Posted by: Sally Ingraham | November 10, 2010

2 – In which Gadsby pops by with his two bits

gadsbyAh Perec, you’re clever but you didn’t think of it first. Come to find out, in 1939 to little pomp and circumstance a fellow named Ernest Vincent Wright published a book called Gadsby, subtitled rather explicitly, A Novel of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E”. Here’s a very interesting article on the book, the author, and how both inspired Perec’s little e-less venture.

While it doesn’t surprise me, given Perec’s tendency to draw from other sources, I had to go back through my copy of A Void and find for myself his tip of the hat to Wright in the form of a briefly mentioned character on p. 44 (of the Godine edition):

…during a symposium…in which Lord Gadsby V. Wright, Britain’s most illustrious scholar and savant, was a participant.

In addition, Perec used a passage word for word out of Wright’s book as the ‘pastoral’ composition written by the young Anton Vowl (actually I can only verify that his translator Gilbert Adair used the word for word passage…):

It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary “fill-ins” as “romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road”. Nor will it say anything about tinkling, lulling, distant folds, robins caroling at twilight or any “warm glow of lamplight” from a cabin window. No…’ p. 47-48

Gadsby is difficult to come by, and its original edition is a collectors item. However, it seems that the book is available online here. I believe it’s the entire thing…but I haven’t read it myself yet! I do feel somewhat curious – in fact I have half a mind to launch a full on lipogram marathon. In the Village Voice article there is a list of several other books which fall into that category, and I at least have plans to look ‘em up!

perecI think it’s funny that Wright wrote his book to prove that it could be done, and in his postscript Perec writes that he wrote his book to prove the same thing to a companion who called his bluff – ‘I said I could do it, this companion said I could not’. Some people claim that Perec’s effort is more successful, more satisfying overall than Wright’s. What do I think, about Perec’s success at least?

Having finished the thing – and it was a bit of a struggle at times – I would say that it is technically stunning, entertaining at times, mind-boggling and ear-jarring. The beauty of the writing lies in the wordplay, but there is very little lyrical quality to be found here. As a story it is not entirely satisfactory, but even Perec was surprised that ‘anything solid would grow out of’ his experiment with verbal constraints. The amount of pleasure I got from parts of it makes up for the chore it was at times, and it’s enough for me that Perec, whom I’m really rather fond of, ‘had a lot of fun with it’.

Setting the book aside for the time being, all I have left to say is that to the best of my knowledge there are 30 instances of the phrase ‘a void’, and 33 if you count ‘an aching Boschian void’ (p. 28), ‘a plunging void’ (p. 70), and ‘that void’ (p. 173). So far I haven’t come up with any way that this is significant, and it occurred to me yesterday that since the title in the original French is La disparition, meaning ‘the disappeared’ it’s very likely that the amount of ‘a void’s in the book doesn’t matter much at all. But who knows? We’re talking about Georges Perec here, after all.


  1. I agree that the pleasure made up for the sometimes clunkiness of A Void. I wouldn’t call it a great story, but it was great fun to watch Perec (and Adair) play his game. It was just a completely different kind of pleasure from what I usually enjoy in my reading.

    • Exactly – it was a different kind of pleasure. I didn’t read it with the expectation that it would be a beautiful piece of writing, or that the story would thrill my soul…but I did expect it to delight and amuse me, and it didn’t fail there. 🙂

  2. Oh that little tip of the hat to Wright is SO Perec. Glad you included it, as it really reminds me how charming he can be. 🙂 And glad your experience with this book was overall a positive one.

    • Yes, it was definitely an “oh you charming devil” moment when I discovered it! Can’t help wondering how many hat tips to others I missed – and I’m gratified to know that should I pick the book up again in a year or ten, I’ll find new things to delight me. 🙂

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