I wrote last year about how I introduced to my students a series of books that pushed the envelope around “when is a book a book?” (I, II, III, IV) I wanted them to see authors who really took the construct of “book” and “words” to places they had never imagined.
Today I shared Georges Perec’s A Void. Perec wrote this whodunit about the disappearance of an eccentric with a penchant for word games, Anton Vowl, followed by the disappearance of each of his friends who try to locate him. What is amazing about this story is that the three hundred pages of this novel are written without using the letter “e.” What is even more stunning is that this book was originally written in French and that the translator, Gilbert Adair, was able to translate it without the use of a single “e” as well. Lipogram is the term used to describe a written piece in which a letter or groups of letters are left out of a composition.
My afternoon class could not believe it was possible.
“What about the word ‘the’; there is no ‘the’ in that book? Really?”
They leaned in and grabbed the book. They leafed through, reading passages aloud with an intense focus, looking for what should have been a few “e”s,–somewhere.
“How is that possible? How did he do that?”
“That means no ‘wheres’ or ‘whens?'”
“Can you imagine if this guy had to do a Constitution Nexus? There would be no executive branch or legislative branch.”
“No senate or House of Representatives!”
“No ‘We the people!'”
Usually after introducing each of the books, I ask my students to put its information down using bibliographic format (so there will be no problems when we get to our research paper later in the year) and then ask them to write a few sentences about the uniqueness of the particular book and what they think of that uniqueness. That was when DL announced, “Let’s see if we can write a lipogram to describe the book.” They all hunkered down.
“Wait. How can you say ‘letter’ or ‘alphabet?’ They both have ‘e’s.”
“How about, ‘This book is about the lack of the fifth symbol?'”
“What’s another word for friend that doesn’t have an ‘e’ in it?”
“Absolutely no fifth symbols in this book.”
“‘Absolutely’ has an e.”
“Wait, how about this? ‘Without fifth symbols, this author used,’ no can’t use ‘use,’ ‘…this author works to unfold a story about missing…ah….humans!'”
And on and on it went until the end of class, which was the end of the day, at the end of a long week. Perec’s book may have been titled A Void. But my students definitely did not. A fine way to sail into the weekend.