A Void [La disparition] (David R. Godine, 2008)
by Georges Perec [translated from the French by Gilbert Adair]
I imagine that most of the people who wind up reading Perec's nearly 300-page long lipogram--in the original French as well as in the English adaptation, defiantly constructed without the use of the letter e--have heard the story about how the missing vowel has to do with the traumatic events in the author's childhood: writing a novel sans e (without [an] e), which sounds so close to sans eux (without them) in spoken French, could provide a way for the Jewish author to surreptitiously acknowledge the loss of his soldier father in World War II and the subsequent loss of his mother in the Holocaust--this, in a work in which the most basic words relating to his orphaned identity (mère [mother], père [father], the very name Perec) are expressly absent or "forbidden." I also imagine that many readers of A Void go into it having heard that Gilbert Adair's English translation of La disparition [The Disappearance] is a highwire act on a par with Perec's own "untranslatable" original. What I'm less certain about is how many are aware that this so-called metaphysical whodunit, rife with disappearing bodies in what is probably both a homage to and a send-up of the traditional murder mystery, is more absurdist than dramatic in tone. In any event, imagine my surprise when I found myself loving the wacky linguistic hijinks but only mildly interested and occasionally even outright bored by the goofball narrative itself. WTF?
Perec on a bad hair day
Since I won't be able to say how much the novelist or the translator deserves the blame for the choppy reading experience until after I have more time to compare La disparition with A Void, I'd like to turn to a happier question: how the hell did they come up with anything legible at all without the use of the e? The answer: with a lot of style! The novel seems to have six books and twenty-six chapters, for example, but both the second book and the fifth chapter have gone missing in recognition of e's place in the "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y" vowel sequence and the a-b-c-d-e beginning of the alphabet. Even before lead character Anton Vowl (Anton Voyl in the French) disappears, both Perec and Adair seem to jump at every opportunity to draw attention to the corresponding missing vowels or voyelles. Here is one of Adair's early efforts: "Probably nodding off for an instant or two, Vowl abruptly sits up straight. 'And now for a public announc-...' Damn that static! Vowl starts twiddling knobs again until his transistor radio booms out with clarity" (4). Elsewhere, Adair uses a combination of simple substitutions ("auditory organs [as doctors say]" for ears on page 8), alternate spellings ("Oïdipos" for Oedipus on page 32), and archaisms ("grampus" for whale in one of the many references to Moby Dick) as part of his bag of tricks. One of my favorite moments in this regard has to do with a "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" rewrite in Chapter 4 where a character named Dupin (hint, hint) exclaims in anger "I'm PO'd, truly PO'd" before Adair unnecessarily adds "PO was a contraction of 'piss off'" (39).
While amusing puns like that are to be found throughout the novel, so too are the less succesful moments where either Perec's or the translator's circumlocutions feel forced or stilted (I won't cite any examples because they aren't difficult to find at random). In short, Life A User's Manual is an almost perfect affair; this one isn't. More troublingly, I realized partway into A Void that Adair was seriously overstepping his bounds as the intermediary between the author and his English-dependent audience. Here are two examples from Chapter 20 alone. In the first sequence, a character named Amaury says that "I can't stop thinking that I'm in a sort of roman à tiroirs, a thick gothic work of fiction with lots of plot twists and a Russian doll construction, such as Mathurin's Monk, Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found at Saragossa and just about any story by Hoffman or Balzac (Balzac, that is, prior to Vautrin, Goriot, Pons or Rastignac)..." (198). Since Maturin wrote Melmoth the Wanderer and not The Monk, I took at look at Perec's original to see if I could decipher what reason might be behind the character's declaration that Mathurin [sic] and not amusing weirdo Matthew Lewis had written the monastic roman in question. Was it all about the letter e? To my horror, I saw that Perec doesn't mention The Monk at all nor does he mention the title of Potocki's work: just a "roman à tiroirs, un roman noir à l'instar d'un Mathurin, d'un Jan Potocki, d'un Hoffman, d'un Balzac avant Vautrin, Goriot, Pons ou Rastignac..." (217) ["an episodic novel, a Gothic novel in imitation of a Maturin, a Jan Potocki, a Hoffman, a Balzac before Vautrin, Goriot, Pons or Rastignac..." in my translation]. Later in the chapter, Adair makes a similarly poor decision. Listing an "amorphous mass of books and authors" that "bombards his brain," Amaury asks himself: "Moby Dick? Malcolm Lowry? Van Vogt's Saga of Non-A? Or that work by Roubaud that Gallimard brought out, with a logo, so to say of a 3 as shown in a mirror? Aragon's Blanc ou l'Oubli? Un Grand Cri Vain? La Disparition? Or Adair's translation of it?" (201). In addition to including himself where Perec does not, Adair negligently fails to mention one "Christian Bourgois." So why does the guy think he has the right to rewrite Perec?
Perec on another bad hair day
To take a break from throwing the translator under the bus in back to back review posts, I ought to mention that the Roubaud reference above reminds me that Stephen Frug of Attempts blog recently pointed out that a Jacques Roubaud-penned poem called "La Disparition" appears in Perec's novel but not in Adair's translation. Thanks to Stephen, you can find the English translation of the poem here and a really interesting post about other A Void related material here. And although the translation let me down in many ways, I still look forward to reading the novel as Perec wrote it one of these days. Why? Just in skimming La disparition, I encountered multiple examples of wordplay that would probably be lost in any translation. In Chapter 21 in the David R. Godine edition, for example, Adair forces the imitation is the sincerest form of flattery issue by making a lame-o joke about a chicken crossing the road. While Perec isn't above such low humor on his own, note the extreme contrast in style between his original text and Adair's translation: he mentions a dindon dodu [a plump turkey] before adding in parenthesis, "dont Didon dîna dit-on du dos" (225). Am I right in suggesting that you don't even need to know how to translate that line to appreciate the effort? An interesting and simultaneously uninteresting start to the French literature reading project that I hope to pursue over the coming year, A Void is probably a timely reminder that not all translations are created equal. In other words, too bad my schoolboy French is so damn merde-y! (http://www.godine.com/)
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