Category: Georges Perec

book review – A Void


It would be foolhardy to pretend that this entire book makes immediate sense. But that does not make it any less enjoyable and as every page turns and the plot deepens you are not only engrossed but continually amazed that Georges Perec put this novel together without using a single ‘e’.

In a postscript the author admits that he was partly put up to the challenge as a bet by a friend but then as he started he discovered that it challenged his approach to writing and he became almost obsessional about the task.

The book starts following the thoughts of Anton Vowl who starts to note down thoughts in his diary about a void. He feels he is being sucked into the void and then sure enough he disappears. His small collection of friends meets and agrees that they will do their best to help solve the mystery.

They are connected initially by their mutual friendship with Vowl but as it unfolds they discover more intimate bloodlines flow between them and importantly with the missing man and that is why they all face the prospect of death.

One by one they either disappear or are killed. As the net tightens ironically the plot widens and events of the past are connected with the deaths and disappearances and a family feud is uncovered. Although there is a killer on the loose the void that the characters are falling into is the absence of e.

At the close of the book the character walking out of Proust, detective Swann, is happy killing the final victims, and even with the mystery solved there is a dark humour running through the book until the end. There are some hidden moments for those that have a knowledge of French literature with a nod to Poe and the Murder on the Rue Morgue as well as Proust. No doubt there are others but those were the two that I managed to recognise.

Most of the stuff about mathematics and philosophy did pass me by but in the end it is not as crucial to understanding the story and is part of Vowl’s world and setting up the idea that he is somehow trying to pinpoint the sense of the void. This only really starts to get going once Vowl has gone and the different characters meet at the country estate of one of Vowl’s acquaintances and discuss the case. Then one by one the different characters face up to their destiny and meet an odd and untimely death.

Ultimately though you either sign up for this experience or you don’t. Personally it was sometimes hard going and the pace that was caused by different and sometimes static language made it difficult to follow. But there is a story there and it emerges strongly at the climax. What is the point of language if it is not there to experiment with and play around with? Perec pushes it here all the way but does so with a smile and a great deal of intelligence.

This was more of a journey than most books but in the end the complex murder mystery and the void causes by the absence of e leave you deep in thought with the same smile Perec probably had on his face when he finished writing this.

Version read – Vintage paperback

book review – A Void


It would be foolhardy to pretend that this entire book makes immediate sense. But that does not make it any less enjoyable and as every page turns and the plot deepens you are not only engrossed but continually amazed that Georges Perec put this novel together without using a single ‘e’.

In a postscript the author admits that he was partly put up to the challenge as a bet by a friend but then as he started he discovered that it challenged his approach to writing and he became almost obsessional about the task.

The book starts following the thoughts of Anton Vowl who starts to note down thoughts in his diary about a void. He feels he is being sucked into the void and then sure enough he disappears. His small collection of friends meets and agrees that they will do their best to help solve the mystery.

They are connected initially by their mutual friendship with Vowl but as it unfolds they discover more intimate bloodlines flow between them and importantly with the missing man and that is why they all face the prospect of death.

One by one they either disappear or are killed. As the net tightens ironically the plot widens and events of the past are connected with the deaths and disappearances and a family feud is uncovered. Although there is a killer on the loose the void that the characters are falling into is the absence of e.

At the close of the book the character walking out of Proust, detective Swann, is happy killing the final victims, and even with the mystery solved there is a dark humour running through the book until the end. There are some hidden moments for those that have a knowledge of French literature with a nod to Poe and the Murder on the Rue Morgue as well as Proust. No doubt there are others but those were the two that I managed to recognise.

Most of the stuff about mathematics and philosophy did pass me by but in the end it is not as crucial to understanding the story and is part of Vowl’s world and setting up the idea that he is somehow trying to pinpoint the sense of the void. This only really starts to get going once Vowl has gone and the different characters meet at the country estate of one of Vowl’s acquaintances and discuss the case. Then one by one the different characters face up to their destiny and meet an odd and untimely death.

Ultimately though you either sign up for this experience or you don’t. Personally it was sometimes hard going and the pace that was caused by different and sometimes static language made it difficult to follow. But there is a story there and it emerges strongly at the climax. What is the point of language if it is not there to experiment with and play around with? Perec pushes it here all the way but does so with a smile and a great deal of intelligence.

This was more of a journey than most books but in the end the complex murder mystery and the void causes by the absence of e leave you deep in thought with the same smile Perec probably had on his face when he finished writing this.

Version read – Vintage paperback

A Void – post VII

Finally coming to the end you have to sit back and wonder at the feat and also applaud the plot. With its twists and turns it only becomes clear at the end what has happened although justice is not forthcoming.

Anton Vowl never reappears nor does any chance that the curse that has followed him and his siblings will be avoided. A twisted case of sibling rivalry means that all those that are the children of two sons that were meant to have died are destined to be murdered. Not only were Haig and Vowl brothers but also Olga was their sister and Ottivani the policeman turns out to be a brother as well.

He dies revealing that the text contained not a single

But there follows a postscript with Perec admitting that he set out on the project partly as a bet to prove he could to a friend and then because he enjoyed the discipline that having to stick to a formula gave him. He expresses a feeling that is palpable in the text that unlike other stories he had written this one really did force him to be inventive in a different way.

“Initially I found such a constraint faintly amusing, if that; but I stuck to my guns. At which point, finding that it took my imagination down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, plunging into it again and again, at last giving up all my ongoing work, much of which I was actually about to finish.”

It is a strange book that doesn’t come together until the end and the void is the missing e but it is a work of real concentration. The best description of what it is all about comes from ones of the quotes Perec chooses to print over the last two pages:

“…should we retrieve the letter which has been lost or the sign which has been effaced, should we reconstruct the dissonant scale, we shall regain our authority in the world of the mind.”
Gerard De Nerval

A Void – post VI

Wikipedia can be great but it can also plant ideas and thoughts in your mind that might not have been there and as a result it clouds your thinking. For example the reference to A Void quotes from an article by an academic that argues that the void is the absence of the letter e, which in turn means that key words like mother and father in French cannot be uttered.

But there is a point at which two of Vowl’s friends realise they have the same father and refer to him as papa making you wonder. It also gets you thinking about how the absence of the letter in itself would become the void. There seem to be other issues here about hereditary curses and the coincidence of blood ties.

It has now entered the territory of an Agatha Christie novel in terms of there just being a few characters left standing, with one dropping dead with almost every other chapter. The police have arrived but they don’t seem to be getting anywhere and if anything face being sucked into the void along with everyone else. The only one who seems to be above the fray is Squaw the housekeeper and my money is on the key to the mystery being with her.

Tomorrow should tell…

A Void – post V

Although I am not going to pretend I know exactly what is going on this is starting to grip you because the mystery deepens and more people start dying.

As each character tells their stories the links between them start to unravel and family feuds and curses appear to be the driving force behind the deaths and disappearances. There are some mystical references that to be honest would require a little bit more reading around the subject to get to grips with.

But you can safely say that 200 pages in to the 285 page novel and you want to find out what happened to the mysterious Anton Vowl and just where he is and what became of him. Did he escape the curse following him, which had already claimed his brother Douglas Haig or did he fail? His friends are starting to think he failed but it is not yet clear.

More tomorrow…

A Void – post IV

A couple of things to declare before we get into this:

I am drunk

I am tired

Tonight has been the awards night for my magazine and playing the role of the host has been taxing.

Before the awards started read a bit of A Void and another character died after discovering that the past si interlinked with the present. Nothing more can be said because it is too mysterious and I haven’t got the energy to write more.

More tomorrow…

A Void – post III

As you read A Void you can’t help but think of Perec scratching his head doing the research. A great example is the pieces of evidence that are presented by Anton Vowl’s friends to try and establish where he has gone.

Among the diaries and thoughts are six excerpts from famous writers ranging from Milton to Shakespeare – without the e’s – but nowhere is there an e to be seen.

Mind you nowhere is the character of Vowl to be seen. But the other characters around him are now getting some flesh on the bones with Olga an opera singer who can be found at her father-in-laws. She was widowed after just a few days when her husband was killed in a freak accident and died without any apparent cause of death.

They are also joined by a British friend who adds to the anglophile feeling with Olga’s husband being named Douglas Haig after the famous British figures of that name.

It is still hard to know what is going on and still a challenge to stay with Perec but in the sense that it keeps you awake on the train then this book does that and makes you work a bit with the old grey cells.

More tomorrow…