Something missing?

Published by: Monica Handle on 21st Apr 2017 | View all blogs by Monica Handle


I'm a fan of 'constrained writing' - setting rules to push the creative process (sometimes unconsciously) in certain directions.  It's weirdly liberating.  So I thought I'd post this to test the water and see if anyone else on the Word Cloud is similarly smitten with all things Ouliipo, 'Pataphysics and Dada.  Georges Perec, one of my favourite authors, famously wrote La Disparition (translated as 'A Void' in English) without using the letter 'e' - this may be the example par excellence of the genre.  Just as an exercise, I thought I'd have a go at emulating the master, by trying to write the same mini-story in five different versions, each one lacking one of A, E, I, O and U.  Here goes with the 'A-less' version.  Any comments very welcome, and if there's anyone out there with the same kind of interests, do get in touch!


Dusk found me finishing dinner with my love.  We were quietly, possibly smugly, discussing the splendid week just gone.  Our life together seemed blessed.  We worked little: our riches flowed effortlessly from out-sourced business ventures, so we could spend long stretches of free time with cultured, witty friends, or visiting new, exotic countries.  We were beyond content, sure of our well-being for ever more.   Children?  Clever, polite, successful.  Sound in mind, body, spirit?  You bet.  Sex?  Never better!


But just when my gorgeous wife offered to tidy up the detritus of our supper (including some very fine, still tempting brie), just when the evening light turned to the colour of glowing crème brulee, I experienced the most unexpected moment of self-doubt.  Quite unbidden, shocking, overwhelming … unlike every crise d’esprit of my misspent youth, nothing like the first few months of my business life, when I often found myself wondering if I would ever succeed.  This time, my soul seemed upended, injured, possibly doomed; I felt like some nervous circus tumbler whose dodgy rope might give out if he put one foot wrong.  One moment, cheerfully viewing the bucolic scene; the next, terrified of the cliff edge.  


I pulled myself upright on the bench of the dining set, the better to get some oxygen into my lungs, to give voice to this moment of profound shock.  Celine looked over, registering my sudden mood swing with tender concern.


“Simon, my love,” she whispered, “You look white. Could you be ill?”


“It’s … it’s …,” I stuttered, “it’s … the weirdest thing.  Just when you spoke, when I listened to your voice, I felt suddenly sure of something … something is terribly wrong.”  I shivered briefly.  “I do feel odd, but it’s in my mind, not my body.  I’m possessed by the strongest conviction of something missing – something of the highest import.  I’m trying to express it, but it eludes me.”


“Well,” replied Celine, “I’ll do my best to help.  Were you thinking of something to do with us, or concerning the children?  Your mother?”


“No.  My only thought, just before you offered to do the dishes, now seems so ridiculous.  I kept looking over the cheeses, wondering if I should scoff some more.  If I could, even.  Then zowee: complete shift of psyche.”


I spent the next hour or so trying to rediscover my equilibrium, with Celine doing her best to support me.  But with bedtime beckoning, with the night upon us, I knew, somehow: this would be for ever. 




  • Bric
    by Bric 5 months ago
    Aaargh, alas and alack, aghast at that lack
  • Jill
    by Jill 5 months ago
    Cleverly executed ~ intriguing piece.
  • Seagreen
    by Seagreen 5 months ago
    As Jill says, cleverly executed, but the look of it is wrong. Or is that just me?
  • Monica Handle
    by Monica Handle 5 months ago
    Not sure what you mean by 'the look of it'? It's a bit forced, I guess, but that's part of the game. The fun is trying to get as close to a natural flow as possible, and I doubt I've managed that very well. So far, anyway. When Perec published La Disparition, the review which gave him most joy was a rather negative one, from a high-brow French literary journal, which had completely missed the lack of 'e' in the text. That's the target!
  • Monica Handle
    by Monica Handle 5 months ago
    PS - doing the same 'story' without 'e' is torture...
  • Hilly
    by Hilly 5 months ago
    This is great.
    What a story and how clever to make us not even realise that the letter 'a' is missing. At least, I didn't miss it. Loved it.

    Now I should write: How clever. The vowel is missing but we do not notice it is skiving off. The devil!
    Sorry, pretty rubbish at this...
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 5 months ago
    Very clever!
    You've made it extra hard for yourself though, as both character names have two different vowels in them (assuming the same characters feature in the next version).
    I can see what fun this would be. Well done.
  • Kate
    by Kate 5 months ago
    So clever. Really got me thinking.
    On a similar subject, I read an article recently about how the brain doesn't read all the letters in a word to process what it says. So a word only needs to start and end in the correct letters and the rest can be in any order. The article was written in this way. As long as you didn't concentrate on the words it was perfectly readable. Try this:
    I was awyals tlod taht selpinlg was iprmtnaot. How wonrg I was.
  • Monica Handle
    by Monica Handle 5 months ago
    Good point about the character names - they'll have to change for 'E-less', etc. And the wnodreful elsatitcy of the brain is a marvel. But (a) it's not my idea (I have to thank the Oulipo group for that - and they have a lot more tricks) and (b) it is, in the end, a bit of fun but with a serious purpose: you really have to fight to find the 'right' words but also maintain some semblance of sense.
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 5 months ago
    Well where only one character name is ruled out, you can still use the other - and refer to the missing one as 'Dear', or 'My wife', or 'She' etc. The tricky bit of the tricky bit will be the I-less one, since they both have an I. Be interested to see how you tackle it. :)
  • Newbie
    by Newbie 5 months ago
    Very interesting. If you hadn't mentioned there was no 'A' I woudn't have noticed. A good exercise to stretch the mind. Will try this myself at some stage.
  • Hilly
    by Hilly 5 months ago
    Sorry, this is an aside but...
    Kate, as to your comment, the work of quite a few of the kids I taught at school was just like that. Sometimes it was easier to read stuff upside down, or simply unfocus your eyes to try to work out what they had said.
  • Simone Rhea
    by Simone Rhea 5 months ago
    Incredible. How long did this take you, out of interest? I wonder how long 'A Void' took Georges Perec to write. Great exercise and challenge, I look forward to your next ones!
  • Monica Handle
    by Monica Handle 5 months ago
    It didn't take that long - maybe a day, with lots of interruptions. But I should have taken longer over it! What's really fascinating is that La Disparition was translated into English, as A Void, by Gilbert Adair (and very brilliantly, I think). This must have pushed the translator's art to the limit. For example, Perec includes a number of 'adapted' quotations in his text from famous French writers, people like Racine, Baudelaire, etc, and Adair's choice was: just translate these passage into English, or find English-language writers who stand in the same stead in the canon of English literature, and then adapt some famous passages, which additionally have to offer the same devices to the plot. He chose the latter, and it's an absolute tour de force. My favourite of these is a rendition of Poe's ' 'The Raven', which becomes 'Black Bird'. It made me laugh for a long time.
  • BellaM
    by BellaM 5 months ago
    A very interesting exercise, and well-executed. I would never have noticed the absent a had you not told us about it.
  • Simone Rhea
    by Simone Rhea 5 months ago
    That is fascinating, the dedication by Gilbert Adair, Perec must have felt honoured that somebody took such care over his work. You've inspired me to give 'A Void' a read, and I only wish I could speak French to see the differences.
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