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Curious Constraints 3: fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal

But Georges Perec is the doyen of perverse, lipogrammic constraints. His La Disparition (1969), or The Disappearance, famously avoids any use of the letter ‘e’, as does Gilbert Adair’s prize winning English translation A Void. Other translations impose similar limitations – the Spanish version, El secuestro, for example, avoids ‘a’, the most common vowel in that language, whilst the Russian does without the ‘o’.

As if that wasn’t enough, after La Disparition, Perec wrote Les Revenentes (1972) which uses no vowels apart from ‘e’.

Here is a brief extract from the English translation of La Disparition:

Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp – fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? – a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord…’

Perec himself was inspired by an earlier American novel, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright, subtitled ‘A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E”‘. Despite the fact that, when it was published in 1939, the novel comprised an unprecedented lipogrammatic feat, it gained no recognition whatsoever, and remains relatively unknown outside specialist circles.

Wright apparently wrote Gadsby on a typewriter with the ‘e’ tied down. His (non-lipogrammatic) description of the process of writing the novel is charmingly evocative, and will ring true with any follower of the Oulipo school:

“People as a rule will not stop to realize what a task such an attempt actually is. As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like seabirds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm; but shouting back: “You certainly must have a hodge-podge of a yarn there without us! Why, man! We are in every story ever written hundreds of thousands of times! This is the first time we ever were shut out!..”

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