‘La Disparition’ is a novel written by Georges Perec in 1969. It was later translated by Gilbert Adair and published in English as ‘A Void’ in 1995.
It is 300 pages long, concerns the search for a missing man by a group of his friends and is written, in English and French, entirely without the letter ‘e’.
It is an example of a lipogrammatic work, one where a letter or group of letters are deliberately omitted.
One of the earliest examples of such a piece, and an inspiration to Perec, is ‘Gadsby’ by Ernest Vincent Wright which was published in 1939 and has over 50,000 words in it, none of which contain the letter ‘e’, the most common letter used in English or French.
The omission of the most common letter necessarily means leaving out some of the most common words such as ‘the’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ in English and ‘je’ and ‘le’ in French.
Other lipogrammatic works that have worked around other ideas include ‘Alphabetical Africa’ by Walter Abish where the first chapter contains only words beginning with ‘a’, the second chapter contains words beginning with ‘a’ and ‘b’ and so on until the twenty-sixth chapter which is written without any restrictions. For the following twenty-five chapters Abish then reverses the process.
‘Cipher and Poverty’ (The Book of Nothing) by Mike Schertzer is narrated by a prisoner who can only use words that can be composed by the phrase ‘Who can find me here in this silence?’
The book is then a collection of poems written by the prisoner using just these letters.
Perec was a member of a literary group called ‘Oulipo’ which is short for ‘Ouvroir de litterature potentielle.’ This can be roughly translated as ‘The Workshop for Potential Literature’ and was a gathering of writers who produced works using constrained writing techniques.
This would involve the use of lipograms, palindromes and mathematical problems such as the ‘Knight’s Tour’ which Perec used in his novel ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ (1978).
This book is set in an apartment block in Paris and Perec imagined the rooms of the apartment block as the squares on a chess board and the narrative moves from room to room according to the movement of a Knight on a chess board.
Although there is clearly enough to admire in the sheer technical expertise of Perec in utilising these ideas what sets his work apart is the fact that the techniques also help to form the larger themes in the books as well.
In ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ one of the key elements of the plot is the quest of Bartlebooth, one of the main characters, to create and destroy a series of jigsaws, which is ultimately unsuccessful.
The aim of a Knight’s Tour is for the piece to visit each square exactly once. Perec actually fails to do this echoing the failure of Bartlebooth’s plan.
Perec, born in 1936, lost both of his parents in the Second World War and was raised by an aunt and uncle.
Walter Motte, in the literary magazine ‘Context’, addressed this loss and felt that it was, undeniably, an influence on the ideas in ‘A Void’:
"The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning. Perec cannot say the words père ["father"], mère ["mother"], parents ["parents"], famille ["family"] in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec. In short, each "void" in the novel is abundantly furnished with meaning, and each points toward the existential void that Perec grappled with throughout his youth and early adulthood. A strange and compelling parable of survival becomes apparent in the novel, too, if one is willing to reflect on the struggles of a Holocaust orphan trying to make sense out of absence, and those of a young writer who has chosen to do without the letter that is the beginning and end of écriture ["writing"]."