Tuesday, January 02, 2007

From Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby (Commonplace Book)

If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.”A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.
You may feel that that that little passage, the first two paragraphs of Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby (1939),was not at all remarkable. In terms of content you would be right. But Gadsby is more than a coming-of-age story. It is a 50,000 word novel written entirely without the use of the letter E. Check those paragraphs again: no letter E anywhere. He wrote a novel avoiding all words that contained the letter E, the most common letter in the English language, five times more common than any other. He literally removed the "E" key from his typewriter, just for the fun of it. That means no verbs with an "ed" ending, no numbers between six and thirty, and very few pronouns since "he" "she" "they" "them" "their" "her" "herself" "myself" "himself" and "yourself" are all right out. The name of this kind of experiment, if you care to know, is "lipogram." The whole novel is available online for free: just click here, if you want to check if he cheated. (He didn't).


Theo said...

Didn't Perec do something like that as well in his novel "La disparition" where he wrote the entire novel without using the letter "e" a single time? Perec used this specific technique for a very specific reason not just as a game of form...

Geoff Klock said...

He did, though I am skeptical about it being more than a game. I know it could be argued that it is justified thematically or philosophically (distortion and loss or whatever), and on some level I am sure that is quite right, but I just don't take it that seriously. It is such a wacky and distracting device I think it eclipses other concerns.

Jason Powell said...

Fascinating. I'd never heard of this before.

In the two-person play I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document Given To Me By a Young Lady From Rwanda, the male character is an author trying to write a book without using the letter "I." It’s not a big part of the story, but it does lead to a funny bit of dialogue, when the female character asks him why he’s stuck, and he blurts, "Well, it’s very difficult to write a book without using I’s! I mean, just as an example, I can’t use the word ‘difficult’! I’d have to use a different word, like ... ‘hard.’"

Say, I wrote some song lyrics once where I forced myself not to use the letter "S." Do I get any points for that?

Ping33 said...

isn't this the novelist equivalent of a circus geek biting the heads off chickens. Sure he can do it... but it takes far more skill and dedication to be a clown, Lion-tamer or strongman.

Geoff Klock said...

Jason: yes, yes you do. Three points.

Ping: I agree, I just didn't think that should prevent me from pointing out this fun little curiosity. I don't think it's Ulysses or anything. You and Theo are giving me the impression you would like me to be more serious...

Mitch said...

Good God. That is amazing.

The comma key is broken off of my laptop. Maybe my sentences would be more pure if I stopped forcing the little nub?

Wait. Did I really just say that?

Theo said...

Sorry if I gave you the impression to be more "serious"; I was not aware of Wright's text and the Perec text is the first thing that sprang to mind and I just mentioned it in order to start a conversation. Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression.

Ping33 said...

no, I like the silly posts. I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page on this particular silliness.

hcduvall said...

I recall attending a poetry reading where for a lark the poet was writing one poem for each letter of the alphabet (or most anyway), where he had to use that letter in every word. And the poems had to be at least a hundred lines, or it wouldn't be much of a trick.

He was a he, and he was Asian/Asian-American...but I do not recall who specifically. John Yau maybe?

Stephen said...

Well, I for one would dissent from the idea -- which everyone here seems to agree with -- that this is irredeemably silly. In fact, I liked Perec's novel quite a bit.

I haven't read Wright's Gadsby, but I believe that even Wright himself didn't consider it good: he wasn't trying to write a good novel, he was just trying to write a novel without an e (and he succeeded). Just a stunt. (Cue Rube Goldberg lecturing Will Eisner on how cartoonists aren't artists, they're just vaudevillians, and don't you forget it!)

Perec *did* intend it seriously. And while La Dispiration isn't Ulysses, it is a good novel, and I recommend it. Fortunately, you don't need to be able to read French to enjoy it, because it has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair (author of the wonderful novel The Death of the Author) -- translated into lipogrammatic English, with E: a feat even more impressive than Perec's, in some ways.

Now, I agree that lipograms aren't likely to be an endless source of literary invention -- I think it helped Perec produce a good novel, but I think they're limited. But they're not *just* a stunt either.

The larger topic of literary constraints is addressed by a French literary group known as the Oulipo, of which Perec was a member. The Oulipian novel which is most often compared to Ulysses is Perec's later, larger novel Life: A User's Manual -- written under *different* constraints, but still a constrained work. The Oulipo, incidentally, dealt with constraints in all sorts of literature -- not only in prose, but in poetry, where constraints are much more common than in prose (think rhyme!).

The spin-off group from the Oulipo that deals with constrained comics is the Oubapo; there is an American branch. I review a recent Oubapoian book by American Matt Madden here (patterned off a literary work by the Oulipo's co-founder, Raymond Queneau). I also reviewed the best overall introduction to the Oulipo here.

Gadsby is online; La Dispiration (whether in the original, or in its translated version as 'A Void') is not. So the former is easier to point people to. But the former wasn't intended seriously; the latter -- for all its humor and wit -- was. You certainly can decide it's silly. But I think basic intellectual honesty requires not doing so without reading it first. Who knows, you might even change your mind.

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: thanks for that. What I know about Oulipo I know via Ashbery (he is a big fan). But just to be uber-clear I don't think anyone was calling Perec silly: I never said the Perec was silly, I just said I was skeptical, which is a fair reaction to the idea of a great lipogramatic novel. We were calling my post silly, and it is, as is Gadsby. On Perec my mind could easily be changed by reading the book. And Ping, I am sure, will admit that it is possible to be a circus geek AND a lion tamer, and I would agree.

A lot of my posts are free of context, which is how I like to write, but you are good to supply context. Now I want to read Perec, actually.

I love blogging.

Anonymous said...

along the lines of being a circus geek and a lion tamer.

I don't think the word "silly" should always be taken so pejoratively. not everthing that is silly is worthless, just as not everything that is serious is whatever the word that means the opposite of worthless... full of worth. whatever.

sometimes you get high art out of low, whether it was meant to be or not, and sometimes it's just frigging fun to be silly, whether or not there was some intellectual benefit, there is still benefit.

mebbe he was playing around, taking a silly constraint on just for the hell of it, and mebbe the french dude was attempting a super-serious theoritical-philosophical whatsit. or maybe the opposite is true or maybe both

the point is, to be trite: a little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.

Jason Powell said...

Three points! Awesome!

Jason Powell said...

(Note: In the above post, I forced myself not to use the letters b, c, d, f, g, j, k, l, q, u, v, x, y or z. Impressive, no?)

Geoff Klock said...

anonymous: I am sure Stephen would agree with you.

These comments have been a very small and friendly version of something that often happens when people talk through posting: it feels like there is a pendulum swinging all over the place all the time. I started it with my first comment on this post, so this time it is my fault.

Jason: hilarious.

Ping33 said...

My favourite self imposed artistic constraints/marketing endeavour, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Ici d'ailleurs… is proud to present its OuMuPo collection.
Several DJ's and electronic music composers have been offered to remix the whole label catalog. But there is a twist. They have to comply with constraints issued in the Ici d'ailleurs Charter.

OuMuPo is the French shortname for "OUvroir de MUsiques Potentielles", i.e. Workshop for Potential Musics. It is one of the many artistic movements derived from surrealist Raymond Queneau and François le Lionnais' 1960 OuLiPo (Workshop for Potential Literatures). At the time they aimed at putting together words and letters and following new rules to compose new works. This principle has inspired a lot of creators, especially in music, but also in comic strips. That's how OuBaPo was born in 1992 (Workshop for Potential Comics, BA stands for the French "bandes dessinées") with such illustrators as Jean-Christophe Menu, Etienne Lécroart, Jochen Gerner, François Ayroles, Anne Baraou, Gilles Ciment, Thierry Groensteen, Killoffer, Lewis Trondheim …

Ici d'ailleurs… is fond of OuBaPo and combination of styles. That's why they have asked one of the OuBaPo movement leader, Jean-Christophe Menu, to join the project and be in charge of its graphic aspects. He is a founder member of l'Association, an independent publishing society which gave a fresh impetus to French comic strips. And the result is a totally new 16 pages comic book which comes along on top of each OuMuPo album, each time drawn by a different cartoonist. Again, these comics are ruled by a Charter to spice up the game.

Such great names as The Third Eye Foundation, Rubin Steiner, DJ Hide, DJ Krush ... will be confronted with Ici d'ailleurs' rules of the game, for exciting Oumupo albums!


1. The potential music reservoir is the Ici d'ailleurs Collection, and O1O1 is its electronic division. The basic framework for each piece will therefore be sought in the Ici d'ailleurs / O1O1 Catalogue. The composer must set out to appropriate the titles in this catalogue for himself, turning them to his advantage and adding whatever he deems necessary. All samples must be free of copyright or communicated to the Label for copyright clearance.

2. A passage no shorter than thirty seconds must be chosen to appear twice on the album. This passage must play the role of a theme or slogan, be it remixed or not, and must be in harmony with the album as a whole.

3. The exercise must last forty-two minutes (42').

4. The end of the album must lead into the beginning, thus enabling it to be listened to in a loop.

5. No more than two pieces from one album in the catalogue may be chosen. If the composer wishes to use a second, it must be at least two tracks distant from the first.

6. The composer must use the works of more than five artists on the Label.

7. The composer freely chooses his own constraint and must declare what it is.

8. The composer will refrain from using the lyrics of Dominique Petitgand out of their musical context, and will consider their use as a jingle or equivalent gimmick as a pitfall wisely to be avoided. Their use must extend to twenty seconds at the very least.

Stephen said...

I am sure Stephen would agree with you.

That he would.

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff (or anyone else, for that matter), have you ever read Christian Bok's 'Eunoia'? It's a book of poetry in 5 chapters, each chapter restricted to words that use only a single vowel (Chapter A, Chapter E, and so on). Some passages are actually ridiculously fun.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: that's awesome.

Neil: I have not. I will put it on the list.

Stephen said...

Univocalism: now that's a real restriction. If you think using only four vowels (a-i-o-u, no e) is tough, try using only 1. Perec himself did it too, in "The Exeter Texts" (Les Revenentes), in which (he said) he used up all the e's left over from La Disiraption. (That Perec I haven't read, though).

As for Eunoia: I liked it a lot. And no less than SF writer & critic Samuel R. Delany has plugged Eunoia, calling it "a novel that will drive everybody sane". Obviously it's a distinctly strange book that needs to be approached with an appreciation for the bizarre. (I think that its author, Christin Bok, actually called it a novel -- hence Delany's comment -- but calling it "poetry" is a better way to approach it, I think: it feels more like poetry than like a novel.) The text of Eunoia is online here; there's also a free set of mp3s of Eunoia being read out loud online here. Personally I think that the way to approach Eunoia is to listen to it while following along in the printed text.

But read Perec's La Dispiration/A Void first. More approachable; arguably better.

(I've had a half-finished post about Eunoia on my computer for some time now. Maybe I should go finish it...)

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: thanks. This is great. This post has lots of stuff I just did not know.

Stephen said...

I just posted a follow-up commonplace book excerpt on my own blog here: an excerpt from Georges Perec's history of the lipogram. Check it out if this topic interests you.

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: thanks, and thanks for sending people to me.