E-less in Gaza

John Sturrock

We hear a lot about floating signifiers and how they bob anchorless around on the deep waters of meaning; we hear too little about sinking signifiers, or language items that have stopped bobbing and been sent silently to the bottom, if not for the duration then at least provisionally, while we see how well we can do without them. To scuttle a signifier in this way is to play at lipograms, an elementary language game that has been around for two and a half millennia. This lipo has nothing to do with fat, or with the world of the liposuctionist’s hoover: it comes from a Greek verb meaning to ‘leave out’. The lipogram is a piece of writing from which one or more letters of the alphabet have been excluded, preferably common ones if the game is to be worth playing. There is in theory no reason why there shouldn’t also be spoken lipograms, or lipophones – indeed, I can imagine that, the bit once between their teeth, composers of lipograms find themselves talking lipogrammatically, either because they can’t stop or because they think it will help them to keep their eye in.

The earliest lipograms are thought to have been composed in the sixth century BC, but none of them has survived; maybe they were never actually written down, only imagined, to circulate among the clerisy as instant legends of verbal skill. One Greek lipogrammatist is said to have written poems from which he left out the letter sigma because he didn’t like the hissing sound it made when spoken; a more ambitious fellow Greek rewrote the Iliad excluding a different character from each of its 24 books: no alphas in Book One, no betas in Book Two and so on – odd that the number of books in the Iliad and of characters in the Greek alphabet should be the same, unless, perish the Perecquian thought, that is why the poem is divided into 24 books. The sigma-phobe with his ulterior aim was in fact missing the point of the lipogram, which is not designed for the writer’s convenience. The Iliad man was the purist of the two, he had grasped that the lipogram should be a purposeless ordeal undertaken voluntarily, a gratuitous taxing of the brain, and the severer the better. It should make the business of writing not pleasanter but harder.

Harder or, if you think like Georges Perec, easier. Perec has to have been the most talented and entertaining player of word-games in the long history of Homo ludens, and he gave as his reason for taking to them so whole-heartedly that had he not been bound to observe tough formal constraints when writing, he would have been unable to write anything at all. He needed to have the possibilities narrowed down for him in advance, to be made to feel less free in respect of language. He had, he said, not ‘one carat of inspiration’, didn’t believe indeed that there was any such thing: there is a bracingly cool theory of preplanning and calculation behind all the writing that Perec did. He was the star performer among the similarly uninspired members of the OuLi-Po, or OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle, a formidably ingenious group of poets, mathematicians and others who met together regularly in Paris from the late Fifties and set themselves to reactivate long obsolete forms of prosodic constraint as well as to work out ferocious new ones.

The lipograms composed and published in the past – in those nicely decadent moments of cultural history when putting the signifier before the signified has been seen as the enlightened pastime that it is – were, with rare exceptions such as the lipogrammatised Homer, of modest, parlour-game size: a neat quatrain leaving out a particular vowel or consonant perhaps, or a page or two of similarly deprived prose. Perec, however, had gone into the bibliography of these things, and found examples where the lipogrammatist had kept going and produced a text aspiring to gigantism. Notably, there was a lipogrammatic novel written earlier this century by ‘an American sailor’ called Ernest Vincent Wright. It was published in Los Angeles in 1939 and declared its achievement in its subtitle: Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter E – can this have been a lipogrammatical Grat Gatsby?

American sailors nothing: word-game players are competitive to the core, and with this imposing predecessor in his sights Perec undertook to write the mother of all lipograms, an ultimate OuLiPogram. It came out in the late Sixties, a king-sized e-less novel with a suggestive though by no means giveaway title, La Disparition (‘The Disappearance’ or, more morbidly, ‘The Death’) – Perec was not one to flaunt his cleverness on the title-page, à la Ernest Vincent Wright. This was several thousand words longer than Gadsby, whose title and author – minus the Ernest, of course – are fraternally evoked a number of times by Perec in his own text, Wright being at one point awarded the degree of Auctor Honoris Causa at Oxford and later ennobled as Lord Gadsby.

Perec having kept mum about the nature of the constraint under which La Disparition had been written, there were those at the time by all accounts who read the book without noticing that it was e-less and that its author was without question the new recordman du monde among lipogrammatists. This is just about credible. La Disparition is a wonderfully amusing book to read, deliriously full of stories, objects, allusions, characters and bizarre incidents: a learned display of what in an afterword (still e-less) Perec called ‘his passion for accumulation, for saturation, for imitation, for quotation, for translation, for automatisation’. A plot so hyperactive, even by Perec’s unusually robust standards of plotting – see Life A User’s Manual – might have aroused suspicion, as might his glaring and often hilarious refusal throughout the book to limit himself to one permissible word when the sentence allows of another ten such to be introduced in close conjunction with it. Yet even with the title there to help you, it wouldn’t be so easy to tell that its paradoxical verbal opulence had originated in the absence of a certain letter of the alphabet. You can either see that a text has no es in it or you can’t.

It wasn’t long before the word went round: La Disparition hadn’t a single e anywhere in its 300-odd pages. Knowing this, readers could begin to spot and so to enjoy the many clues that it contains as to its own ludic nature. The name of the main protagonist for a start, Anton Voyl, decryptible without too much difficulty as the suitably devocalised form of voyelle, the French word for ‘vowel’ – the more accurate but weird-looking Voyll would no doubt have made the whole thing too obvious. And then there are the many stories, and the many stories within the many stories, to which La Disparition is the ample host: they have all to do with sudden disappearances, with violent deaths, with pursuit, with the revealing, or not, of secrets. The book is a sort of parody of the Lacanian theme of the ‘lack’, or that painful, permanent but creative absence that Lacan has it is the source of our endlessly renewable human desires.

Perec presumably enjoyed knowing that not everyone who read La Disparition at the outset had rumbled him, that for all its eccentricities of wording and syntax it had seemed near enough to linguistic orthodoxy to be read as if it had been written by someone able to call on all the elements of his native alphabet. On the other hand, he could hardly have wanted those who didn’t realise it was a lipogram to go on not realising it, since whatever admiration they had felt for the book would then rest on the wrong, insufficient premises. This is a situation that Gilbert Adair will be glad not to have had to face. His astonishing adaptation of Perec’s novel makes no secret of its lipogrammatic status: the front-cover blurb proceeds loyally enough without any es, only to blow the gaff in the final few words and tell those who read blurbs at least that this is a book written under a peculiarly taxing constraint.

To do without the letter e in English may be marginally more difficult than to do without it in French. Perec was denied the use of some invaluable linguistic forms: je, se, le, ce, elle, de, les, des, avec, après, quel, que, est: the list is potentially very long, and frightening. Written French, on the other hand, allows of elision, so that some of these banned substances can be invited back in by the lipogrammatist in the form of j’, s’, d’, qu’ and so on. Adair was not so lucky. For him there can be no he, she, we, they, the, be, see, before, after, then ... an even more frightening thought when you are setting out to ‘translate’ a book of three hundred pages. Nor is elision a legitimate way out in English: short of shifting Perec’s action to Yorkshire, and introducing a lot of t apostrophes of the trouble at t’mill variety, Adair was faced with doing without the definite article; and short of cheating in a rather different direction, and going in for quasi-poetical apostrophe ds, he was faced with doing without a great many English past participles.

Handicaps indeed, and ones that Adair has overcome with a vigour and inventiveness that verge on the heroic. Some years ago, there was talk of La Disparition being translated into English as an ordinary novel, ignoring the fact that it was a lipogram. That might have been some kind of backhanded compliment to Perec, suggesting that the book read so well that it wouldn’t greatly matter if the tabooed letter were allowed back into the translation. But it was a miserable, a philistine, idea and thank goodness it died. It might have seemed at that time that no anglophone lipogrammatist would ever come forward with the time, the vocabulary and the will-power to achieve a full e-less version, though at least one hopeful addict was known to have been at work on it for years. Gilbert Adair has now shown quite brilliantly that a lipogrammatic text in one language can be more than adequately done into another, retaining not only the alphabetical constraint but much of the virtuosity of the original. The two languages need to be reasonably close in terms of letter frequency for the achievement of one writer to be measured against that of the other. French and English are close enough, and A Void will stand henceforth as the longest and most glorious lipogram that our language possesses, just as La Disparition has long stood as that in French.

Whether or not Adair’s work should count as a ‘translation’ of Perec is an interesting question. A Void certainly sticks closer to La Disparition than one might have expected. All the very many personal and place names in the original can of course be reproduced as is, though Adair has rightly altered the name of the hero to Anton Vowl. And the multiple plots and subplots follow much the same erratic course, except where a detour has been made necessary for Adair by the shortage of suitable vocally challenged words in English. Since Perec’s text might be said to be all detours anyway, this is no great hindrance. If anything, it is the reverse. On those many occasions when an exact correspondence of one lipogrammatic text to the other becomes impossible, the translator is out on his own, free to revel in the rare pleasures of periphrasis just as Perec was before him, and showing himself in Adair’s case to be a dab hand at visiting some of the remoter attics and cellars of our local word-hoard. It is doubtful whether A Void has quite the extraordinary lexical richness of the French, but it comes commendably close and provides enjoyable evidence of how carried away it is possible to become when playing the game of circumventing a letter ban:

But whilst a goatishly rutting Albin was ravishing Anastasia just as (if you know your classical mythology) Apollo had had his way with Iris, Adonis with Calypso, and Antinous with Aurora, his gang, complying with his wish, was attacking that studio adjoining Anastasia’s caravan, blowing it sky-high with a ton of TNT, illuminating a pitch-dark night with its conflagration and making an almighty Doomsday din. It was a sort of Walpurgisnacht. Its poor occupants ... ran this way and that, shouting and howling in panic. Most got it instantly, struck by a burning plank, by a scorching whirlwind, by a boiling rock torn out of its soil, by a spray of stinging-hot, skin-riddling coals, or by a smoking brand whooshing up as if from out of a volcano.

In its tipsy verbosity, this paragraph from A Void gives just the right hectic impression of the paragraph of La Disparition from which it has taken off. It’s arguable that translation is in fact made easier when certain words are forbidden to you as a translator, on the same OuLiPesque principle that writing in general is made easier by being obliged to conform to rigorous constraints. It would be comforting when translating to know that you need no longer aim exclusively at achieving a semantic equivalence. The translator engaged on translating a lipogram has the best of both worlds: a text to work from that will keep him from getting lost; and the freedom to stray and indulge himself whenever some chicane is placed in his way by the original wording.

As a pair of closely related lipograms, La Disparition and A Void make an odd but desirable couple: in terms of artistry, this Gilbert and Georges could teach their vapidly cavorting namesakes a thing or two.