Literary daybook, March 3

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published March 3, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 3, Bigger Thomas is executed.
-- "Native Son" (1940)
By Richard Wright

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1982, the experimental French writer Georges Perec died, at the age of 45. Like Italo Calvino, Perec belonged to the "Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle" group, founded in 1960; translated, this would be "Workshop of Potential Literature," but the group is known internationally as OuLiPo, if only because of their enthusiasm for the lipogram.

Lipogrammatically speaking, Perec began by writing a 466-word story excluding all vowels but "a." In 1969, he published "La Disparition," a 100,000-word novel excluding the letter "e" (Gilbert Adair's 1994 English translation is called "A Void," the e-rule disallowing "The Disappearance"). Although this is a mystery novel -- Anton Vowl has vanished, taking the letter "e" along with him -- Perec's fans find a philosophical angst in it, and his biographers point to Perec's trauma at being orphaned by WWll (his father died in battle, his mother at Auschwitz). In any case, Perec (and Adair) must have had fun incorporating the literary e-jokes and allusions -- Po's "Quoth that Black Bird, 'Not Again!'" for example, and William Shakspar's immortal quandary:

"Living, or not living: that is what I ask:
If 'tis a stamp of honour to submit
To slings and arrows waft'd us by ill winds,
Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions,
Which by our opposition is subdu'd? Dying, drowsing ...

Perec created crossword puzzles, and palindromes -- he has the Guinness record, 5,556 letters -- and over 20 books, none of which appear to resemble each other, let alone anyone else's. Perhaps his most famous, rated a modern masterpiece by even mainstream reviewers, is "Life: A User's Manual." This is a jigsaw of 100 stories about the inhabitants of a Parisian apartment building, though "jigsaw" hardly seems adequate to describe the math-chess mind-games that shape the book's structure and plot. If Oulipians are 'Rats who construct the maze from which they must escape,' Perec gets out by having his puzzle-solving hero perish:

"It is the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-five, and it is eight o'clock in the evening. Seated at his jigsaw puzzle, Bartlebooth has just died. On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle, the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape of an X. But the ironical thing, which could have been foreseen long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W." Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" is Oulipian, but hardly hardcore. For example, Paul Fournel's "Suburbia" has title, disclaimer ("This is a work of pure fiction ..."), copyright statement, introductory epigraphs, dedication, table of contents, word from the publisher, foreword, introductory note by the author, running footnotes, afterword, "Supplement for School Use" with questions, index, errata ("52 for: he pisses through the door of the lift read: he passes through the door of the lift"), blurbs, and no story -- thus, says one, making a book which is a lipogram in every letter ...

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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