A Void (Part 1)

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. (p. 23)

In his novel, A Void, George Perec purposefully leaves out the most frequently used letter of the alphabet in order to tell his story. The e is clearly missing, one knows this as one begins reading, but soon its absence becomes barely discernable at all. Such is the quality of his writing.

(I wonder how many of those in the read-along will try to write their posts without an e; if successful, they’d be far more clever than I can attempt on this dreary October eve. Maybe I’ll see how many words with an e I can purposefully employ. 😉

At any rate, to signify the letter e, Perec has created Anton Vowl who by page 40 has gone missing. Amaury Conson, his bosom buddy, begins a search for his missing friend. He follows clues which Anton had left in a postcard, that take him to such obscure places as the zoo, while mentioning authors as diverse as Mishima, Dick Francis, and Herman Melville.

As I finished Part 1, and turned the page to find Part III (whatever has happened to Part II?!*) I found that not only is Anton Vowl missing, but so is the body of solicitor Hassan Ibn Abbou. However his absence fits with Anton Vowl remains to be seen.

There is a void, a possible abduction, or body-snatching everywhere one turns.

*Richard explained in his comment left on my initial thoughts post, that Part II is missing as e is the second in the list of vowels: a e i o u. I can see I need to think even more carefully as I read the parts which Perec has included, as well as the parts he has omitted. He is as tricky as they come.

A Void (Initial Thoughts)

A Void. A work by Georges Perec which follows lipogrammatic constraints; meaning, there’s no letter ‘e’ in the whole book. (It was translated that way into English, as well.)

Last week it dawned on me how clever the title alone is. A void as in an emptiness, a gap, a hole where the letter ‘e’ should be. Or, avoid as in completely leave it alone.

If the first two words of such a work can be so fraught with meaning, what does that bode for my comprehension of the rest of the work? I’m reading it with my computer’s browser open to Google, let me tell you.

How interesting to find this quote then, indicating that the absence of the most commonly used letter in the alphabet is tied to the loss of Perec’s parents:

“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”].” ~Warren Motte

For one who is constantly interested in the theme of loss, I’m going to try my best with this novel. I may need a little help, Richard, along the way.

Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

Chapter Sixty-Eight

On The Stairs, 9

Draft inventory of some of the things found on the stairs over the years

a black shoe decorated with jewels…

  • A box of Geraudel cough pastilles…
  • a Russian-leather cigarette case…
  • Pride and Prejudice, a novel by Jane Austen, in the Tauschnitz edition…
  • a rectangular, 21cm x 27cm sheet of paper on which the geneological tree of the Romanov family had been carefully drawn and framed with a frieze of broken lines…
  • a travelling chess set, in synthetic leather, with magnetic pieces…
  • a carnival mask representing Mickey Mouse…
  • several paper flowers, paper hats and some confetti…(p. 327-328)

Life is made of little things. The little glimpses we have of one another often come from those items which surround us; the pieces of our lives fit together as intricately as puzzle pieces. Who assembles them: the puzzle maker, or the puzzle solver?

Reading this remarkable book by Georges Perec made me ask that question over and over. Am I a piece of the puzzle? Do I have a part in the placement of my piece? Perhaps that question is too existential. Perhaps Perec only meant to give us a glimpse into our lives because whether we live in an apartment building in Paris, or in the suburb of a great midwestern city, our lives create a fascinating picture.

Consider a few of the characters he has created:
Valene, the old painter; Morellet, a lab technician who works for Bartlebooth, the puzzle maker; Gaspard Winckler, the specialist craftsman who painstakingly creates the wooden puzzles of Bartlebooth’s watercolors so they can be reassembled by him; Madame Hourcade who worked in a cardboard factory before the war and has identical black boxes into which the puzzle pieces can be placed; Smautf who is Bartlebooth’s butler; these, amidst all the other individuals who inhabit the apartment.

Interwoven through their lives is the story of Bartlebooth who seeks to reassemble 500 puzzles in 20 years. At the end he is pictured blind, sitting before the 439th puzzle which has one piece missing in the shape of X, while the piece he is holding is in the shape of a W.

We cannot determine the pieces of our lives, nor the shape they will take; I think we have an empty place inside that can never quite be filled.

I loved the picture of France that this book reminded me of. It’s been so long since I’ve rebelliously smoked a pack of Gitanes, taken a trip to the ancient town of Aigues Mortes, or smelled the scent of a Parisian apartment building filled with the detritus of life.
It makes me want a cigarette real bad.

Find other thoughts from our host Richard, and other readers E.L. Fay, Claire, Emily, Frances, Isabella, and Julia.

Initial Thoughts on Perec: Life, A User’s Manual

I’m thinking that Frances, and Claire, and any other bloggers who are reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual are a lot smarter than I. Take this passage alone:

Smautf has been in Bartlebooth’s service for more than fifty years. Although he calls himself a a butler, his services have been more those of gentleman’s gentleman or secretary; or, to be even more precise, both at the same time: in fact, he was above all his master’s travelling companion, his factotum, and if not his Sancho Panza at least his Passepartout (for there was indeed a touch of Phileas Fogg in Bartlebooth), in turns porter, clothes valet, barber, driver, guide, treasure, travel agent, and umbrella holder. (p. 52 of the Vintage edition)

If I hadn’t read Jules Verne’s Around The The World in 80 Days, I’d have no idea what the above reference was about. And so it is with more than half the names, or events, I encounter; I feel I should know of  them, or they should at least ring a bell, but alas, my cultural literacy seems to be sorely lacking.

However, I will continue on because the book is fascinating. (Murakami long ago prepared me for reading that which didn’t make complete sense to me.)

And, I got a fabulous haircut yesterday so all is not lost.

Addendum: It’s now 9:50 p.m., I’m on page 170, and I’m finally into it. I’ve given up trying to place a context for every name, every situation, and have given myself over to the characters. They are charming, they are flawed, and I’m getting the sense that this novel, called  a manual for life, is really a spoof on what we’ve turned our lives into. More to follow as the discussion takes place with Richard as our host on April 30.