A Common Policy
La Disparition, a lipogrammatic classic, turns 50 today. You probably know who it’s by; if not, you can look it up to find out why I’m unwilling to say who did it. From its first publication on 29 March 1969, this book built a cult following. It’s primarily famous for what’s missing from it, a basic but important thing that forms a part of words you can’t usually do without. Staying strictly within this tight constraint, it says what it wants to say about its protagonist, Anton Voyl, and his vanishing act – a conundrum for his companions – in a grippingly ludic, rigidly formulaic way.
Various translations of La Disparition painstakingly follow its track, cutting all that has to go without ruining its plot. G. Adair’s A Void (1994), an award-winning translation and a scintillating work of art in its own right, is a linguistic triumph. La scomparsa – alas, its Italian translator must languish in anonymity, too – is just as skilful in its acrobatic wordplay. Moving on to Russian and Cyrillic, V. Kislov transforms La Disparition into Исчезание (a slightly artificial word), so now it’s o that’s out of action, a similarly difficult omission to sustain. Spanish plays its cards sans a, which is not as crucial a symbol, I’m told, but it’s still a hard trick to pull off.
How much fun can translators wring out of La Disparition? Talking to yours truly in 2010, Adair said that working on it was mightily uplifting for him. ‘Not only did I spin out a fairly straightforward story,’ his postscript to A Void affirms, ‘but I had a lot of fun with it … in my ambition of participating, or collaborating, in a common policy to adopt a radical, wilfully conflictual position vis-à-vis fiction.’ His account brought up a hilarious possibility of producing similar Oulipian gimmicks for all occasions. Why stick to writing standards if you can try your hand at prankish parody, stringing up a handful of words without slipping into that archaic habit of using too much fluff?
Writing La Disparition, its author would ask his visitors to talk to him lipogrammatically, thus participating in his book’s composition. Adair, so far as I know, had only his own vocabulary, and possibly a dictionary or two, for company. A Void abounds with synonyms (‘tintinnabula’, ‘viridian’); vivid imagos (‘your nights without 40 winks, your connubials without 69’); Gallicisms (roman à tiroirs, avoirdupois); and various circumlocutions of affirmation (‘I won’t say no’, ‘it has a ring of truth to it’). It isn’t without its sly constructs, though, such as ‘on 3 occasions’, ‘An I for an I, a truth for a truth!’ and ‘shuffl’d off this mortal coil’. Its wordplay – ‘Raymond Q. Knowall’, ‘Alas and alack for Alaric and his lass!’ and so on – brings nothing but joy. Last but not most insignificant, A Void is full of parody. William Shakspar’s ‘Living, or not living’ soliloquy is as brilliant as Black Bird by Arthur Gordon Pym, with its chorus ‘Quoth that Black Bird, “Not Again.”’
Adair’s passing away in 2011 was a loss to his fans, including this author. ‘My ambition,’ A Void’s postscript says, ‘my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would, or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, of fiction-writing today.’ La Disparition’s author, who ‘sought inspiration in a linguistic avant-gardism virtually unknown in this country’, did just that, and so did Adair.