A Void, by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Gilbert Adair

So, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this book, Perec’s A Void.

Let me just show you the beginning first. Here we go:

Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light. According to his watch it’s only 12.20. With a loud and languorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draws his quilt up around his chin, picks up his whodunit, and idly scans a paragraph or two; but, judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary to whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, throws it away in disgust.

Padding into his bathroom, Vowl dabs at his brow and throat with a damp cloth.

It’s a soft, warm night and his blood is racking through his body. An indistinct murmur wafts up to his third-floor flat. Far off, a church clock starts chiming – a chiming as mournful as a last post, as an air-raid alarm, as an SOS signal from a sinking ship. And, in his own vicinity, a faint lapping sound informs him that a small craft is at that instant navigating a narrow channel.

Crawling across his windowsill is a tiny animal, indigo and saffron in colour, not a cockroach, not a blowfly, but a kind of wasp, laboriously dragging a sugar crumb along with it. Hoping to crush it with a casual blow, Vowl lifts up his right hand; but it abruptly flaps its wings, flying off without giving its assailant an opportunity to do it any harm.

Notice anything? If you didn’t already know the trick here, then I bet you didn’t. This book is widely and believably reputed to be the best novel ever written without using the letter E. Even more stunningly, the guy who translated it also did so without using the letter E. The book, incidentally, comes with a little plastic packet filled with tiny paper cutout letters E and a little note that as the book is damaged, the buyer may find these useful.

This is just astonishing – I mean, that anyone wrote a novel-length work without using the letter E in the first place, even in French, but it’s even more astonishing that anyone tackled the job of translating into English while also holding onto that restriction. It’s a stunt, obviously, but it’s a really impressive stunt. And you know what makes it even more astonishing? That in the middle of this novel, the author includes, and the translator translates, the following:

William Shakspar’s “Living or Not Living” soliloquy

PBS’s “Ozymandias”

John Milton’s “On His Glaucoma”

Thomas Hood’s “No”

Arthur Gordon Pym’s “Black Bird”

Arthur Rimbaud’s “Vocalisations”


Let’s take a look at a couple you may recognize:


I know a pilgrim from a distant land

Who said: Two vast and sawn-off limbs of quartz

Stand on an arid plain. Not far, in sand,

Half sunk, I found a facial stump, drawn warts

And all; its curling lips of cold command

Show that its sculptor passions could portray

Which still outlast, stamp’d on unliving things,

A mocking hand that no constraint would sway:

And on its plinth this lordly boast is shown:

“Lo, I am Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, O Mighty, and bow down!”

‘Tis all that is intact. Around that crust

Of a colossal ruin, now windblow,

A sandstorm swirls and grinds it into dust.

What do you think? Obviously it’s terrible compared to the original, but it’s clever, isn’t it? The quartz/warts thing is truly dreadful.

I wonder if it might be a fun assignment in a lit class, to ask students to produce a version of this poem using various constraints, but trying to stay as close to the original in rhyme, rhythm, and meaning as possible. They’d all have to look up “visage,” I expect, and also spend a moment thinking about what the poem means, which could only be beneficial.

Okay, next!


The Black Bird

‘Twas upon a midnight tristful I sat poring, wan and wistful

Through many a quaint and curious list full of my consorts slain –

I sat nodding, almost napping, till I caught a sound of tapping,

As of spirits softly rapping, rapping at my door in vain –

“’Tis a visitor,” I murmur’d, “tapping at my door in vain –

                                Tapping soft as falling rain.”

….    ….   ….

Now, that night-wing’d fowl placating my sad fancy into waiting

On its oddly fascinating air of arrogant disdain,

“Though thy tuft is shorn and awkward, thou,” I said, “art not so backward

Coming forward, ghastly Black Bird wand’ring far from thy domain,

Not to say what thou art known as in thy own dusk-down domain!”

                                Quoth that Black Bird, “Not again.”


Obviously I just pulled out a couple of stanzas here; the whole thing has been parodied in the novel. It’s amazing how the rhyme, rhythm, and wordplay has been captured not just presumably by the e-less version in French, but again by this translated version. I’d be really interested in the French version – whether it has anything of the feel of the original.

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12 thoughts on “A Void, by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Gilbert Adair”

  1. Including the bag of cut out “E”s is cute! I’m curious, if this is the best novel written without E, how many others are there that attempted the same?

  2. If you’ve never heard of this before, his surname “Vowl” is already a clue about what’s missing.

    Doing it in French would be just as hard as English, with the acrobatics similar but not identical, e.g. the French for “the” is “le” (masc), “la” (fem), or “les” (plural); and the article “a/an” is “un” (masc) or “une” (fem).

    Camille, there’s an earlier English novel _Gadsby_ which is by repute not any good as a novel. Not sure how many other examples.

  3. Craig, including A Void, that’s two more than I ever expected to hear of! How fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I thought those opening paragraphs were really well-written but with unique vocabulary choices! What a crazy thing to try to do! And to succeed that well!

    I bet it was considerably more difficult in French. English has so many more words to choose from. But it has to be written in present tense: no “ed” conjugations!

  5. After avoiding E for an entire novel, the author is now languishing, locked in Ell. Quite a feat!

  6. Good point about English having a bigger vocabulary — and about having to completely avoid the past tense!

    I didn’t think of how important le and les and une would be in French. How amazing (and weird) to even try this.

  7. In French, this and that wouldn’t even work instead of the before a male noun, as cette and celle both have ees. So you need to use female nouns because of using la, but a whole lot of female words end in -e.
    With English borrowing words much more liberally from both Germanic and Romance roots, and having lots of synonyms giving the writer alternative options because of those historical waves of new language influxes, it looks as if the exercise would be even harder in French.
    I wonder if, because of that, this looks better in the English translation than in the original French? I’ve not read either version, so I have no idea.

  8. Hanneke, you have all persuaded me that writing French without “e” would be much harder than English. I can’t believe anyone ever tried it.

  9. I have this book! I read it in March 1996 (I checked my reading list). I was equally amazed at not only the fact that he’d written an entire novel without an E, but that the translator managed it, too. I don’t know which is more amazing. I remember joking that he had the right name for this, because he could barely have squeezed in any more Es into his name.

    If I remember correctly, he also wrote a short story avoiding the letter A, which apparently was harder.

  10. Deb, wouldn’t you like to know how that advertisement went? Wanted: a translator who can translate this book into English, without usingbthe letter “e.”

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