Snails. You’d want Gallic or Italian cooking to fix such a dish. You wouldn’t call for it at lunch in Oslo, Omsk, Cardiff or Stuttgart; nor as an Alabama snail-fry with grits, nor smoking atop Oklahoma fatwood, nor in Cajun gumbo. And only a light hand such as that of this particular tricky and knotty Parisian author could bring off “A Void”: a total snail of a book in its spiral contortions, so that prying out its pith is both difficult and savory and (pry as you may) bits will always stay stuck within.
Eeeeeeeeeek. One paragraph is all I want to do of this. “A Void” does it from beginning to end, and much better (once the names of Perec and his translator, Gilbert Adair, are declared on the title page). Does what? Does entirely without the letter e . You didn’t spot it just now? Neither did the critic for “Les Nouvelles Litteraires” when the novel was published in France in 1969. He judged it to be a political-existential mystery in the best contemporary style; he rated it “captivating and dramatic” though a bit artificial.
It was a review with a void in it, just like the novel. Unlike the novel, its void was embarrassingly involuntary. To assist English-speaking readers, not to mention reviewers, in avoiding the void, the dust jacket hints discreetly at the complete absence of e ‘s throughout the novel’s 285 pages.
Perec, who died in 1982, was the son of French Jews, both of whom perished during World War II: his father in the French Army, his mother at Auschwitz. In his greatest work, “Life: A User’s Manual"--a landmark of contemporary literature--and in several lesser but remarkable novels, he used a seemingly arbitrary and abstract series of experiments with language and narrative to come up with an astonishingly humane rendering of tragedy, comedy, absurdity and tenderness. Perec’s novels are games, each different. They are played for real stakes and in some cases breathtakingly large ones. As games should be, and as literary games often are not, they are fun.
“A Void” is an extreme game. It is more than that, as well. If it is not one of Perec’s major works--though its vowel-suppression does make it a major tour de force--it shares with them two qualities that Perec apparently never lost. First, as to the game: It is perhaps too much to say it is irresistible, but it is very hard to resist playing it. Like a rare gifted child, Perec inveigles you into mischief you would never get into on your own. Second, even while the game of “look: no e ‘s” is played out--the translator is Perec’s devilish equal in playing it--there are perceptible overtones of something more serious and more enchanting.
Perec sets out his game as a mock mystery; or perhaps I should say, as the performance of a mystery in which players and author occasionally drop their comic masks to reveal grief and horror, but only for a split second and with the sinister elusiveness of a subliminal message. Anton Vowl, a writer, disappears; his friends search for him and are killed off one by one. Each death occurs just where the character is on the point of enunciating the mystery or “damnation” that has them all in its grip. Or, to put it differently--it is the link between Perec’s alphabet gimmick and his story--just as they are about to speak a word containing the letter e .
Putting aside for a moment the story and the use it makes of its void, what happens when we read e -less prose? It is considerably odd and effortful. For one thing, there are the roundabouts in thought and expression that Perec is obliged to take: it is like someone making deliberately mannered use of a stutter. Then there is what happens to our eyeballs. We read not word-by-word but by scanning lines or half-lines. The lack of e ‘s--the most common vowel--is like getting a splinter in the eyeball; we become aware of our eyes limping effortfully from left to right.
On the other hand, there is a joyful comedy to the game, even when it irritates. This is the place to praise the other player. Adair has accomplished more than a translator’s tour de force ; he has added a dexterous verbal lunacy of his own. At one point, Vowl’s friends receive a clue in the form of a packet of well-known poems. Perec chose several French warhorses, and Adair has chosen English equivalents. We get Hamlet’s soliloquy rendered as “Living or not living; that is what I ask,” and thus e -lessly through the remaining 32 lines. We get Milton’s sonnet “On His Glaucoma.” And most brilliantly and hilariously we get Poe’s entire “The Raven” rendered as “Black Bird” and instead of “nevermore,” intoning “not again.”
The story divagates, exfoliates, crumbles and reconstitutes itself. It can move simultaneously in two or three different time-frames, so that we get someone recounting a story in which someone recounts another story. Among the characters are Gifford, who owns the chateau where everyone gathers and perishes; his son Haig, an opera singer who was struck dead just as he was about to go on as the Statue (watch that “e”) in “Don Giovanni.” There is Olga, Haig’s wife and the descendant of a line of ferocious Albanian bandits. There is Ibn Abou, who is stabbed just as he is about to reveal something; a comically bumbling police detective and his sinister boss; and two other friends of Vowl’s, Conson and his long-lost brother Savorgnan.
The writing goes from purple melodrama, to wry, to reflexive, to dryly didactic (one character spouts a garbled version of Critical Theory) to haunting. The reader, forewarned (unlike the hapless French reviewer), will have no trouble picking up Perec’s frequent hints about his suppressed vowel, nor in surmising the nature of the void that swallows up the characters one by one.
What stalks them then? It gives nothing away to say that the author does. It is he who has decided that they may exist only without e ‘s and will exist no longer when they, like Pirandello’s characters, rebel. Who killed Roger Ackroyd? Agatha Christie, of course. Whodunnit? Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, John Macdonald, Ngaio Marsh and so on and so on.
Is it a game? Only partly. “A Void” has its problems. We can get tired of the bumpy hike along Perec’s paradox-littered road. But he is like the juggler who knew no other way to pray than by juggling before an image of the Virgin. His humanity operates through his paradoxes. The characters, helpless in the lexicographic fate that their author has devised, are not much unlike ourselves, submitted to the fates that write us while we are trying to write them.
Here are three stanzas--the first, a middle and the last--from Gilbert Adair’s e -less version of Poe’s “The Raven.” Perec used a Victor Hugo poem; Adair decided to choose one that was equivalently well-known to English readers.
Twas upon a midnight tristful I sat poring, wan and wistful,
Through many a quaint and curious list full of my consorts slain--
I sat nodding, almost napping, till I caught a sound of tapping,
As of spirits softly rapping, rapping at my door in vain.
“Tis a visitor,” I murmur’d, “tapping at my door in vain--
Tapping soft as falling rain.”
Now that night-wing’d fowl placating my sad fancy into waiting
On its oddly fascinating air of arrogant disdain,
“Though thy tuft is shorn and awkward, thou,” I said, “art not so
Coming forward, ghastly Black Bird wand’ring far from thy domain,
Not to say what thou art known as in thy own dusk-down domain.”
Quoth that Black Bird, “Not Again.”
And my Black Bird, still not quitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On that pallid bust--still flitting through my dolorous domain;
But it cannot stop from gazing for it truly finds amazing
That, by artful paraphrasing, I such rhyming can sustain--
Notwithstanding my lost symbol I such rhyming still sustain--
Though I shan’t try it again.