointed reviewer who finished the book without ever actually putting his finger on what was strange or “wrong” with it), so Perec’s circumlocutions, comedic or not, brilliantly use the book’s most basic units (words!) to recreate the bewildering pain of going without, of loss. Then, if we keep reading, something more chilling happens: we get used to the absence of the E. We learn to live under the tyrannical and tyrannically whimsical reign of the lipogram, down our most frequently used letter. We learn to step around the mess rather than clean it up, forgetting that the floor was ever any tidier. And since, by shaping his novel (a genre novel at that) around a formal constraint, Perec ostensibly eschews the ambition of breaking our hearts, I was astonished to find that he had, via my brain, hit me in mine.

Georges Perec with cat

“But Perec is a darling to a lot of people, a sort of benevolent spirit animal…” (Levin Becker)

All this I’m relating about absence and loss Perec says pretty much without saying it, the same way his characters—who, following Vowl’s disappearance, one by one fall prey to some vague and hard-to-articulate predator—sense what’s up without being able to name it. Thus the book also has something to do with the “taboo” mentioned above. Of the mysterious Malignancy, one of the characters says, “Nobody’s willing to talk about it, to put a word to it…” A Void’s concern with taboo might be illuminated by certain details from Perec’s biography: how World War II orphaned the writer—his father dying in the military and his mother in a concentration camp. Yet we can find some optimism in Perec’s negotiation of the taboo: “An apparently trivial constraint would thus have given Perec the means of approaching a subject that he had not succeeded in facing directly,” writes Ian Monk in the Oulipo Compendium, pointing out that the French word eux (them), prohibited by Perec’s chosen constraint, “may stand in for the author’s parents, both of whom disappeared during his early childhood.” Levin Becker, too, cites the idea that “foregrounding the technical in order to take pressure off the personal” paradoxically allows the personal “to express itself more or less organically.” He also suggests that it’s Perec’s “use of his work to express (however obliquely) his personal preoccupations… that made him more than what [fellow Oulipo bigwig Jacques] Roubaud calls a ‘composer of literature’—that made him an honest-to-goodness writer.”

(If you find Perec anything like an inspiration, a charm, or a stimulus, look for a post next month on the OuLiPo as a whole.)

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[1] Discussing the issue of translating La Disparition, or really any OuLiPo text, would take its own post, by me or someone else.

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