Today’s post is the latest in a series I like to call, “I know what would be fun. I’ll take decades and decades of existential literary theory and interpret and distil it to the size of a blog post!”
This week, I thought we’d take a look at one of the more … how shall I put it … “out there” literary types.
So, this week it’s the turn of George Perec. The first thing to know about George Perec is that he had an afro and a humongous beard. No, I mean epic. Don’t believe me?
Let’s just take a moment to admire that facial hair….
Okay, done? So, it gets better. Perec was a sado-masochistic writer of the highest order. He was part of a French writing group known as Oulipo which was founded in the ‘60s. This group set itself “constraints” when writing. Some examples of this would include “tautograms” (every word of which begins with the same letter) and “permutational” poems (whose lines can be read in any order). Another example is Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, in which a matrix of ten sonnets with interchangeable lines is used to generate 100 trillion ‘potential’ poems.
These guys knew how to party!
But it gets better. In 1969, Perec wrote a novel called La disparition. At first, critics thought it was a run-of-the-mill thriller. But it was, in fact, what’s known as a lipogram – the entire novel was written without ever using the letter “e”! It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). Not happy with this level of self-torture, Perec decided to take it a step further. In his next novel Les revenentes (1972) the letter “e” was the ONLY vowel used.
Perec’s most famous novel, published in 1978, has a great title: La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual). It’s a 600-page novel made up of 99 chapters, and tells the story of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block. What’s interesting is that the whole novel takes place in a single moment. This was another novel written to a complex plan of writing constraints; for instance, each chapter had a list of items, references and/or objects which that chapter had to contain or allude to.
Sounds like a lot of hard work, eh? So, what do you think? Could you try writing a novel without using the letter “e”?
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