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A Void Hardcover – January 1, 1995
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From Publishers Weekly
OuLiPians (members of Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle) once defined themselves as rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape. Perec's labyrinth in La Disparition was a lipogram omitting the letter "e." Lipograms are an old device, but what makes Perec's effort unique is the length and the fact that, despite its experimental nature, this works as a fun book, a sort of spoof on detective fiction. When the troubled Anton Vowl mysteriously disappears, his friends, led by Amaury Conson, try to find clues. Gathered at the great house of Azincourt, they uncover forbidden passions, an ancient curse, unsuspected relationships and an unending supply of dead bodies. Amaury's search for Anton is a premise: the reader's real conundrum is untangling the logogriph of A Void's multiple hints and references. Some are numerical/alphabetical (there is no chapter five out of 26); some require knowledge of French and other literature (one lipogram without "a"s or "e"s is by fellow OuLiPian Raymond Queneau); others are simply amusing ("An amorphous mass of books and authors bombards his brain... La Disparition? Or Adair's translation of it?") In A Void, Adair has proved himself an adept translator, one fully as comfortable with Perec's sense of absurd fun as with his language.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"A true tour de force: a full-length novel containing not a single 'E'. An entertaining post-modern detective story...dazzling... the translator's dazzling recreation conveys the author's near magical cleverness while preserving an underlying seriousness that makes this book much more than a curiosity" * New Yorker * "Adair's translation is an astounding Anglicisation of Francophonic mania, a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana, of humour, pathos and loss" * Time * --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Good for the mind! Read it. Makes a great gift too.
But--this is a strong story on its own. As with the best of anything `experimental,' the formal nature of the construction of the work falls away in enjoyment of the text, if not enhances this. For me, this is the difference between Joyce's last two books. Ulysses (Oxford World's Classics) uses style interacting with narrative to tell a story; Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics) is all style, and impenetrable for my casual perusal.
So--like the best of post/modern literature, like Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Everyman's Library (Cloth)) or Nabokov's Pale Fire (Everyman's Library (Cloth)), A Void's structure is both part of the story and an exploration of what it means to tell a story. I was excited to read this book because of the formal construction, but what kept drawing me back was not the formal experimentation, but the mystery. As one character says, "Nothing is as cryptic as a void" (90). I think this sums up the attraction. I won't speak at length on the plot, but it is a mystery that comes together like pieces of an inter-locking three-dimensional puzzle that give further credit to the creator of this work.
On a side note, part of me is interested in the construction of the work and the translation into English. I want that story to be told, but I suppose that is ephemera with little audience.
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.