As easy as ABC: Georges Perec once wrote a whole novel without the letter e. Kevin Jackson summarises an oulipian life in 26 sentences

Kevin Jackson
Monday 06 June 1994 23:02

A Void, the forthcoming translation by Gilbert Adair of Georges Perec's novel La Disparition (1968), boasts at least one extraordinary characteristic: in the entire course of its 280-odd pages, which tell a detective story of sorts about a search for two kidnapped men, A Void, precisely like its French original, never once uses the letter e.

But what, you may well ask in exasperated or wondering tones (and you can be sure that thousands of people, including one or two French book reviewers, have been driven to just such exasperation and wonderment over the past quarter- century), is the point of such a bizarre writer's stunt, however dazzling its execution?

Certainly, the exercise must appear perverse to the point of lunacy in Britain, where the dominant literary mode, notwithstanding the efforts of our many fantasists and some smaller gangs of post-modernists, continues to be well-mannered realism; but in France, traditionally the home of artistic experimentation in the last century or so, works such as La Disparition make much more sense.

Despite, that is to say, occasional lofty dismissals by the stuffier members of Paris's cultural arriere garde, the work of Georges Perec (1936-1982) - and La Disparition is far from being the most dazzling feat he managed to pull off in the course of a prolific career - is not only widely admired, but also understood in the context of that curious post-war movement of which he was the most illustrious member: OuLiPo, the Ouvroir de litterature potentielle (or 'workshop for potential literature'), an elite group of writers, mathematicians and mathematician-writers, founded in 1960 at a conference in Cerisy- la-Salle and dedicated to the composition of works in accordance with arbitrarily adopted but fiendishly difficult formal constraints, including anagrams, pangrams, palindromes and structures based on the rules of the Japanese board game Go (a game at which Perec, as one might have expected, excelled).

Even those British readers who haven't heard of OuLiPo may well have heard of its most celebrated product, Perec's enormous novel La Vie mode d'emploi (1978), translated into English by David Bellos as Life a User's Manual, a tome of quite staggering complexity which, among many other self-imposed oulipian rules, describes its way in 99 chapters (it is crucial, for reasons too complex to explain here, that there should not be 100) round the apartments in an imaginary French house, 11 Rue Simon- Crubellier, following what chess players know as a 'knight's tour' around a 10 x 10 grid.

For anyone who would like to find out more, there could be few more educative ways of passing this evening than by making a trip to the South Bank Centre, where David Bellos (who last year published the splendid biography Georges Perec, A Life in Words) and the poet and novelist Harry Mathews (the only American ever to have been admitted to OuLiPo, and a close friend of Perec's) will be discussing all manner of oulipian devices and desires.

Given the apparent perversity - even, you would think, impossibility - of some of the hoops which Perec, Mathews and co constructed for themselves to jump through (Perec is, for example, acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the author of the longest palindrome of all time, known simply as Le Grand Palindrome, running some 500 words in each direction, and including the words 'palindrome' and 'Perec' in both its opening and, therefore, its closing lines), perhaps the most remarkable aspect of oulipian writing is how unusually enjoyable it can be.

Harry Mathews's novel Tlooth, for example, contains a hilarious 'blue movie' scene in which the initial consonants of words are swapped around, or metathesised, as in a spoonerism: '. . . I found myself facing the swerving eeks of her chass, molded by muthing but their own nuscles under the elastic skitted nirt. . . '

It makes good oulipian sense that Perec should have been inspired to translate Tlooth and other works by Mathews, since, regarded in a certain light, translation - the attempt to construct a precise counterpart in one language to a work originally written in another - is itself a kind of oulipian exercise, albeit one which anticipated or, as oulipians might say, 'pre-emptively plagiarised' their technique by many centuries.

Jokes, as many writers have remarked, are among the hardest things to translate, which means that Perec - whose own jokes very often depend on sly allusions to his favourite (or least favourite) authors, including Herman Melville and Thomas Mann - often had to abandon strict fidelity to come up with French counterparts to Mathews' wordplay, and, similarly, that Adair has had to rework radically a section of La Disparition which strips the es from six well-known French poems by rewriting, instead, six equally well-known poems in English, 'all of which hover over the theme of negativity in some way, so that Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven becomes Blackbird by Arthur Gordon Pym, and Milton's 'On His Blindness' becomes 'On His Glaucoma'; 'Ozymandias' keeps the same title.'

Kafka, parenthetically, seems to have been the writer Perec most adored - he once wrote to the oulipian poet Jaques Roubaud that the three writers who had provided him with his self-image were 'Kafka, Kafka, and Franz Kafka' - and one of the French writer's projects was Wie Ein Hund, a play inspired by the final words of The Trial, 'like a dog'; while Kafka's work was not oulipian, they had all sorts of things in common: their condition as European Jews and in some photographs (or so Perec thought) a marked facial similarity; but one suspects that part of Perec's fondness for Kafka was also due to the fact that the letter K - which became the Czech writer's emblem - is something of an underdog, almost a Gastarbeiter, within the French language.

Liberating is the paradoxical adjective some commentators apply to the oulipian restraint, recalling that Perec first turned to the device of the lipogram - the technical name for the form which omits a particular letter - when he was suffering from terrible writer's block, and discovered that in the service of a self-imposed rule may be perfect freedom.

Moreover, Gilbert Adair says he found a strange liberty of his own in transforming La Disparition into A Void, since he 'managed to formulate a language which did perfectly well without the letter e, in which I eventually became able to write as fluently as I could write in conventional English, and which produced effects that I could never have achieved otherwise . . . in much the same way that disabled people are said to live full, rich, interesting lives, so e-less English is not a crippled language, but, so to speak, a 'differently abled' language.'

No doubt this claim will sound exaggerated to sceptics, but when Adair quotes a brief extract from A Void - the aforementioned Blackbird - his account proves to be well founded, not least because the laughter it provokes is largely due to its sheer fluency and panache; no wonder Perec sometimes compared himself to a trapeze artist.

On the other hand, it has to be admitted that oulipian jokes can be a bit rarefied, even for a specialist readership.

Perec's books, with the exception of his early novel Les Choses, sold in pitiful numbers until the success (quite close to 'overnight') of La Vie mode d'emploi in 1978 made him nationally famous for the last four years of his life.

Queneau, the remarkable French novelist and polymath who was one of the founders and, until Perec was recruited, probably the key member of OuLiPo, also went largely unread for much of his career, despite the international fame of his sprightly novel Zazie dans le metro.

Remarkably, Perec stuck to his guns throughout years of neglect, supporting himself with a day job as a scientific archivist and never succumbing to the temptation of turning out more conventional writings with an eye on the bestseller market - though he was quite happy, later in life, to be paid a retainer for inventing a notoriously challenging weekly crossword.

Some of his fellow writers have wondered whether Perec put his formidable talents to the best use; even the late Anthony Burgess, a writer keenly alive to the playful or (as he would have said) ludic dimension of literature, complained that La Vie mode d'emploi, for all its manifest genius, was a cold and heartless book.

There are times, to be sure, when oulipian writings start to seem less like a delightful game and more like a frightening obsession; what on earth could have been going through Perec's mind when he was writing Les Revenentes, a formal retort to La Disparition (it uses no vowels except e) which also, uniquely in an otherwise rather chaste oeuvre, answers to old-fashioned notions of a French feelthy book?

Unless a handful of gifted British obsessives club together and form an Anglo- Saxon counterpart to OuLiPo, it seems unlikely that we can expect many home-grown successors to such doubly driven works.

Voluntary self-limitation of the oulipian kind requires a peculiar kind of talent, in some ways closer to the mathematical than the poetic - for all that the vast majority of poems before the present century were written in accordance with restrictions (metre, rhyme) that might themselves seem pathological to us were they not so familiar.

What, then, are we finally to make of the whole oulipian business?

Xenophobic critics of the old school will probably continue to write it off as yet another horrible Gallic phenomenon, and further good reason for blocking up the Channel Tunnel with barriers constructed from the collected works of F R Leavis.

Younger and more open- minded readers, however, might start to realise that they have nothing to lose but their es; a brief perusual of OuLiPo's output will show them that rule- bound works can be not only amusing but strangely moving, too - one of the tacit subjects of La Disparition is the fate of Perec's mother, who was 'disappeared' in the Holocaust - and they might also learn to feel affection for the people who collaborated with Perec or helped make his 'potential' works actual: Queneau, Roubaud, Zingg.

Zingg - Gerard Zingg, to give his full name, a professional tennis player and sometime political scientist turned film-maker - sketched a charming portrait of Perec at the time of his death in March 1982; Perec, whose career gave an entirely new resonance to the phrase man of letters, would surely have been delighted and moved that the final moments of his life were commemorated in this way by a man whose first name begins, like his own, with G, and whose surname begins with the letter with which the alphabet ends.

The OuLiPo evening takes place at 7.30pm tonight in the Voice Box at the South Bank Centre, London SE1 (box-office: 071-928 8800). Gilbert Adair's 'A Void' will be published this autumn by Harvill, which also publishes David Bellos's biography of Perec. Harry Mathews's novels are available from Carcanet Press

(Photograph omitted)

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