A Void (La Disparition) is a lipogram in which the letter e does not appear. In English this deprives one of an essential article ("the") and about two thirds of the words in the language; in French it is even worse, leaving one with about an eighth of the lexicon. My initial feeling was that this was a gimmick which might be amusing in a poem or a short story but which must surely be ridiculous in a novel, but I soon realised I was wrong.
The afterword to A Void claims that "its origin was totally haphazard, touch and go, a flip of a coin. It all got out of hand with a companion calling my bluff...", but Bellos' biography of Perec makes it clear that A Void was the result of a long-standing fascination both with the use of such constraints in literature and with that constraint in particular. In any event, it is not an exercise in frivolity or an attempt to show off linguistic skills. It is not simply an "ordinary" novel rewritten without es: there is no way that it could be "translated" into ordinary French (or English), since its orthographic constraint is worked in to its very substance. The weirdness of the vocabulary and syntax induce a profound unease in the reader, mirroring the hallucinatory paranoia of the plot, a wildly fantastic conspiracy story, and the characters' own sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with their world. There are also plenty of symbolic, semiotic, and literary diversions. (Included are some "translations" of famous passages of poetry, among them Ozymandias and William Shakspar's famous "living or not living" soliloquy.)
A Void is an unnerving but insanely compelling work, and one which is rather hard to compare with anything else. It does have some similarities with Perec's later classic Life A User's Manual, but it will never be as popular. Adair deserves special praise for translating a work which poses such unusual difficulties; one almost feels he should have been credited as a co-author.
- Related reviews:
- Georges Perec - Three: Which Moped? The Exeter Text. A Gallery Portrait.
- more French literature
- more Oulipo
- books published by Harvill Press