Thursday, January 04, 2007

Perec on the Lipogram

Before publishing what will probably go down in literary history as the greatest lipogram ever written -- his e-less novel La Disparition (translated into e-less English by Gilbert Adair as A Void), Georges Perec wrote an essay called "History of the Lipogram"; you can find a translation of it in Warren F. Motte's edited volume Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. I don't recall if Perec's essay was written just before he set out to write La Disparition or in the process of writing it, but it was clearly preparation for that task. A propos of a discussion some of us were having on Geoff Klock's blog, I thought I would excerpt a bit of Perec's defense of the lipogram here. (The whole essay is not online; if you want to read it, you should get a copy of Motte's book (or, if you read French, you can get the first Oulipo anthology, La Littérature potentielle, and read it in the original.))
Littré defines the lipogram as "a work in which one affects to exclude a particular letter of the alphabet"; Larousse says, more precisely: "literary work in which one compels oneself strictly to exclude one or several letters of the alphabet". An appreciation of the nuance between "one affects" and "one compels oneself" might have constituted one of the purposes of this article....

Exclusively preoccupied with its great capitals (Work, Style, Inspiration, World-Vision, Fundamental Options, Genius, Creation, etc.), literary history seems deliberately to ignore writing as practice, as work, as play. Systematic artifices, formal mannerisms (that which, in the final analysis, constitutes Rabelais, Sterne, Roussel...) are relegated to the registers of asylums for literary madmen, the "Curiosities": "Amusing Library," "Treasury of Singularities," "Philological Entertainments," "Literary Frivolities," compilations of a maniacal erudition where rhetorical "exploits" are described with suspect complaisance, useless exaggeration, and cretinous ignorance. Constraints are treated therein as aberrations, as pathological monstrosities of language and of writing; the works resulting from them are not even worthy to be called "works": locked away, once and for all and without appeal, and often by their authors themselves, these works, in their prowess and their skillfulness, remain paraliterary monsters justiciable only to a symptomology whose enumeration and classification order a dictionary of literary madness.

Without wishing to distinguish between that which, in writing, is madness, and that which is not (is platitude a form of wisdom?), one might at least recall that formal mannerisms have existed since time immemorial and not only, as some feign to believe, during so-called "decadent periods": they have traversed all of Western literature (we shall not speak of the others here) and have left their trace on every genre....

We do not pretend that systematic artifices are identical to writing, but only that they constitute a dimension of writing which must not be ignored. Rather than harrying the ineffable to who knows where, shouldn't we first examine the reasons for the persistence of the sonnet? And why should we forget that the most beautiful line of poetry in the French language is composed of monosyllables?...

...the suppression of the letter, of the typographical sign, of the basic prop, is a purer, more objective, more decisive operation [than suppressing a given word], something like constraint degree zero, after which everything becomes possible.

-- Georges Perec, "History of the Lipogram"
Translated by Warren F. Motte, Jr.

If anyone's curious, Motte says in a footnote that the "most beautiful line of poetry in the French language" that Perec had in mind (confirmed by a personal letter Perec wrote) is from Racine's Phèdre, line 1112: "Le jour n'est pas plus pur que le fond de mon coeur", which Motte translates as "the day is no more pure than my own heart".

If you are interested in this topic, seek out the entire essay -- although of course Perec's definitive defense of the lipogram is not his history of it, but his wonderful novel exemplifying its power and possibility.

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