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The Novel With No "E"

French Books


Missing E


Georges Perec

Imagine writing a book that is unusual, challenging and now world famous, not for what it contains .. but instead for what it is missing.  La Disparition (The Disappearance) is a very special novel written in 1969 by Georges Perec.  Apart from the author’s name, it’s 300 pages are missing arguably the most important letter of the alphabet - the letter “e”.  

Let’s think about that for a minute .. no “et” meaning and, the words “je, elle and elles” (I, she, they) are off limits and all the masculine nouns are out as they are usually preceeded by “le”.   

The novel is remarkable not only for avoiding the most common letter in the French alphabet, but it is a mystery in which the absence of that letter is the central theme.

Of course, the obvious question is “Why?”  Georges was part of the avant-guard literary group, Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) which roughly translates as Workshop of Potential Literature.  This group of multi-national writers believed that they could trigger ideas and inspiration by imposing constraints on their writing style.  Rather than starting with a blank sheet (and often writer’s block), they felt that by artificially restricting themselves to a narrow style, they would exercise their brain and fire up their imagination to create new and exciting writing.

A look into Georges' childhood may also uncover another heartbreaking clue to his motivation.  Orphaned at the young age of six, Georges lost both his parents in World War II. With his father killed in the war and his mother a victim of the holocaust, Georges was brought up by his aunt and uncle. 

Some interpret the absence of this important letter in his writing to a metaphor for his own sense of loss in his life.  Poignantly, he cannot use the words père, mère, parents or famille  in his novel.  In fact, technically, he can’t even write his own name, Georges Perec, and instead sometimes uses the pseudonym of Gargas Parac. 

In French, the phrase "sans e" (without e) sounds very much like "sans eux" (without them), perhaps reflecting his feeling of missing the most important part of his life.

Today, the book is available in many languages including English, German, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Swedish, Russian, Turkish and Dutch.  Amazingly, each of the patient (crazy??) translators have imposed upon themselves, the same literary constraint as the original.  In recreating the work, they have avoided the most common letter in their own language. 

The English translation titled “The Void” also avoids the letter “e” so you won’t find the words:  me, be, the, there, here, her, or in fact any verbs ending in “ed”. 

Would you like to exercise your brain, experiment with unusual sentence construction and uncover long forgotten, descriptive words hidden deep in your subconscious?  Just try to write a paragraph or two without using the letter “e” ..



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