A Lipogram

In 1969, a Frenchman named Georges Perec published a novel named La Disparition (“The Disappearance”). The story is around 300 pages long, and does not contain the letter “e”. I think that’s rather impressive.

In 1996, Gilbert Adair translated La Disparition from French to English, and renamed the story A Void. The English translation is around 300 pages long, and does not contain the letter “e”. I think that’s even more impressive.

After an introduction which describes the political upheaval going on in France, A Void starts out like this:

Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light. According to his watch it’s only 12.20. With a loud and languorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draws his quilt up around his chin, picks up his whodunit and idly scans a paragraph or two; but, judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary too whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, throws it away in disgust.

Anton Vowl is an eccentric fellow, fond of puzzles, wordplay, and lipograms (compositions in which a letter of the alphabet is purposely avoided).

A VoidAnton Vowl sends out a cryptic postcard to his friends and then disappears. His friends search for clues to Anton’s whereabouts in Anton’s  puzzling postcard, curious diary, and strange manuscripts.

There seem to be clues within the book itself. (There are 26 chapters in A Void – but actually only 25, since there is a blank page where Chapter 5 should be. And why do the book’s parts skip from I to III? Why no Part II? And then there’s the protagonist, whose last name seems to be missing an “e” – who becomes a missing Vowl.)

As the friends dig deeper into the mystery, following leads and conducting interviews, deaths occur and the mystery deepens.

This novel is amazing. It is intriguing.

Honestly, though, I liked the idea of the novel a lot more than I liked the novel. I knew, going into it, that the structure was going to be odd and convoluted. (Imagine: an entire novel without the word “the”, and without most past-tense verbs. It’s a story about a mysterious disappearance that can’t use the words “mysterious disappearance”.) But it was worse than that. Sentences were difficult to read, and with all the plots, subplots, flashbacks, and divergences, this book was, at times, impossible for me to follow.

Then, on top of everything, there was an overabundance of words. It seemed as if the author (and translator) made up a list of e-less words, and then felt the need to use them all. Look at this sentence, for instance: “And, in fact, at this point, as if by magic, standing not far from a pool simulating, with uncanny naturalism, a mini-Kamchatka, a pool in which a host of birds, fish and mammals play as happily as infants in a sandpit – frogs, squids, cormorants, basilisks, dolphins, finbacks, cachalots, blackfish, lizards, dugongs and narwhals – Amaury spots, and naturally accosts, a man just about to light a cigar.” (Why not just call it “an artificial pond containing many animals” and go on with it?) It’s as if the book is pulling off a neat trick, and takes every opportunity to let you know just how clever it is. I found it annoying.

I did not like this book. I didn’t dislike it enough to give up and try something else. I was driven by curiosity to complete A Void. I wanted to know what happened to Anton Vowl and his friends. (And the solution was wild and unexpected.)

I really want to know, however: Why was there no Part II?

  • A book translated to English
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