A Void by Georges Perec
Translated (rather brilliantly!) by Gilbert Adair

‘E’ is the most common letter of the alphabet in the English (and French) languages; imagine therefore having to write a whole novel without using it at all. That was the constraint that Georges Perec set himself, and it’s certainly one worthy of an OuLiPo member. For some reason, despite having this on my shelves for ages, I hadn’t picked it up yet. But the joy of having no plans is that I can read what takes my fancy when I want, and this one did that recently!

The plot, such as it is, starts off with the mysterious disappearance of Anton Vowl. His friends, including Amaury Conson, Douglas Haig Clifford,Arthur Wilburg Savorgnan and Olga Mavrokhordatos, try to trace him, going through his diaries and papers and attempting to decipher them. However, they make no sense – they riff on ‘Moby Dick’ and Bioy Casares’ ‘The Invention of Morel’, but what does this have to do with Vowl’s absence? His friends call in the authorities in the shape of Ottavio Ottaviani and his boss  Swann, an odd pair in themselves; but as the disparate group attempt to track down their missing colleague, strange deaths begin to occur. What links this dizzying array of characters who all seem to be connected in some unknown way? Where is Vowl? And who is behind these peculiar events?

And if I don’t look too aghast, it’s simply that I’m afraid, I’m much afraid, that, from now until nightfall, I’m going to find out many things just as astonishing, many facts just as confusing, and many plots just as paradoxical.

Reading Perec is always a bracing and exhilarating experience, and “A Void” is no different. What starts as a relatively straightforward (if Perec is ever straightforward!) story of a missing vowel and a missing person soon develops into a kind of metafictional detective story, a search for the source of the curse which seems to be afflicting all the characters. As the story goes in, Perec peels back layers, drawing on myth, religion and literature and the plot becomes wilder and wilder, reaching back into a complex history leading up to Vowl’s absence.

Vowl, tall, straight as a capital I, as slim as a strand of hair, clad in a panama hat and a drab plastic mac with a tartan collar, carrying a stick and looking about 20 at most, was, at first sight, nothing but a normal, charming youth, but a faint hint of – oh, how shall I put it? – a slightly indistinct, out-of-focus quality about him instantly put you on your guard. His curious skin colouring, giving his bulging brow a sickly cast, his languid gait, half-lurching, half-undulating, his shifty look, his rabbity lash-bound iris so limpidly bluish I thought I was looking at an albino – all in all, I saw a kind of twitchy agitation in him which I found highly anxious-making, as if this poor man was carrying a cumbrous physical or psychological cargo within him.

There is a *lot* of death, some fatalities occurring in very bizarre ways, and the subplot and raison seems to be the search for revenge within a family. However,
the narrative becomes increasingly metafictional as the book progresses, with continual oblique references to 25 of things instead of 26, acknowledgement of the lack of an ‘e’, that void bringing a kind of damnation to the characters. It’s also worth noting that the book has 26 chapters…

Nicholas had a truly amazing gift for linguistic obfuscation and would turn an innocuous communication into such hocus pocus that nobody could follow it….

Perec himself, of course, had a problematic family background, with both of his parents being missing; his father died during the Second World War and his mother perished in Auschwitz. Their absence tends to haunt some of his works and so a complex and murky family background, with children taken from their parents, obviously draws on his own experience. It’s worth remembering also that Perec’s own name could not exist without the letter ‘e’….

Things look normal, but looks can play tricks on you. Things at first look normal, till, abruptly, abnormality, horrifying in its inhumanity, swallows you up and spits you out.

Like all Perec’s work, “A Void” is stuffed full of references; as well as the aforementioned Moby and Morel, Shakespeare, Poe, Borges and Joyce all get a look in (to name but a few). Part of the fun of reading Perec is spotting the references; many I got, but I’m sure there are just as many that I didn’t! OuLiPo itself receives several mentions; and at one point a certain Raymond Q. Knowall from that organisation attends a significant funeral, which made me chuckle.

…a work, as I say, in which an author’s imagination runs so wild, in which his writing is so stylistically outlandish, his plotting so absurd, of an inspiration so capricious and inconstant, so gratuitous and instinctual, you’d think his brain was going soft!

Some of the wordplay is quite dazzling; and the book is full of so much wit and humour that you have to keep reminding yourself of the constraint and how clever it is. I found myself stopping to think about the use of everyday words – we default to the familiar e.g. pen, whereas here it is biro or bic and the language is therefore much more elaborate than usual. Such a constraint forces you to be inventive with language, and even more so in translation. In face, the book is a virtuoso performance by both author and translator, and Adair deserves massive kudos for sticking to Perec’s constraint when rendering the book into English; I believe translators to other language have chosen an equivalent limitation relevant to their mother tongue. Interestingly, at one point there is a list of a number of texts from ‘Moby Dick’ through Malcolm Lowry and ending up with “La Disparition? Or Adair’s translation of it?” and I loved the touch of the translator inserting himself into the narrative as an essential part in our understanding of Perec’s work.

Author? or Character?

As for who or what’s behind the plot; well, towards the end of the book a wiry-haired, bushy-chinned individual appears, who seems to be manipulating things from behind the scenes, leading the reader to the obvious conclusion that the author has made his entry into his own book…

Swann points to a portrait of a skinny man with long, curly, slightly wispy hair, thick hairy brows, a dark, bushy chin and an ugly, narrow gash scarring his lips. Sporting a wooly cardigan with four buttons on top of an Oxford smock without a collar, our man has a faintly folksy look about him, calling to mind a zingaro or a gypsy, a carny or a Mongol, but also (switching to a wholly distinct mythology and iconogaphy) a hippy strumming his guitar in a barroom in Haight-Ashbury or at Big Sur or in Katmandu.

Is there a solution to the mystery and the story? Well, sort of – Perec almost seems to be implying the impossibility of any real solution, perhaps intending to subvert the whole concept of fiction. A work of literature tends to tie up its loose ends, and life is never really so neat and tidy…

… just as a man who, rapt in a book, a work of fiction, constantly hoping for a solution, for a solution that’s driving him crazy by lurking just out of his grasp, a solution that has had throughout, in fact from its first word, an infuriating habit of staring at him whilst continually avoiding his own scrutiny, might find, advancing into its story, nothing but ambiguous mystification and rationalisation, obscurantism and obfuscation, all of it consigning to a dim and murky chiaroscuro that ambition, so to say, that lit its author’s lamp.

I think I will probably need to read “A Void” again to really do it justice. There are so many layers, so many references and so many hints that you could probably write several theses on it. As it was, I found the book fascinating, stimulating and gripping; I love Perec’s writing, his playing with words, structures and plots, and his totally unique take on things. He isn’t always the easiest read, but boy, is he worth the effort!

Incidentally, you might wonder what happened to all the ‘e’s that were left out of the book – well, that’s another story…

Advertisements