or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Missing in Action

Two whole weeks! Tsk. But I've been busy, reading and working and writing stuff that isn't this blog and production-knitting (those kids' hats shaped like pumpkins and cupcakes and strawberries don't just knit themselves, you know).

What have I been reading, you ask? A book which I borrowed from a co-worker, Daniel, and here are a couple of paragraphs:

In his youth, Augustus had had (but why? To this day, nobody knows but him) what you might call a moral crisis, a crisis so alarming that cousin of his, a naval man, in fact an Admiral, afraid of blowing his brains out in a fit of anguish, distraction or illumination, got him to do a six-month stint on his sloop "Flying Dutchman", aboard which Augustus was taught a harsh but invigorating job, that of cabin boy.

On coming out of his psychological convulsion, which was in truth so profound that his circumnavigation didn't totally fulfill its function of curing him, Augustus was to fall for a charlatan (or quasi-charlatan), Othon Lippmann, who had, as a
soi-disant yogi, a charismatic gift that would transform many of his faithful into fanatics.

The author is Georges Perec, a French writer after my own heart, one who loves to construct long but entirely comprehensible compound-complex sentences larded through with commas and clauses. The book, written in French as "La Disparation" and translated into English as "A Void" by Gilbert Adair, has a gimmick, which I am guessing that you, if you don't already know, would not be able to figure out from the passage I've quoted, so masterfully written and translated is it; the entire thing is done without the use of the letter "e", the most common in both French and English.

This poses a number of dreadful problems, one of which is that articles ("the", "le"), verbs ("to be", "ĂȘtre"), most compound verbs (many infinitives in French end in "-er" or "-re", and past perfect in English is extremely hard to do without an "e"), and overall a large portion of the vocabulary is barred to you. (German has it worse; Daniel and I speculated that it would hardly be possible to translate the book into that language, since "e" is even more prevalent in it and pretty much every infinitive ends in "-en", but we had underestimated human ingenuity and were wrong: it was translated, almost ten years before "A Void", as "Anton Voyls Fortgang".)

After contemplating a novel without "e", it is natural to wonder if anybody ever a novel using all the "e"s that Perec left out of "A Void", and it turns out that, unsurprisingly, Perec himself wrote it: "Les Revenentes", which uses "e" as its only vowel; this has also been translated into English, as "The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex" . Another French writer noted that the existence of these two books made possible a third book which used none of the words in the other two, a book in which every word contained an "e" plus at least one other non-"e" vowel. These books are examples of what is called constrained writing, text which has a formal structure imposed upon it: each word's length is that of the digits of pi, for example, or the entire piece is a palindrome, which reads the same forwards as backwards. There's even a book called "Never Again" in which no word is used more than once; a moment's thought will suggest that such a thing places a terrible strain on the writer, who can't repeatedly refer to any place or character by name, but take it from me: it places an even greater strain on the reader.

Some of these constrained writings are mere tricks, arch clevernesses, and consequently not very good, but some of them, such as "A Void", are not only well written but force you to consider language in a new way, and isn't that one of life's pleasures?


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