A Void

Georges Perec Jigsaw
Georges Perec's portrait as a jigsaw puzzle
Puzzle pour un portrait de Georges Perec
La Poésie dans un jardin — Festival d'Avignon 1988

Born in Paris in 1936, was the only son of two recent Jewish immigrants from Poland, Icek and Cyrla Peretz. His father volunteered for French Army during World War II, and was killed in 1940. His mother was deported by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz in 1943.

Georges survived because his mother had previously sent him by train to a little town in the Alps mountains, where relatives took charge of him. They had him baptized Catholic and his name frenchified to Perec. They adopted him formally after the war.

Disappearance of his parents when he was a child, disappearance of his Jewish roots, there is nothing so surprising that Perec was haunted by absence, loss, erasing, disappearance. “I have no memory of childhood” are the first words of his novel , an admission that he remembers almost nothing of his early life as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France.

In 1969, Georges Perec published a novel named La disparition, a phrase that means ‘the disappearance’ in English. A word for word translation of the title into English had to be replaced by A Void (Gilbert Adair) or A Vanishing (Ian Monk) though, because the letter E appears three times in ‘the disappearance’, and the whole novel  is a 300 pages written without ever using a E.

La disparition tells the story of the disappearance of a man, whose name is Anton Voyl (in French) or Vowl (in English), in a strange world from which an enigmatic part five of 26 has disappeared as well.

La disparition
It implicitly talks of its own lipogrammatic limitation, starting with the name of the missing person — Voyelle in French, Vowel in English, after the E's have been lost. Characters in the novel work out what is missing, but they risk fatal injury if their though gets too close to that taboo “circular symbol with a horizontal bar across it”.

The constraint that underlies the story induces endless tricks and distortions of language, and describes how a world can be built that fills that void. Besides the amazing lexicographic feats of writing a whole novel with zero occurrence of the most frequent letter in French and English though, the silent disappearance of the letter is a metaphor of loss, and suffering it causes.

In French, E is the only vowel in père [father] and mère [mother], and sans E [without E] sounds very much like sans eux [without them]. Furthermore, since the name Georges Perec is full of E's, the disappearance of the letter also ensures the author's own disappearance.

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 […] 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].     —


Postscript: When I challenged myself with the Blogging by numbers constraint, I decided the first entry in the series would be related to Number 0 — not 1 — and dedicated to A Void. It seemed fair enough because the very idea of the constraint was inspired in particular by the works of Georges Perec and Oulipo.

I did not know though that another void was just about to occur, when my I had my laptop fell from a table three weeks ago and its hard drive broke. Another aching void and a lot of work to do again, because I had not performed any save for a month or so. Anyway, I am back now.

[BbN: #0]

3 comment(s):

    Wow Billy! I learn so many fascinating things reading your blog! Who would imagine that someone could write an entire book without using the letter 'E'!!! I was going to try and write my comment without an 'E', but that in itself became somewhat difficult! Then again, let me try....!!!

    Wow Billy! I find out so many fascinating things from your blog! Who would think that a book could possibly not contain an 'E' as I find it difficult just trying to say what I want to say without using 1 or 2!!!

    (I know! I cheated with the numbers!!! LOL!)


    Lynn — I know! At first, I thought also I would do that for this particular blog, just for fun. Finally, it was so difficult that I could not. I am from Paris as you know, born and living in this city, and my usual idiom is Gaulish. I saw how difficult it was to blog with such a constraint in an idiom that is not yours: you miss words.

    Anyway, it is probably difficult also if you try to do so in your own idiom. In my opinion, you can hardly blog without that taboo sign — not saying anything about writing a book without it! — in any idiom in which it is by far most common, including yours. With 'yours', I point out 'la lingua franca' that US, Britons, Australians, Canadians, Kiwis and so on talk obviously. In Spanish, it would not bring about such a big difficulty: your most common sign in Spanish is 'a', not this "circular symbol with a horizontal bar across it" that you and I avoid writing now.


    Not bad! What you said simply shows that you can do a good job putting out your thoughts without using that "circular symbol with a horizontal bar across it", but still I don't think many can grasp just how hard it is until you try!!! LOL!


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