Born in Paris in 1936 to Jewish émigrés from Poland, Georges Perec spoke several languages from childhood. Orphaned by World War II and the Holocaust, the young Perec was reared in the family of his father’s sister and brother-in-law, the latter a remote figure more than forty years Perec’s senior. David Bellos, author of the exhaustive Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993), traces the origins of Perec’s unique literary vocation to his solitary childhood in the aftermath of World War II, living in France while belonging, if at all, to a culture more European than French. Although obviously gifted as a student, respected by his classmates and teachers, the young Perec nevertheless failed to achieve the early distinctions that would lead toward success and visibility. Determined to become a writer, Perec developed during his adolescence and early adulthood an intricate system, or series of systems, for generating his material. Fascinated by mathematics, the sciences and game theory as much as by literature, Perec seems to have prepared his texts from an eccentric, bewildering inner program that was often misunderstood during his lifetime. His first published novel, Les Choses: Une Histoire des années soixante (1965;Things: A History of the Sixties, 1967), met with unexpected success and even a literary prize, in part because it was misinterpreted by its first readers and critics as an outgrowth of the new novel originated in the 1950’s by such otherwise dissimilar authors as Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Nathalie Sarraute.
As Bellos shows in his Perec biography and elsewhere, Things was mainly an outgrowth of Perec’s singular preoccupations. Earlier completed novels, perhaps more typically Perecquian, had failed, meanwhile, to achieve publication. It thus happened that Perec’s second novel to be published was La Disparition, (1969; the disappearance), an elaborate linguistic exercise conceived as a lipogram, using fewer than the twenty-six letters of the standard Roman alphabet. In the case of La Disparition, the object of omission is the letter e, all the more crucial to French than to English because it can represent no fewer than three vowel sounds, depending upon the accent mark. Unquestionably bizarre both in concept and in execution, La Disparition tended to keep a low profile in French literary circles, with one prominent reviewer completely missing the point by not missing the missing letter. Among literary insiders, however, the book would build and keep an intrigued, even devoted readership, a phenomenon that accounts in part, if not entirely, for Gilbert Adair’s labor of true literary love in preparing A Void, an English version of Perec’s work, of necessity less a translation than a rewriting, which appeared on British bookshelves a quarter-century after the French original and a dozen years after Perec’s death of cancer at age forty-six. In the meantime, Perec’s work, crowned by the masterful La Vie mode d’emploi (1978; Life: A User’s Manual, 1987) had become the subject of considerable critical commentary and debate, in Great Britain as well as in France. David Bellos, Perec’s eventual biographer, translated no fewer than four of Perec’s novels into English during the decade following the author’s death.
A Void, Adair’s version of La Disparition, rigorously faithful to Perec’s fondness for wordplay as well as to his self-imposed constraint in avoiding the letter e, is, like the original, a remarkable if idiosyncratic achievement, successfully testing the limits of readerly and writerly imaginations. Anton Vowl (Voyl in the original, from the French voyelle ), somewhat plausible as a literary character, disappears early in the novel after pondering such clue-ridden mysteries as a shelf with twenty-five instead of twenty-six books. Vowl’s supposed boon companions, most endowed with heavily allusive names, join the search for Anton, only to vanish...
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