A Void (La Disparition) was born in 1969 in that glorious country famous for croissants, gay Paris, and occasional socialism. Its author was a man with wild facial hair and a passion for fooling around with odd ways of writing, including lipograms. A lipogram is a composition that omits, say, all As or all Fs or all Rs. Usually a lipogram is short (this lipogramic blog post is only 560 words). A Void is a straight-up rarity: a book-long lipogram.
By day, our smarty-pants author was a highly dull sort of librarian. But Mr. P. had a quaint hobby unknown to his work chums: writing quirky and outlandish scripts, amusing crosswords, a satiric tract or two, an idiosyncratic autobiography, an ongoing journal of his nocturnal hallucinations, and story upon story.
As a participant in a group known as Oulipo, G.P. was in good company. Oulipo was an informal clan of Gallic word and math aficionados—including Italo Calvino, Oskar Pastior, Raymond Q., “Jack” Roubaud, and so on—who sought artistic innovation through constraint in writing; that is, by placing unusual limits and arbitrary “laws” upon a work of fiction. Swap out a handful of nouns, hatch a story from a “knight’s tour” trick, or
and voilà! You just might wind up with a curiously fantastic scrap of writing. A Void’s proud papa and his crafty word tricks fit right in with this quasi “workshop” for brainiacs.
So, what’s this famous book that lacks a crucial glyph about? Is it just a gimmick? A hack job by a show-off? A monstrous glossary without a plot—just random words thrown to and fro?
Not by a long shot. It is, in fact, a worthy addition to fiction’s absurdist canon. Full of wordplay, puns, quips, and witty circumlocutions, A Void is a humorous classic that grips you from its first paragraph to its last.
A Void is built around a plot worthy of Mary Higgins Clark or Gillian Flynn. Our protagonist, Anton Vowl, turns up missing and it’s up to his loyal and polysyllabic amis—Douglas Haig Clifford, Amaury Conson, Arthur Wilburg Savorgnan, and Olga Mavrokhordatos—to find out whodunnit…and if, in fact, anything was actually “dunn” to poor, missing Vowl.
In a cunning twist, it isn’t long until Vowl’s pals start to vanish 1 by 1, too. This is symbolism, you know. Just as a singular symbol is fatally lost from all words, so too is a group of guys (and a glamorous gal) mislaid from our world. Hints abound throughout, pointing you to this droll conclusion—you simply can’t miss it.
But if you want to tally up A Void’s many good points, simply skim through a copy on your own. Français isn’t your strong suit, you say? Lucky for you, A Void is at your disposal in a soothingly familiar idiom: you can find a brilliant 1994 translation by a Mr. Adair of Scotland. This act of translation was not a light or straightforward task, though, as avoiding that contraband runic mark (#1 most common in our lingua franca) is practically a no-go.
Still, crafting a story minus That Illicit Symbol from scratch isn’t as difficult as you might think. I’ll put it this way: It only took two hours to draft this analysis, which isn’t too bad. Try it! Jot down a lipogramic paragraph or two. It’s surprisingly fun.