25 June 2011


Lipograms are novels, poems, paragraphs--any zoo or salad of words assembled for pleasure--whose inscribing is bound by rules decided in advance.  Reading works of such lexical perversion can produce a sense of subliminal unease, as if minuscule changes in Planck values (imaginably arising from random local variance in ylem before a Big Bang) had produced a universe which we only gradually recognize as indefinably diverging from our own.

Georges Perec, founding member of Oulipo--a French gang of serious-wordplay-fashioners--famously published a long novel called Disappearance which, while looking easy, lacked all E's.  E, you'll remember, is of primary frequency in English and French.  In a succeeding novella, Perec re-balanced his keyboard by using no vowels besides E--no simpler an exercise, even if E's are so common.

You've been reading an hommage à Georges Perec, a lipogram from which a phoneme, majusculed as a Greek cross--whose frequency in English is precisely below E's--was banned.  Beyond such exclusion, however, all possible phonemic marks in English were encyclopædically included: quick brown foxes jumping high over lazy dogs.  A genuine Œdipal challenge, dancing on such a leash.  Such praxis resembles Zugzwang in chess: an approaching cul-de-sac seen from afar, a [horrifyingly] rigid narrowing of successive choices.

As you see, lipograms, schooled in such a hard-Scrabble discipline, regularly display excessive use of commas, colons, semicolons, and dashes; obscure and bizarre words; and fanciful expressive arcs resembling eddies and whirlpools (or even, perhaps, in places, a congealed lacy foam overlying such fluid phenomena): display, indeed, a near-palindromic sinuous oddness overall.  Well, anyway, mine does.  Some fun, eh? 

Did I really say "an hommage?"  Sorry.  Merely minding my p's and q's; crossing a t.
Added 13 July (OK, OK, my final word, I promise...maybe):

As my use of "phoneme" above is obviously in error (see below), "grapheme"--given my self-imposed maze--seems a usable moniker for vocally derived marks found in inscribed or graven discourse.  Accordingly, please replace "phoneme" by "grapheme" passim.  And consider, if a second reason for such an exchange is needed: nunnish young Grapheme, academy-born, smelling so preciously of lamp-wicks, by-blow of the palaver of rude para-mechanicals, clearly longs for ravishing embrace by Oulipoid Gypsies--in such rococo frolics and ludicurlicues as would gladden any Perec-ocious Calvinophile's cockles, and perhaps even yank a minuscule half-unwilling chuckle from James Joyce, our (alas!) no longer Waking friend--whereas her noisy older sib Phoneme has carried major speaking roles and innumerable beaux over many long years now.  Hurrah for Grapheme!  Queneau dig it?


  1. Actually, it's the letter t that's absent from your text, not the phoneme /t/. If you were really dealing in phonemes, there would be no reason to omit the word the, which does not contain /t/.

    By the way, the English translation of Perec is called The Vanishing, and its hero is namd not Voyl but Vowl.

  2. Thanks for your comments. You're right, of course: I couldn't easily think of a synonym for 'letter' which didn't contain 't.' The French name of Perec's novel is La Disparition, for which I thought Disappearance a reasonable translation. Incidentally, I revised this episode on 3 July.

  3. Incidentally, 'lipogram' is not etymologically linked to 'Oulipo,' who frequently composed them. 'Lipogram' comes from a Greek word meaning something like 'missing letter,' while 'Oulipo' stands (in that inimitable French way) for "Ouvroir de la Litterature Potentielle, " meaning 'workshop for potential literature,' according to Wikipedia. Thus, the 'lipo' in both is exactly the kind of pun Oulipo is so fond of.

  4. Incidentally, the translation of "La Disparition" which I own is called "The Void," which works too...

  5. I was wrong: it's called "A Void." Oh well...