I thought I had first learned of Perec’s A Void -- a novel in which the letter e never appears -- from The Book of Lists, which I read and re-read as a teenager. However, I just checked The Book of Lists and there is no mention of either Perec or his novel, a strange disappearance completely in synch with A Void. My interest was reawakened when I found myself constructing sentences without the letter e while half-asleep (details here). My sister Ann gave me a copy of A Void this past year for Christmas and I was off.
Reading the book, you can’t help but be aware of the game the writer is playing, and as you read, you constantly check to see if he slips up. Nope, he never does. Some stylistic indulgences are to be expected: past tense is avoided and some numbers are represented by digits rather than spelled out. Even though the book is based around a clever conceit, there is a sense of sadness and loss. Written as a mystery, it begins with the disappearance of the main character’s best friend, soon followed by the death or disappearance of others in his life. It includes the genre’s conspiracies, hair-pin turns and sudden reversals to portray a stable world sinking into chaos. It’s interesting that Perec, a life-long Parisian, wrote this, the most rule-bound of novels, during the political turmoil of the late sixties. It is anarchic in its imagination though reactionary in its respect for rules and order.
How clever is the book? Well, the second section and the fifth chapter are “missing” (because e is the second vowel and the fifth letter of the alphabet). Not content to craft his own work with one letter tied behind his back, Perec also rewrites and incorporates Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Poe’s “Black Bird” (“Quoth that Black Bird ‘Not Again’”), and, for the ultimate achievement in being a smart-ass, Shakespeare’s “To Be Or Not To Be”:
Living or not living: that is what I ask:
If ‘tis a stamp of honor to submit
To slings and arrows waft’d us by ill winds,
Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions,
Which by our opposition is subdu’d? Dying, drowsing;
I should point out that A Void is a translation, skillfully handled by Gilbert Adair from the original French, which may actually be the greater achievement. It brings to mind the old line about Ginger Rogers being a superior dancer to Fred Astaire because she had to do everything he did except backwards and in high heels.