By Ken Zurski
Beginning with the first line of the first chapter, “Incurably insomniac Anton Vowl turns on a light,” and in every sentence thereafter, nearly 300 pages in all, there are no words with the letter “e” in the French novel, A Void.
Not just words that start with “e,” mind you, but any word with “e” in it. Therefore, while words with an “e” are consciously left out, in the context of the text, they don’t actually exist.
This was the brainchild of author George Perec, who wrote the book La disparition (disappearance) in 1969, and was later translated to English in 1994 as A Void.
Why a writer would take on such an unusual challenge defies explanation. A good author should add to his repertoire of tools, not subtract them, right? So leaving out a vowel, especially the most popular one, just doesn’t make any sense.
To clarify, according to the book “From Cryptographical Mathematics,” “e” is the most commonly used letter in the English language and nearly 13-percent of all words contain it, at least once.
For example, the first sentence of this very article has nearly 40 words in it; sixteen words containing at least one “e,” for a total of 22. So excluding it, even in French, which uses the same English letters, seemed to be an insurmountable task.
But this is exactly the kind of discourse Perec reveled in.
Perec was born to Polish Jew immigrants, both victims of the war– his father died a soldier and his mother likely perished at Auschwitz. He started writing at the University of Paris and joined a fringe literary group named Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or “Oulipo,” for short. The name means “literature potential,” but certainly not potential in the practical sense. “[We] seek new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” the group described. To achieve this, constraints (in writing) were encouraged, which was far more challenging. The group also included mathematicians since problem-solving was part of the writer’s methodology and often involved works that delved in complicated mathematical patterns. Suddenly Perec had a mission, as did the group, to experiment and twist the conventional rules of fiction.
A Void, therefore, is a lipogram, meaning a single letter is left out.
The French or Latin alphabet is similar to English and vowels are the same, expect written with accents like ê. So the prose is somewhat disjointed, especially in translation.
The protagonist of Perec’s story is a detective named Anton Vowl (Voyl in French) who must confront a missing void, possibly his own, in a world of impending doom. “I must admit right away that its origin was totally haphazard,” Perec writes in the book’s postscript, perhaps tongue in cheek. “I had no inkling at all, as an acorn contains an oak, that anything would come out of it.”
Some literary critics, however, have established a deeper implication. After all, Perec was a Holocaust orphan. Perhaps the loss of his mêre (mother), pêre (father) and familie, one modern day writer surmised, are words he cannot repeat. All have the letter “e” in them. The missing “e,” therefore, is his personal void.
“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,” author Warren Motte speculates in an article about Perec written in 2104.
Perec’s later work would be equally complicated and puzzling. He even wrote a novel where ê was the only vowel used.
Many feel his greatest literary contribution is a 700-page book titled Life a User’s Manual, another exercise of intricacies. “The sequence of chapters in the novel is determined by a figure from chess known as the “Knight’s Tour,” in which a knight visits every square of the chessboard once and only once,” Motte writes.
And If that wasn’t interesting enough, there is the constraint: ‘Perec used an algorithm, “orthogonal Latin bi-square order 10,’ to elaborate pre-established lists of the 42 different elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, and so forth), that would figure in each of the ninety-nine chapters of Life.”
In 1982, at the age of 45, Perec, a chain smoker, died of lung cancer.
Even sick, Perec continued to work at a feverish pace. “There was not a day gone by that he didn’t write,” a friend ascribed. Shortly before his death, Perec sent a letter to his publisher. It was reported to be a list of works he wanted to complete.
Sadly, we will never know what he had in mind.