5 | 2020
Unmoored Languages

This volume explores the complex relations developing between a literary text and the world beyond the representational function. Not content to capture, narrate or describe the existing world, writers keep creating autonomous worlds and inventing new languages to account for yet unmapped territories and experiences. As the materiality of language and its poetic quality come out, the sounds, rhythms and visual effects of the text become living milieu rather than material or simple instruments subordinated to thought. Though the effect first produced upon the reader may well be of strangeness or obscurity, such unmooring of language warrants a valuable extension of language likely to bring back to the reader buried, unsuspected emotions and aesthetic experiences, should she be willing to adopt an open type of reading, more fluid than the automatic system of conventional associations on which reading largely relies.

In this collection, writers and literary scholars from the U.S. and France focused on the nature of the mutations to which unmoored language is submitted, as well as on the various ways in which the text makes sense in spite of all. How to describe that which exceeds language rather than avoid the confrontation by relegating it into the vague category of the ineffable? Throughout, literary, linguistic or philosophical analyses have as their horizon the vision of language reflected by the unmoored text, as well as of the relations between language and the world.

5 | 2020

Lipogrammatic Criticism: Inspirations from La Disparition

Melissa Bailar


Along with its experimental dimension, this paper discusses how a formal constraint occasions the invention of a sub-language governed by its own laws. It first examines how the novel’s narrative is determined by the missing symbol, then considers the stimulating quality of such a strict limitation for translators, to finally reflect on the possibility for critical discourse to benefit from self-imposed writing rules by turning into an artistic activity.

Texte intégral

1La Disparition, a jaunty whodunit, is a rumination on how linguistic constraints inform what an author can concoct. This notion unfolds in a lipogrammatic story, or work that avoids a particular orthographic symbol. Oulipo, a group that took in La Disparition’s author, along with Italo Calvino, M. Duchamp, Oskar Pastior, Ian Monk, and additional authors and artis ts who join math’s symbolism with that of fiction or art, claims that strict constraints spur original artistic output. Classic Oulipian forms consist of substituting all nouns in a work with nouns x spots away in a particular dictionary or crafting palindromic locutions. Lipograms also typographically act out Oulipian notions of limitation that function as inspiration for writing. By visualizing ways in which our signs and symbols of communication control our ability to think and construct artistic work, La Disparition crafts a story of loss and narratorial domination that disrupts submission to structural limitations. Its imposition of radical constraints attracts translators who both follow La Disparition’s omissions and playfully adapt this book’s plot into an array of idioms. In fact, many translations surpass criticism on this work in alacrity, imagination, and profundity. Only occasionally do critics thoroughly focus on La Disparition, or do so in passing. Much criticism omits a study of its plot, protagonists, or humor to look primarily at its pivotal gimmick in conjunction with a biographical point—that its omission of a symbol occurring at a word’s tail that turns nouns womanly might mark its author’s missing mom, who was a Holocaust victim. La Disparition is worthy of criticism that looks past such biographical fallacy, and translation is a way to grasp its complications and narratological profundity. But can lipogrammatic constraints spark not just fictional and translational but also critical originality? In fact, do sharp distinctions among fiction, translations, and criticism stick around if all follow similar lipogrammatic constraints?

2And now an auto-ruminating intrusion: that first paragraph of my composition was without a doubt slightly indistinct, a tad tortuous, possibly drawn-out or hard to follow. But this composition adopts La Disparition’s difficult writing constraint (that is, its omission of our fifth orthographic symbol: A, B, C, D, …) and thus is compulsorily awkward, informal, or loquacious in its stab at avoiding our copious words that contain it. It mimics La Disparition’s and its award-winning Scottish translation’s roundabout constructions and juxtaposition of familiarity with pompous formulations. It (obviously) also adopts La Disparition’s auto-cogitation on form: how to jot down thoughts within constraints is my focus, so I both act out this form of writing and mull on its difficulty and if and how it can inform scholarly work. Writing in this way is most linguistically physical, with a word’s symbolic construction as important as its connotation.

3Now, back to our analysis: This book’s author’s brutal constraint not only informs his choosing of words but is also a vital factor in his plot. La Disparition’s ouroboric form, in which its protagonists think about syntax, signals past its formal limitations and posits that any kind of writing must surpass linguistic limits. La Disparition’s orthographic omission is vital to forming its whodunit plot, a form that, similarly to its typographical constraint, has at its hub a loss, a gap in knowing, an occlusion (a point on which Lucy O’s composition broods). It is about a man, Anton Voyl (or in translation Vowl) who is ill, has hallucinations, and withdraws or is a victim of abduction, mystifying his chums. His infirmity’s basis is a bodily antipathy to our almost ubiquitous fifth orthographic symbol, though our protagonist cannot fully grasp this, for to do so would imply knowing what is according to his own book’s limitations not a possibility. So Vowl, muddling through this unknown blank, must abandon our ways of living for a habitation in which all flora and fauna stay away from this symbol, for any word using our outlaw symbol is taboo in both syntax and connotation. According to Scottish translator G. Adair’s lipogrammatic adaptation of La Disparition into A Void, “a particular fruit (akin to an apricot) brings him out in a rash of itchy, purplish spots, but bananas, avocados, nuts, and kiwi fruit abound” (17). This formulation hints at a fruit with an orthography that contains our illicit symbol, so Vowl cannot withstand its corporal form. Vowl’s way of living must follow his author’s constraint, which in turn constrains his food, companions, books, locations, writing, and so on.

4Much of this work’s humor is born of its focus on various sorts of writing, and Vowl adopts his own author’s constraint in his copious manuscripts. Although Vowl withdraws gradually from normal quotidian activity, on a particular day our protagonist swiftly abandons his flat, mailing a puzzling postcard to his cohort. Vowl’s writing is always curious, and upon his cryptic withdrawal, his compatriots know to look through it for hints to his motivation and location. His initial postcard is a conundrum, asking his two handfuls of pals to drink a glass of whisky in a toast to “that solicitor who is so boorish as to light up his cigar in a zoo” (52). In its original form, this hint says, “Portons dix bons whiskys à l’avocat goujat qui fumait au zoo” (68). This unusual postcard notation not only points to Vowl’s loss, but also to that of La Disparition, for it is a pangram, or locution using all orthographic symbols, in this situation minus our singular illicit sign. This pangram spurs a rush to Paris’s zoo, and a pal of Vowl’s who is in fact a solicitor lights up a cigar to signal his companions, who quickly bond and vow to track him down. Alas, this mission is in vain and puts Vowl’s clan at risk, for now words containing our infamous symbol turn toxic for all.

5Lipogrammatic constraint forms La Disparition’s story in both how it is told and what action unfolds, and tasks its narrator with not only communicating its plot but also controlling it through adding or subtracting its illicit symbol. Vowl’s dazzling pals, paramours, and collaborators Amaury Conson, Olga Mavrokhordatos, Hassan Ibn Abbou, and Arthur Wilburg Savorgnon (among additional kin) comb Paris and its outskirts looking for him, with cop Ottavio Ottaviani aiding, but all succumb to curious killings hinging on La Disparition’s focal omission. Through a wildly twisting plot that builds from dingy Parisian bars to Albanian woods to a hospital in Aculpoco to a playground in Corsica to La Strada in Milan to sanatoriums in Bulgaria and many additional unusual locations, Vowl’s cohort finds out about a surprising familial status. Amaury, Olga, Hassan, Arthur, good old Anton Vowl, and a Douglas Haig (slain long ago) find out about a sibling kinship, with patrolman Ottaviani as a sort of cousin. It turns out that all form a part of a gigantic family with substantial capital that, upon patriarchal loss, will pass on to a solitary child. All want this tidy sum, which sparks homicidal sibling rivalry. Ottavio’s boss, Aloysius Swann, brings about many a “swan song,” acting as a hit man for a shadowy assassin in this crazy clan voracious for worldly goods. A son succumbs to suffocation in a hot air balloon, alcoholic combustion slays an additional offspring, and a victim known as Sabin conks out in a most shocking fashion — a villain, knowing of his lascivious proclivity for animals, offs him via a suppository of TNT put up an animal’s — in particular a lamatin’s — rump prior to Sabin’s sodomization of it. Paragraph upon paragraph of such surprising and capricious forms of snuffing alarm Vowl’s siblings and cast suspicion that all will croak in similarly startling ways. And all do, for anybody born into this family sports a sort of fatal birthmark, “circular in form with a dash running horizontally across it […not…] dissimilar to that signpost stopping cars from going along a particular road” (160) or “a sort of parabola […] that was, you might say, ajar, not joining up in any formal fashion but finishing with a straight inward dash” (245) — a.k.a. our infamous missing orthographic symbol. This mark that this book blanks out brings about all such assassinations, for it signals what cannot subsist. Upon finding out about that mark’s fatal quality and noticing it, all protagonists proclaim it and almost instantly pass away. At its finish, La Disparition’s author cum narrator crops up as our whodunit’s culprit, his act including such birthmarks occasioning his own protagonists’ downfall. Toward its conclusion, thus, La Disparition folds inwards, a whodunit turning on an unknown that is a void not only of connotation but of typography. From its protagonists’ standpoint, its author’s authority is capricious, his ability to add or subtract orthographic signs infiltrating his fictional domain.

6La Disparition’s strict limitation imparts a lofty status to symbols of writing and casts writing as an activity, an unfolding and manual art working with substantial stuff (possibly akin to calligraphy’s highlighting of form). Writing in this work has lost its illusion of lucidity, and it is an impossibility to scan it for plot without ruminating on its form. Though various critics attach la Disparition’s linguistic privation to its author’s loss during holocaustic acts of atrocity, this work is, in fact, a joyful solution to a difficult conundrum, a long rumination on form and writing’s customs.1 Its assassinations, which at first look random, discard any capricious aura as orthography functions as justification. Though critics might mold La Disparition’s profusion of vicious acts into a tract on World War Two, that is only a solitary and partial analysis. This work’s Oulipian roots play just as vital a part, as do its humor, modifications of famous books and scripts, and linguistic virtuosity. Its introduction and conclusion cast it not as an allusion to holocaustic horror but as a way to disrupt post-1968 chaos and to confront a glut of gravity in fiction.

7La Disparition’s ability to maintain its radical constraint for 300 folios and form a plot around an omission attracts, if not critics, many translators. Its copious and multi-lingual translations signal lipograms’ continual inspiration, though hardly any authors adopt such formal constraints for original work. Through writing this story again and again with minor variations, translators form its missing symbol into a sign of all writing’s limitation and possibility. Promulgation of La Disparition across translations highlights contrasting formalistic trials. Its translation into A Void, as you know, omits our fifth symbol too, though its Spanish variant shuns “a,” its Russian account avoids “o,” and additional idioms similarly omit any most common orthographic marking. All translations find adroit ways around such a difficult constraint, including a copious vocabulary that hints without straightforwardly signifying, occasioning circuitous connotations. As Vowl’s compatriot Amaury Conson says, “Nothing is as cryptic as a void” (84). As Alison J. points out, translation must synchronously copy La Disparition’s lipogrammatic form and also show — without saying — how such a form occasions Vowl’s abduction in a dissimilar linguistic actuality. Translation is thus doubly bound by this book’s rigorous form and auto-signifying plot.


8Writing lipogrammatically is wordy and, in addition to a cornucopic vocabulary, calls for a linguistic artistry that attracts translators as it thwarts any straightforward approach. Lists afford ways to avoid naming words that lipograms forbid. As an illustration, what word can such a lipogram not mark down that can signify haiku, cinquain, ballad, or lyric? Using lists to stay away from words connoting crucial notions brings about a loquacity abnormal in criticism (not that criticism is not wordy, but this form of writing is particularly so). Narrators in both Gallic and Scottish accounts also signify things using roundabout tactics, building awkward locutions into plots: Adair’s narrator, oddly at a (physical) loss for words, says, “a thingamajig…um you know, that sprinkling thing” (92) in his translation of “goupillon.” Occasionally a protagonist squirms around an illicit word: finding out about Vowl’s passing, “Prim Olga was always loath to say that basic D-word that for many in our civilization is still a major taboo” (95). Additional ploys consist of occasionally using outlandish patois as in “a wat’ry quarry” (70) or slurring sayings as in “what th’ fuck.” Multilingual substitutions also burst forth from our fictional individuals. “Moi! Moi! Aignan (no doubt a fan of Miss Piggy) shouts,” is such an illustration in A Void, and it occurs just prior to, “‘Si, si!’ Aignan roars […] without knowing why an Italian locution should pop into his brain” (28). Aignan’s multilingualism affords him locutionary options that monolingual individuals cannot fathom. Amaury and Olga grow pious in Latin, and an Iriquois maid, Squaw, talks as if in Britain with a, “Good day to you” in La Disparition’s original français. (Switching among idioms obviously works for this composition’s author, too.) Linguistic constraints can spur fictional articulacy across idioms, lipograms possibly ascribing additional worth to our disappointingly waning multilingual instruction.

9Adair’s bountiful additions to his inspirational manuscript stand out through a comparison of translation and original. Adair’s account adds to lists, adjoins clarifications or points of humor, and occasionally puts in dialog on top of what La Disparition’s protagonists say. This paradigm of accrual, not usual in typical translational standards of accuracy, in fact conforms to Oulipo’s injunction both to constrain communication and to play in words. La Disparition’s portrait of an individual unimportant to its plot runs thus: “On pouvait voir Amanda Comodoro-Rivadavia, la star à qui la Columbia avait garanti par contrat un milliard pour trois films” (80). Adair, in contrast, strays from and adds to this: “Most conspicuous by far is Italy’s top film star, Amanda von Comodoro-Rivadavia, soon to fly out to Hollywood to sign a six-million-dollar contract with Francis Ford Coppola for a trilogy of Mafia dramas with Marlon Brando and Al Pacino” (64). Adair’s rambling adaptation is anachronistic, pointing to a trio of films not in production during La Disparition’s publication, but it also displays Oulipian linguistic agility as its circumlocution amusingly highlights what is unsaid. Additionally, tiny plot points do not count as much in this task as in a non-Oulipian translation approach — “huit jours” in G.P.’s book is “six days” in Adair’s for obvious orthographic motivations. Similarly much of La Disparition occurs in a past long ago, though A Void favors an ongoing “now” to duck around illicit past formations in Adair’s Scottish.

10This work’s ludic status is a crucial quality, and thus its translations must impart joy, humor, and wit along with its constraint and basic plot, which is why A Void acts out its own forms of linguistic virtuosity. Adair’s translational variations do not imply any disloyalty to our original book, but form a compulsory intricacy, bringing this work’s originality into a particular idiom, our historical actuality, and a distinct authorial tradition. On a handful of occasions, A Void strays dramatically and for long spans from its origins to display its translator’s craft. In La Disparition, which favors “citational art” according to its narrator, Vowl’s copious writing adjusts famous fictional works to his own author’s orthographic constraints, such as “Bris Marin” by Mallarmus or “Booz Assoupi” by Victor Hugo. Though Adair sticks to La Disparition’s variations on Arthur Rimbaud’s “Vocalisations,” A Void swaps Mallarmus’ and Hugo’s works for Milton’s “On His Glaucoma” and good old William’s soliloquy “Living or not Living: that is what I ask.” In this way, Adair’s variation on La Disparition is not so much a translation with a focus on synonymy as an adaptation to a distinct artistic and fictional tradition.

11In La Disparition and in Adair’s translation, orthography trumps aurality. Substituting taboo orthographic symbols of amounts with digits follows lipogrammatic standards. A symbolic notation of “1969,” La Disparition’s publication annum, is within our limits, and Louis XVIII is not taboo in Roman symbols. If said aloud, such words would sound out of bounds, for writing and talking display distinct forms of captivity within constraints. Changing our protagonist from Voyl to Vowl insists on an auditory factor of Oulipian translation that GP’s and Adair’s tricks and twists typically skirt around by using non-orthographic symbols to mark quantity, by writing out provincial pronunciations, or by switching idioms. But sundry additional translations of this work, particularly that of Japan, must approach aurality in distinct ways.

12In contradiction to La Disparition, A Void, and various Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and Russian translations, Japan’s variation has aurality, not orthography, as its primary locus of constraint. Translator Shiotsuka Shuichiro works Hiragana and Kanji in an original way to transport La Disparition’s plot and constraints into a starkly dissimilar group of not only symbols but also linguistic protocols. Japan has about fifty Hiragana symbols, which function similarly to our ABC’s, for such symbols signify sounds and add up to words. Japan also has thousands of official kanji, all of which you can say in many ways but in any pronunciation signify a singular connotation. Katakana, Japan’s third linguistic classification, functions similarly to Hiragana but is for writing words not from Japan and is thus not as important in this translational task. Translating La Disparition’s constraints into such a compound orthographic logic would stay straightforward if Shuichiro could discard a solitary Hiragana or Kanji symbol; but this translator faithfully transforms La Disparition’s lipogram into a daunting Oulipian task by abolishing all hiragana symbols that imply an “I” pronunciation (which sounds similar to our taboo sign) — i, ki, shi, chi, ni, hi, mi, ri, and archaic forms yi and wi. Also, Shuichiro constrains all kanji that might contain an “I” sound through tiny notations indicating a particular pronunciation.2

13Such translations function at junctions of constraint and artistry, accuracy and innovation, and analysis of lipogrammatic work could put forth a similarly difficult task of forming a critical study that plays with and within its body of inquiry’s formal limits. Do structural limitations constrict scholarly work or, as in Oulipo’s philosophy, spur originality in all abstract thought? Can a critical lipogram also function as an imitation of this dual dynamic of construction and dispulsion, of constraint and autonomy, and spark similarly playful but rigorous insights about Oulipian avant-gardism? In La Disparition’s postscript, its author says what fun it was to craft a fictional work within such constraints, mourning most writing’s loss of joy and rigorous formal study. Most fictional work of 1968-69, G.P. claims, functions as formulaic distraction, psychologic instruction, or laborious moralizing, a far cry from Gargantua or Tristam Shandy that display an author’s linguistic virtuosity whilst also inciting mirth. This post-script also calls for critics to abandon worn-out acclaim for works that display typical clarity, proportion, and polish to adopt an approving outlook toward works trying out unusual linguistic formulations and plot constructions. In a hubristic but spot-on quip, La Disparition’s author maintains that only an original form of criticism could grasp a work such as his in an analytic form that honors craft, flair, and innovation and not simply shadows of utility, truth, or social disapproval. Such analysis is what Judith Roof dubs “anaclitic criticism,” or criticism that mimics or works within its focus’s stylistic form. Roof says, "In its anaclitic inclination, analysis [lolls] on its [focus]." According to Roof, a critic should not always maintain an allusion of a distant, all-knowing position, but mold insights from within his foundational works. A distant standpoint is standard in criticism, but not obligatory nor always most fitting. Criticism, too, is a linguistic art, a craft of building thoughts from words. With words shaping thoughts, a radical form can on occasion spark inspiration and fashion unusual and fruitful criticism.


14Though many a short summary of La Disparition and paragraphs praising Adair’s translation copy this work’s orthographic constraint, only Oulipo’s Ian Monk took a stab at analyzing La Disparition within lipogrammatic form (Monk was also a translator, titling his variation A Vanishing). In fact, Monk flips La Disparition’s constraint into univocality through omitting “a,” “i,” “o” and “u,” a formula that G.P. also adopts in his follow-up fictional opus. Writing univocally or lipogrammatically is intrinsically a task of translation, for it is impractical to think according to typography. As with any translation, transcribing thoughts into lipograms without a particular sign or into univocal works that allow only a singular kind of sign turns a robust dictionary into an obligatory tool. I find two options in composing lipogrammatic criticism: to abandon lipogrammatic constraints in formulating thoughts and put off molding paragraphs into lipograms (a task that functions as translation) or to put thoughts promptly into words that avoid our illicit symbol (which calls for strict control and curtails many trains of thought). How do thoughts shift through formulating within and without such a boundary? With both tactics, paragraphs form from shards, handfuls of words surfacing, partial notions growing painstakingly slowly. It also turns into a habit, so that during non-writing hours I still cut short lipogrammatically faulty thoughts and favor words and sayings that omit our illicit symbol. As Oulipo knows, connotation and form conjoin, and lipograms’ orthographic primacy adjusts our wisdom.

15La Disparition’s constraint’s rigidity clamors for additional work similar to Monk’s that turn scholarly writing into an artistic activity. Its introduction starts with a portrayal of Parisian chaos in that infamous May of ‘68 with looting, racist attacks, bombings, and mass suspicion. This forms La Disparition’s backdrop, its author’s (or narrator’s) motivation to curtail, contain, and command as his world spins out of control. For though composing a long book in this way may look absurdly formalistic, it also affords stability. Vowl and his author consciously abandon a world in which a particular symbol abounds, but in so doing find a linguistic anchor that is a symbolic solution to living and to writing. La Disparition’s lack is also its abundancy and occasion for a continual translation through its writing’s mooring and unmooring of signification. Why not unmoor criticism from its habitual forms, too? Unfamiliar formulations conjoin and mix to birth original insights. To craft a composition according to lipogrammatic constraints is to think with omissions and continually adjust to an unfamiliar linguistic logic in which orthography trumps all. Still, thought within constraints is oddly fluid and without inhibition — you do not know what you will think but sounds and visions of words pilot you.

16— And here this Oulipian experiment ends —


Works Cited

Adair, Gilbert (trad.). A Void, Georges Perec, Boston, Verba Mundi, 2005.

Guss, Nathan. “Melancholia and Perec’s La Disparition”, Dalhousie French Studies vol. 78, 2007, p. 63-73. <www.jstor.org/stable/40838377>.

James, Alison. “The Maltese and the Mustard Fields: Oulipian Translation”, SubStance, vol. 37, no 1, 2008, p. 134-147.

O’Meara, Lucy. “Georges Perec and Anne Garréta: Oulipo, Constraint and Crime Fiction”, Nottingham French Studies, vol. 53, no 1, 2014, p. 35-48.

Perec, George. La Disparition, Editions Denoël, 1969.

Roof, Judith. “The Anaclitic Critic”, English Language Notes, vol. 51, no 2, 2013, p. 95-106.

Shuichiro, Shiotsuka (trad.). La Disparition, Georges Perec, Tokyo, Suiseisha, 2010.

Additional Key Works

— These works were influential to this essay but are uncited because their author’s first and last names contain e’s —

Mawhinney, Heather. “‘Vol Du Bourdon’: The Purloined Letter in Perec’s ‘La Disparition’”, The Modern Language Review, vol. 97, no 1, 2002, p. 47-58. <www.jstor.org/stable/3735618>.

McDowell, Eric. “However Obliquely: George Perec’s ‘La Disparition’”, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sept. 12, 2013. <http://www.michiganquarterlyreview.com/2013/09/however-obliquely-georges-perecs-la-disparition/>.


1 Nathan Guss thinks through this biographical construal on p. 64 of his composition.

2 Thanks to Dr. Naoko Ozaki for providing this insight into Japan’s linguistic formulations and Shiotsuka Shuichiro’s translation.

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Melissa Bailar, « Lipogrammatic Criticism: Inspirations from La Disparition » dans « Unmoored Languages », « Lectures du monde anglophone », 2020 Licence Creative Commons
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Quelques mots à propos de :  Melissa Bailar

Rice University, USA
Melissa Bailar is Professor in the Practice of Humanities and the Associate Director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. Bailar’s background is in French studies, and she has published articles on the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the feminist poet Nicole Brossard, digital archives, and trends in higher education and is the editor of the collection Emerging Disciplines (Rice University Press, 2010). She currently serves as a co-principal investigator on three grants supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation: a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures titled “Platforms of Knowledge in a Wide Web of Worlds: Production, Participation, Politics,” a Public Humanities Initiative with a focus on Medical Humanities and Cultural Heritage, and a multi-institutional digital humanities network. She also serves as a co-principal investigator on an American Council of Learned Societies humanities postdoctoral fellowship initiative and a National Endowment for the Humanities award for a workshop in digital textual analysis. She teaches courses on critical humanities of health, French film, and nineteenth-century French literature.