Written in 1969, Georges Perec’s dramatic lipogrammatic novel does away with the letter “e”. Yes, for 300 pages Perec (1936 – 1982) the novelist and filmmaker essentially shows off his virtuoso language skills as he waxes lyrical without using a single “e” thing. It’s a bold literary endeavour few would want to put themselves through, although it would be a lot easier these days thanks to online resources etc.
Naturally, the draw of the book is how someone can write such a novel without relying on the letter “e”. There is a plot thrown in there for good measure but, for many literature and language fans, the thrill of reading this crazed individuals efforts to get through a single sentence without going full “e” is a major draw. Was he mad, or something?!
La Disparition as it’s known in French is about a bloke called Anton Vowl who goes missing after a health crisis. As such, it becomes something of a spoof detective story with noir elements and a flamboyant, melodramatic use of language.
It’s a distinctly post-modern text, with Perec make self-referential remarks in his prose about the limitations of the lipogrammatic style he’s chosen. It must have been a mighty undertaking to write it, but whilst this is extremely impressive, we weren’t overwhelmed by the brilliance of the story. The prose is lively and flamboyant, but the relentless sub-plots ultimately detract from the coherence of the story… although, perhaps, this was Perec’s ultimate goal.
As a literary experiment, however, it’s worthwhile reading simply to see how Perec goes about structuring his sentences, paragraphs, and, indeed, story. It’s not as elaborately stunted and bizarre as we expected, although you can, at times, see the writer yearning to use the letter e, but coming up with fantabulous confabulations to get around the self-imposed limitations.
Thusly, we have a book which stands out due to its style of writing rather than the tale itself. If you’re a fan of language, delve on in to see a master at work, but if you want a compelling story, it doesn’t deliver anything special.
For such a madcap idea, Perec was very much befitting his concept. With massive have, impish features, and an air of mischievousness, he well and truly looks the part. A heavy smoker, he, unfortunately, developed lung cancer and died in 1982 at the age of 45.
Why did he even attempt the novel? Well, there’s nothing wrong with innovation, eh? Plenty of literary critics have searched for answers. One suggested, as the writer’s parents died during World War II, this led Perec to write the book due to the sense of loss he suffered in life (i.e. as a metaphor).
Alternatively, being an experimental writer, filmmaker, and essayist, perhaps he decided he was up to the challenge. The result is a virtuoso display of language – a genuinely brilliant command of it in an era without spellcheck and easy access to a thesaurus. Good on the man!