A Void

When Richard first mentioned an upcoming shared read of George Perec’s 1969 novel A Void, I was immediately intrigued. Like a lot of readers, I was particularly taken with the idea of a 300-page novel that does not use the letter e. How would that work? Would the prose be awkward? Would it feel like a gimmick? I had to find out!

First, a bit of background: George Perec was part of the Oulipo group, an informal group of writers and mathematicians who created different constraints and rules to guide their writing. A Void (La disparition in the original French) is an example of a lipogram, a piece of writing that excludes a particular letter. Because e is the most common letter of the alphabet in French and English, a lipogram that excludes e would be especially challenging.

As I began reading, I was quickly caught up in the word play. I do love word play, and A Void includes some great examples. Even the name of the first character we meet, Anton Vowl, is a bit of a joke. Wouldn’t Vowel be a more likely last name? As the book begins, Vowl is putting aside the “whodunit” he was reading because it was “too whimsically multisyllabic for comfort.” Isn’t a book without the letter e likely to have the same flaw? Seems like Perec is making a joke at his own expense—A Void even has a few elements of the whodunit.

On the second page, I discovered that Perec/Adair were also not above cheating, as is obvious in this little bit of business, in which Vowl dozes in his chair while listening to the radio:

Probably nodding off for an instant or two, Vowl abruptly sits up straight. ” And now for a public announc–…” Damn that static! Vowl starts twiddling knobs again until his transistor radio booms out with clarity.

Sneaky, sneaky.

Another striking thing about this book is how it works as a translation. Gilbert Adair as translator follows the same no e rule as Perec, but because he is working in English, he runs into problems with different words from the ones that might have been difficult for Perec. At one point, Adair even reverts to French by having a character cry out “Moi! Moi!” and then pointing out the silliness of the language with the parenthetical note that this man is “no doubt a fan of Miss Piggy.” (I thought that comment was a little silly, but it did draw attention to the constraint and Adair’s role as translator.)

I enjoyed all the word play in the book. At times, yes, the language is awkward, but the awkwardness draws attention to the game, and it’s never so awkward as to be unreadable. Mostly, it’s just fun. How could I not get some pleasure out of a book that includes “six highly familiar madrigals,”  such as the soliloquy “Living, or not living” by William Shakspar, John Milton’s On His Glaucoma, and a poem about a blackbird that repeatedly cries, “not again.”

As I read, I started to understand how a lipogram might be a spur to creativity. In A Void, Perec/Adair had to think through every single word. Many of the clichés and common expressions that writers come to depend on are no longer available if the e is forbidden.

But can creativity at the word level give rise to a creative and interesting story? As amusing as the word play was, it couldn’t carry a book for 300 pages. And I must admit that for the first 100 pages or so, the word play was the only thing I enjoyed very much.

The novel is, as I mentioned above, something of a whodunit. A few chapters into the novel, Anton Vowl, who has been trying to sort out some unexplained mystery, disappears. For the rest of the book, several of his friends and acquaintances try to figure out what happened. While they work through their questions, their numbers diminish, as one by one they die off under mysterious circumstances. So there’s plenty of potential for an exciting plot. But that exciting plot didn’t interest me much until it started to veer off the typical mystery thriller path and become a weird, experimental, meta mystery. And I can pinpoint the exact moment when I started to care about the plot. It was on page 112 of my edition, when Augustus makes this declaration:

This is what I think. Within a Logos, in its marrow, so to say, lurks a domain that for us is off-limits, a zonal injunction that nobody can broach and to which no suspicion can attach: a Void, a Blank, a missing sign prohibiting us from a daily basis from talking, from writing, from using words with any thrust or point, mixing up our diction and abolishing our capacity for rigorous vocal articulation in favour of a gurgling mumbo jumbo. A Blank that, for good and all, will dumbfound us if accosting a Sphinx, a Blank akin to that giant Grampus sought for many a moon by Ahab, a Blank into which all of us will go missing in our turn…

Georges Perec

Seriously?! The no e rule is not just a rule for the writer—it’s a part of the story somehow! That is just too cool. And then there are references to a Bushy Man who seems to be vaguely involved in these happenings. To which I’ll just direct your attention to the photo to the right.—>

Eventually, the rule started to seem to me like a metaphor for the limitations we all face in life. Those limitations force us to get creative and figure out ways to live anyway. These characters are bound by a rule they never imposed upon themselves, but still they must figure out ways to communicate. In life, as in A Void, limits force us to work a little harder, and this might not be such a bad thing.

I liked this book a lot, but it’s not without its weaknesses. As I’ve already mentioned, the language is a trifle awkward, but that’s no great surprise. And the plot does take a while to get going, though at the end I was absorbed in it. The characters don’t really have strong individual personalities that I could discern. I imagine that if I were a more careful reader, I could have picked up on differences between them, but as it is, I didn’t. Most of my interest was on the language and the relationship between the situation and the plot. I wanted to see how things unfolded, not because I cared about the people, but because I was interested in what Perec was up to. The ending, while being a little goofy and melodramatic, was still satisfying, and I’m glad to have read it. Thanks, Richard, for the suggestion.

Other readers: Dolce Bellezza (Initial Thoughts, Part 1), What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate, Caravana de recuerdos

Several other people expressed interest in reading A Void when Richard suggested it, so I’ll add links to other posts as they appear.

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25 Responses to A Void

  1. Eva says:

    This reminds me a leetle bit of Sophie’s World, which I read when I was 14 and loved. :) (Not sure how I’d feel about it now!) The fact that it’s been translated kind of blows my mind, lol, and I’m curious to give it a go. I’ll wait until I’m in the mood for something like that though! ;)

    • Teresa says:

      Interesting. I have a copy of Sophie’s World but haven’t gotten around to it.

      And this has been translated into several different languages, always without the most common vowel in that language. Crazy!

      • Eva says:

        One of my best friends in middle school/early high school (before I moved) was Norwegian, and he always got me Norwegian stuff for my birthdays, so that’s how I ended up reading Sophie’s World. :) I was a total philosophy nerd, so I just ate it up. I wonder what you’d make of it!

    • christina says:

      Oooh, I loved Sophie’s World when I read it forever ago. I still have my copy. Maybe I’ll re-read it next year.

  2. softdrink says:

    That translator deserves an award or something…what a task! This reminds me of Ella Minnow Pea…I wonder if Perec was the inspiration for that book?

    • Teresa says:

      I thought of Ella Minnow Pea as well (I have yet to actually read it but I’ve heard a lot about it). Perhaps Perec was the inspiration. There may be other lipogrammatic books out there, but I think A Void is one of the most famous.

    • Carin S. says:

      That’s just what I was going to say! Ella Minnow Pea has similar constraints (that increase throughout the book!) and is much fun. This book sounds great!

  3. chasing bawa says:

    You’d think it would be impossible to write an entire novel without an ‘e’. I’m impressed Perec has and even more impressed Adair translated it into English without an ‘e’ too. It’s incredible and I definitely want to read it just to see how it’s done. A really interesting review Teresa!

  4. Richard says:

    Thank you for reading along with us, Teresa, especially since your interactions with A Void led to such an interesting review! I totally agree that the wordplay was more engaging than the plot, but I’d like to investigate how much of the occasional language awkwardness was due to the translator’s difficulty in translating Perec or Perec himself (at the rate I read French, this won’t happen anytime soon, I’m afraid). Anyway, glad you enjoyed this for the most part–and wonderful job at selecting examples of some of the fun & games to be found here!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good question. I really liked that alliterative quote in French you included in your review and it made me wonder if the French is more fluid. I can’t imagine the language not being at least a little unnatural, whether it’s in French or English, but I may just be underestimating Perec’s genius!

  5. Deb says:

    If I were to read this book, I’m afraid that I would just spend all my time thinking about the absence of the “e”–but perhaps that’s just part of the experience.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s definitely part of the experience. The story itself is only ok. It’s a verbal gymnastics required to a void the E that make the book memorable.

  6. Emily says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this in French one day to witness the lingual contortion that is writing without any e’s, but I’ll keep in mind your and Richard’s caution that the actual story isn’t the main draw here. I suppose it’s only predictable that a writer so fond of composing under constraints, wouldn’t ALWAYS be able to pull off fascinating storytelling as well. Still, it sounds like the book delivers some pretty hilarious wordplay!

    • Teresa says:

      When you do read it in French, be sure to let us know whether the prose was as awkward as it sometimes was in English. After reading Richard’s post, I’m really curious about that!

  7. litlove says:

    Perec belonged to a writers’ group that met at a beautiful rural location and for a while he pretty much lived there. He regularly roped the other writers into his game of trying to create sentences in French that sounded okay despite the fact that they were missing the letter ‘e’, so in some ways this book is a collaborative project. But he wrote it to get himself out of a period of bad writer’s block and it worked really well for that – it was one of his books he most enjoyed doing as he loved word play. He was a scientific archivist and often he would mess around with his card files, typing the details out in the shape of a diamond or a triangle, just for the fun of it, or putting spurious comic details in, even though he knew he’d end up having to type them out all over again.

    Actually all his life is fascinating – there’s a huge biography of him by David Bellos that I’d recommend. He’s worth reading about.

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting–and what a way to get out of writer’s block! I can see how it would work though, especially for a writer who loves word play. And it may also explain why the story took a while to gel.

  8. Annabel says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while after I re-read Ella Minnow Pea for book group last year. EMP also is a lot more than just the linguistic gymnastics too – I’d really recommmend it.

  9. christina says:

    I’ve heard about this book sometime ago, but forgot all about it. Thanks for reminding me.

  10. Sarah says:

    Great review! Like you I found the technical aspects of the book far more interesting than the story itself for the most part. I’m still not done with it so I must reserve judgement for the moment. :)

    • Teresa says:

      The story never got more interesting than the wordplay, but it did stop being so boring after a while. I’ll be interested to see what you think when you finish!

  11. Mae says:

    This sounds fantastically absurd!! I’m adding it to my TBR immediately.

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