Friday, April 5, 2013

G org s P r c and Lit rary Tomfool ry

A Void  

Today, at sunrise--who can say why?--I had a yearning for a dose of one of my favorite books, Hopscotch (in Spanish, Rayuela), and for one of my favorite sections, the one (18) where the anti-hero Horacio Oliveira (surely Julio Cortázar himself) looks back on a night of drinking, talking, and listening to jazz with his friends and his lover (the mysterious Uruguayan La Maga) with a melancholy sense of loss.  In the English of that genius-translator Gregory Rybassa Oliveira thinks as follows:

"All disorder had meaning if it seemed to come out of itself, perhaps through madness one could arrive at that reason which is not the reason whose weakness is madness...." and there follows this passage: "And La Maga was crying, Guy had disappeared, Etienne had left after Perico, and Gregorovius, Wong, and Ronald were looking at the record that was spinning slowly, thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute, no more no less, and in these revolutions there was Oscar's Blues, Oscar himself on piano, of course, a certain Oscar Peterson, a certain pianist half tiger, half felt, a certain sad, fat pianist, a guy on piano and the rain on the skylight, all those things, literature, after all."

"All those things, literature, after all." 

The playfulness and beauty of Hopscotch lies in the Cubist fracturing of the story--hundreds of gem-like fragments that can be read forward and backward, in any order one wishes, and still there is a story of sorts, impressions that are indelible (of Paris in the Fifties, of drinking and smoking and listening to jazz, of high-minded conversation, of seduction and betrayal, a book that is a marriage of  Celine and Proust).  And yet there's a problem: I wonder if a narrative can exist in such a form, or rather, in such formlessness.  If the ordering of events is of no consequence, then can the novel be anything more than a magician's trick, a bit of literary sleight of hand?  When I read or browse in Hopscotch--and browsing seems not only warranted, but justified--I feel just the way I do when, for example, I stand in front of Wassily Kandinsky's Composition IV (as I did this past summer) wondering where my eye should rest, where I might find the center from which the meaning of the painting might be derived.  With Kandinsky and Cortázar, I can easily orient myself by deploying jazz as a metaphor--Hopscotch or Kandinsky or Klee or Mondrian should be compared to the modal forms of Miles's "Kind of Blue"--uncentered, improvisational, deliberately not beautiful, harmonious rather than coherent.

After a bracing a.m. dose of Hopscotch I gave some thought to my true subject--Georges Perec's A Void (La Disparition, 1969)--a literary trick of a far more serious kind.  Perec, whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust, created in A Void a book about loss ("disappearance"), a lipogrammatic anti-story influenced by the 1939 novel Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright, a three-hundred-page tour de force which does not employ the most common vowel in the English language, "e."  The "loss" of the letter "e" is only one of many losses in A Void: the main character, Anton Vowl, is "lost" and the plot (such as it is) of the novel is the search by a linguistically talented group of friends for Vowl (!), rather like a group of advanced acrostic-players hunting everywhere for Will Shortz.   The search is naturally impeded by the missing vowel, and Perec, whose almost supernatural cleverness is inexhaustible, twists and turns to avoid the dangerous, forbidden letter--Perec writes with the wit of Laurence Sterne, or in the mode of an anti-Cabbalist:

"My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would, or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today." (not an "e" in sight)

Perec's fictions typically deploy baroque artifices, as if merely writing a novel were too easy.  Life: A User's Manual describes, room by room, inch by inch, an ordinary Parisian apartment house; Le revenentes (trans. as The Exeter Text) only uses the vowel "e."  To call Perec a "postmodernist" seems rather silly; his fiction  is so original, so deliberate and uniquely suited to his tragic life that any labeling of it seems beside the point.  When I read A Void I felt like I did years ago when I traveled to Cape May in the late autumn looking at the thousands of migrating snow geese.  One knew that among those thousands of identical birds there would be a single Ross's goose--a slightly different, much rarer bird--and to see one was an epiphany.  I kept hoping to find an "e" in A Void, a slip of the pen, a joke, a bit of wordplay within wordplay. To no avail.  But that was fine: the effect, of course, was to reinforce my attention, to make me uneasy, to open up the sense of loss by closing off the words we most often use. The effect was disorienting and powerful.

Gilbert Adair, whose ability to English such a odd text is itself a kind of miracle, hasn't slipped--there isn't an "e" to be found--no mere or pere, no lost parents, no Perec, no hope or love or bit of the true. Think of it--think of giving up one of the foundations of one's language--language!--and what this entails for the writer and the reader.  A maze of puzzles and games and dead ends that lead, by the end of the book, to sense of loss as profound as any in fiction.

Georges Perec (1936-1982) was born the only son of Polish-Jewish parents who both died in the second world war: his father fighting for the French army, and his mother at Auschwitz. He was born Georges Peretz but his parents had changed his name when he was young. When the Nazis came through the Alpine town where he had taken refuge with relatives, the name Perec, being plausibly Breton, did not attract suspicion. Thus, his survival as a child was linked with linguistic coincidence and wordplay.

A Void and other books by Georges Perec are published by Godine, under the Verba Mundi imprint., some of the finest, and most durable of hard-to-locate European classics. 

George Ovitt (4/5/13)



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