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Georges Perec (1936-1982) must have hated grade school. He undoubtedly agonized over sentence diagrams, grumbled about whatever French equivalent there is for “I before E,” quarreled with teachers who tried to corral his verbiage. And he certainly fretted over all the pointless rules: avoid “if I was”; don’t say “can I have”; shun “me and him.”
Later, of course, he learned—as we all do—that the anti-grammatical fury of our youth gets us nowhere. Words are as inescapable as they are clumsy. They are, and will always be, “structurally unsound platform[s] from which to sound off,” as protagonist Anton Vowl writes in Gilbert Adair’s A Void, a translation of Perec’s 1969 La Disparition. Since rebelling against language’s strictures accomplishes nothing but one’s banishment from the world of educated discourse, it’s much better to simply conform to the rules we’re given.
But it’s also possible to do the grammatists one better, as Perec and his fellow oulipeans showed. Founded in France in 1960, the oulipean school included in its membership the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Roubaud, and Italo Calvino; they derived the term “Oulipo” from the French ouvroir de littérature potentielle, translated as “workshop [or, more prosaically, “sewing circle’] of potential literature.” The oulipeans’ protest was uniquely ascetic: Rather like monks on a fast, they defied constraints by elegantly—and arrogantly—embracing them.
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La Disparition is a typical oulipean exercise. A book-length lipogram, it’s a detective spoof written without the use of a single E. Though Perec claimed that his goal was to emphasize “what [reading] is in the first place, a precise activity of the body, bringing into play certain muscles, diverse postures, [and] sequential decisions,” his book is about far more than merely the mechanics of reading. It’s an attack on the tyranny of all those teachers and their rules, on the tyranny of language itself.
With such a perverse aim, La Disparition is open to only a very specific mode of enjoyment. Its plot is meandering and largely nonsensical, and its characters are cartoonishly underdeveloped. Too ironic to conjure either fear or anticipation, it never quite works as a murder mystery. It can only be appreciated for the charm of its language and the cleverness of what it has achieved. Like all oulipean works, it’s purposefully marginal, a joke to be savored by initiates: When it first appeared, at least one critic—doubtless to Perec’s glee—completely overlooked the absent E.
Non-French-speakers are likewise excluded from La Disparition‘s inner circle. Though the tale is nominally open to translation, it really can’t be replicated in another language. This is, of course, a problem with all texts—something is lost in every translation—but in La Disparition‘s case the problem is of an entirely different magnitude. First there’s the feat of a French text without an E, an accomplishment that can by definition exist only in the French language. And then there are all the puns, allusions, and twists of meaning that are the book’s reason for being. Remove or change them, and you have a new book. The original has been replaced by something else entirely—in this case, by A Void.
Gilbert Adair faced a paradoxical task. Why translate when there is no hope of producing any semblance of the source work? But this difficulty allows Adair to seize a power that few interpreters are offered. In order to conform to Perec’s rules, Adair is forced—and, in a sense, allowed—to take all sorts of liberties with the text. The result is a clever mockery of the process of translation, adding another layer of oulipean play to the one that Perec created. Adair doesn’t attempt to transcend language as most translators do. Instead, he uses La Disparition as a blueprint. A Void is certainly related to Perec’s text, but it’s not the same: Rather than a classical air played on the wrong instrument, it’s like a jazz improvisation on a theme.
Like any improvisation, Adair’s text is peppered with additions—one critic has noted that it’s 10 percent longer than the original. Much of the extra bulk comes from clever twists that couldn’t possibly have appeared in Perec’s version, but that emphasize his ironical tone. For example, the word “ear” is of course forbidden, but Anton Vowl needs to get his ears checked because he’s having headaches. So the doctor “draws a blob of wax out of his auditory organs (as doctors say).”
“Death” is likewise off-limits, presenting a tough problem in a murder mystery. Instead of casually conjugating mourir, as Perec was able to do, Adair refers to “the D-word.”
Some of Adair’s insertions seem wholly extraneous, highlighting the odd combination of constraint and license under which he worked. “I’m PO’d, truly PO’d,” a character sighs, with Adair adding, “PO was a contraction of “piss off.’ ” And in another scene, an impatient barman “who visibly cannot wait to chat up a pair of young girls in an adjoining booth…is sarcastically, not to say “smart-asstically,’ humming “Why am I waiting?’ ” Maybe this is an attempt at bawdiness; it comes off as a ham-handed gambit. But it’s also typical of the flourishes and digressions that crowd La Disparition. Houses, locales, clothing—though not, strangely, any belonging to the main characters—are described exhaustively; at one point the story is suspended for several pages while the history of an old mansion is related. It’s as if, having generated lists of E-less words, neither Perec nor Adair could resist using every last one of them.
One of A Void‘s central riddles is a mysterious carving on the side of a pool table, a poem that includes the punny phrase “an I for an I.” The doubled meaning can be read all sorts of ways, and yet it couldn’t have been present in the French, where je and oeil aren’t homonyms (not that Perec used those particular words, weighted as they are with E’s). Another such layering is the similarity of “a void” and “avoid.” Adair couldn’t use the obvious translation of la disparition, “an absence,” and having used “void” instead he plays with its meaning whenever he can.
Perec made sure to allow room in La Disparition for some translation games of his own. He manages to work E-less versions of Shakespeare, Poe and Keats into his tale. In A Void, these are hilariously re-translated into E-less English. The “Living, or Not Living” soliloquy by “Shakspar” begins: “Living, or not living: that is what I ask.” And in “Black Bird” by “Arthur Gordon Pym,” the bird croaks, “Not Again!”
It’s quirks like this that clinch A Void‘s brilliance. The increasingly twisted renditions of famous verse point to an interesting possibility: What would A Void become if it were translated back into French? It would no longer be La Disparition or A Void; instead, a whole new text would emerge, different from its predecessors. And if that text were squeezed back into English, yet another new text would be formed. Each version would be more than a translation of the last; each would be a piece of an evolving puzzle, an exercise in linguistic possibility. How oulipean.