Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Writing: Invention or Exclusion?

 Georges Perec

Is it possible for you to write some complete, coherent sentences without using the first letter of our writing system?  The response to the question is “yes”, though the sentences might end up looking very odd, contorted, or contrived.  For the shunned letter is indeed the second most frequently used in English writing—only its fellow-vowel E being more often employed.  Hence, few extended prolusions of prose could omit it.

The gimmick in the paragraph above is that it contains not a single A.  That feature makes it a lipogram—from the Greek λείπω, leave out—a literary bagatelle in which a writer voluntarily submits to some more or less absurd compositional constraint, such as avoiding the letter A, in order to demonstrate…exactly what? 

There is a very long history to this sort of thing.  A deservedly obscure Greek poet named Tryphiodorus is supposed to have written his own versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, each in twenty-four books corresponding to the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet.  In serial fashion each book scrupulously avoided its appropriate letter: no alphas in book one, no omegas in book twenty-four, and so forth in between.  The great Lope de Vega, who could write a play in the time most people require for a shopping list, wrote five novels in order to omit from each one of the principal vowels (a, e, i, o, u); he did not consider y a worthy challenge, despite the fact it is the Spanish word for “and”.  It is alleged that in 1816 a strange drama entitled “Pièce sans A” had a very brief run upon the Paris stage.  The opening (and only) night of the “Play without an A” got off to a bad start when the lead flubbed its initial line.  The curtain rose to discover a man greeting another on stage.  Ah, monsieur!” cried the first.  Vous voilà.”  The audience howled with laughter, but with the help of the prompter the actor recovered and started again: “Eh, monsieur, vous voici.”

These and numerous other examples are provided by the estimable William S. Walsh in his inestimable Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1893).  Mr. Walsh had no high opinion of lipograms, which he regarded as forms of “literary trifling” and “useless tours de force.”  He thought that Tryphiodorus belonged to “those early centuries of our era during which the world, or the greater part of it, seems to have been in a state of blue mould for want of work.”

In fact the lipogram thrives on post-modernity, and I believe its mouldiest days are still ahead.  Perhaps the greatest of modern lipogrammatologists was Georges Perec (1936-1982), the tragically short-lived author of the indisputably brilliant Life: A User’s Manual, a book from which not much was left out.  But as a prominent member of an avant-garde literary conspiracy (in rough translation the “Atelier of Potential Literature”), Perec was all about pushing envelopes, shattering parchment ceilings, jumping the barracuda, and leaping the lipogram.  His masterpiece in this field was the full-length novel La Disparition (The Disappearance [1969]), a book in which the letter E never appears except insofar as its manifest absence invisibly ministers to major themes of lack, loss, and mysterious disappearance and is an important plot-theme.  In 1994 Gilbert Adair (1944-2011), a brilliant Brit, published his English translation of this book, eless, as A Void. I became aware of it from reading an eless review by my old friend and one-time Princeton colleague, the late Paul Gray, then the book editor at Time magazine.

Intelligible language may be the distinctive feature of the human species and its principal advantage among all other animals.  It is difficult to imagine effective human community without effective speech.  What of written language?  For most of recorded history a large majority of humanity was illiterate, and large swaths still are today.  Now most advanced countries enjoy high literacy rates—one of the features that make them “advanced”.  With negligible exception the educational systems of the world silently subscribe to this view.  Human civilization in its entirely depends upon archived thought and information.  How is it then that although the vast majority of humanity does a fair amount of talking each day, only a small minority ever does even a little writing?

            It is the view of many that the hardest thing about writing is thinking up something to write about.  I used to think that too.  The old word for this was “invention,” which in Latin had really meant “finding” or “discovering” as in the “Invention of the Cross”.  The famous orator Cicero thought that “invention”, the discovery of convincing arguments, was the first job of rhetoric.  My own thinking about this has evolved.

            Thinking up things to write about is a piece of cake.  The trick is in figuring out what to leave out in writing about them.  Say that Shakespeare wants to write about his terrific girlfriend, a subject for which the potential material is infinite.  How does he discipline the presentation?  Well he limits himself to fourteen lines of iambic pentameter distributed in three quatrains with a concluding couplet, with a rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg.  That makes him leave an awful lot out, to be sure, but also forces him to make what he puts in really counts.  If literary trifling and useless tours de force can add some variety to a writer’s workout, I’m all for them.