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A Void by Georges Perec
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's review
Sep 09, 2015

really liked it
bookshelves: wishlist, 2011-read, oulipo, fiction, recommended, french
Read from May 15 to 30, 2011

How do you write coherently about a book that was equal parts frustrating and marvelous? It’s probably best to start with its author, Georges Perec, who started out as the bane of my existence but I’m happy to report is on my list of authors that I admire. Apologies to Gary, who had to hear me gripe about A Void since we started reading this together. Perec was a French writer and a member of Oulipo from 1969 to his death in 1982. Though I have yet to read his other works (novels, play, poetry, and opera librettos, even), it is easy to see why Perec is considered a “literary experimentalist.”

A Void is a literary feat: it is, in short, a novel written without a single E in its 300 pages. While Life a Users Manual is considered his magnum opus, A Void stands as a triumph in taking a constraint, the lipogram, and making it work in long form fiction. And beyond that, Perec found that the constraint provided a means to break free of our ideas of what could be done with fiction.

“My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would, or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today.”

Anton Vowl is the subject of this novel; or, more accurately, his disappearance serves as a catalyst for this literary whodunit that leads his friends on a twisting and turning path, following half clues and false paths. In this essay on reading Perec, Warren Motte points to voids in Perec’s own life—namely, his parents:

"On the other hand, 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, mère, parents, famille 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."

A Void is a marvel. An exercise in the absurd. A self-aware piece of fiction: “La Disparition? Or Adair’s translation of it?” At times, it feels like Perec is winking, nudging, and blowing raspberries at the reader (“nothing, nothing at all, but irritation at an opportunity knocking so loudly and so vainly, nothing but frustration at a truth so dormant and frail that, on his approach, it sinks into thin air.”) And let’s not overlook his underscoring the letter E’s absence throughout the novel: twenty five books on a shelf that once held twenty six (25 letters remain in the alphabet that’s missing an E), Anton Vowl’s absence (A. Vowl, get it?), and so on.

For me, the story and character development were secondary to the intricate, convoluted tangents that make this narrative unique. While some writers are satisfied by describing the landscape, Perec seems to delight in telling the reader each item or object’s history, it’s disappointments, absurdity, etc. At times, the narrative flagged for this reader but it was at those times that Perec was aware, pointing to the pointlessness of the many digressions from plot to subplot to who knows where.

How did he pull it off? And perhaps equally important, how did Adair manage to translate this beast of a book into English? Because he did.

A Void isn’t for every reader. Though it is set in Paris, it is not the Paris for lovers. It’s the 1960s and Paris is in shambles. Where total anarchy prevails. If you are up for a read that asks more of you than you’re accustomed to, if you are up for a challenge–a rewarding one at that–then give this a go. But don’t go throwing your book at me. I warned you, didn’t I? Recommended.
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Reading Progress

05/18/2011 page 50
18.0% "my brain wants to die"
05/29/2011 page 100
35.0% "Getting into the rhythm. Making a list of Perec-isms. He's funny when read closely. Zoom out and the story gets lost. Maybe my opinion will change again in the next 100 or so pages. For the curious, yes, my brain is no longer a solid mass. It is a gray puddle. I'm sorry for that image."

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