On this date in 1995, Paul Gray wrote one of the most interesting book reviews ever written. Writing in Time magazine, Gray was reviewing the novel A Void by the French writer Georges Perec and translated into English by Gilbert Adair. Read the opening sentence of Gray’s review, and see if you notice what’s missing:
A Void, originally La Disparition (1969), is a lipogram, an old trick dating as far back as 500 B.C. in which authors voluntarily submit to awful handicaps, arbitrarily abjuring crucial signs or symbols and making writing, always a hard task, a virtual impossibility.
A lipogram is a word from Ancient Greek that means “leaving out a letter.” And in case you didn’t notice, the letter Gray leaves out of his review is the letter “e.” Georges Perec’s complete novel A Void — all 285 a pages — is a lipogram, and he doesn’t just “avoid” any letter, he avoids the single most frequently appearing letter in the French language, the letter “e” – a letter that appears in 15% of French words.
Following Perec’s achievement, translator Gilbert Adair took on the even more challenging task of translating A Void into English while at the same time maintaining its E-lessness. This means Adair had to avoid the two most frequently used words in English, “the” and “be.” As in French, the letter “e” is the most frequently used letter in English, appearing in 12.7% of words.
Gray clearly admires the achievements of both Perec and Adair. In praising Adair’s work, for example, Gray says the following, while maintaining his e-less lipogram:
Adair’s translation is an astounding Anglicization of Francophonic mania, a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana, of humor, pathos, and loss.
In 1972 Perec took on another form of constrained wordplay called the univocalic, a piece which uses only a single vowel (See September Seventeenth: Univocalic Day). In the case of his novella, entitled Les Revenentes, Perec eschewed all vowels but “e.”
Today’s Challenge: Lipograms — as easy as A, B, C, D, and E
How can you write a short story in which each sentence is a lipogram? Try your hand at writing the beginning of a short story of at least five sentences. Eliminate one letter in each sentence, beginning with the letter “A” in the first sentence, the letter “B” in the second sentence, and so on. If you’re truly ambitious, work your way through the entire alphabet.
Here’s an example:
Mike loves his dog, Spot, but he finds it difficult to love his pet turtle, Boris. This turtle has some serious issues, including his penchant for eating Mike’s clothes. Just last week, Mike found Boris under his bed gnawing on his brand new tennis shoes. Spot, however, is a quality canine, one that Mike can always trust. Spot is truly man’s paramount companion, consuming only what is put in his dog bowl.
Quotation of the Day: Sadly, a handful of critics find lipograms ridiculous, ugly or without worth (as fiction or as wordplay). To such sorry saps, I say only that constraining your thoughts and writing in a particular way aids in promoting branching paths of thought, thus amplifying vocabulary and instilling adroit linguistic skills among both young and old. By putting into praxis ways of thinking that wouldn’t occur normally, lipograms call for authors to look at writing as an activity in ways that, frankly, wouldn’t occur to such niggling adjudicators of linguistic conduct. -Steve Chrisomalis (2)
1-Gray, Paul. “A World of Humor and Loss.” Time 6 Feb 1995.