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Book: A Void

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

[Warning: Posting from a world of odd cogitation.] 

This book, A Void, is a translation by Mr. G. Adair into Anglo-Saxon of a Gallic original, La disparition. It contains a mystery about Mr. Anton Vowl, who is abruptly gone without a word. A group of individuals look for him without luck.  His diary contains particular prosody by a quincunx of famous authors: One is by W. S. and begins thusly:

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

OK, I give.  This effort to write without using the letter “e” is waaaay beyond my ability to sustain for any length of time.  So, the point of the French original [by Georges Perec, so you can see why I couldn’t mention his name in the paragraph above] is that it manages to be a more than OK mystery that, along the way doesn’t use the letter “e”.  [According to the flyleaf, Perec’s next novel Les Revenentes made up for the imbalance by using only the letter “e”.  Yoicks.]  Astoundingly enough, the translator has managed to produce a version in English that respects this difficult constraint.

By the way, the technical term for a work that avoids a particular letter is lipogram.  In English, the “usual” letter to avoid is “e”.  If you imagine a work that avoids the letter “x” for example, it would probably go completely unremarked.

An interesting choice is the poetry.  In the original, there are five poems copied into the diary of Anton Vowl [or Voyl in the French].  The poetry is all exceedingly familiar to any French reader–but wouldn’t have the same familiarity to English speakers.  So the translator found poetry that, I expect, we all recognize:  “Living or not living”, PBS’s Ozymandias, John Milton’s On his Glaucoma, Arthur Gorden Pym’s Black Bird [‘Quoth that Black Bird, “Not again”.’]  The one poem that remains in French–or rather the Gallic version–is Arthur Rimbaud’s Vocalisations [in French it’s Voyelles.  Just so you can appreciate the amazing talent

Here’s the first line of the original:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,

And the translation:

A noir, (Un blanc), I roux, U safran, O azur:

The poems, in addition to being recognizable “copies” of the originals, also scan like their models. 

There is, of course, a certain stilted quality to the prose–it’s amazing to me how frequently the prose just flows along and I don’t notice that there aren’t any “e”s.

If you want a bit of a trial, try writing a paragraph of Anglo-Saxon.  Soon you’ll remark that this task is difficult.  But I know that you will find ways to bring forth your cogitations using this unusual diction and syntax.

When is “next Saturday”?

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Once again, I find myself confused by the difference between the way I use the expression “next Saturday” and the way that other people do.  I would think that it’s just me, except that now and then I run into someone else who uses the expression the same way that I do.

Just to explain.  I think that most of use know when “last Saturday” was.  Just to be specific, today is Thursday, May 15.  So “last Saturday” was the most recent Saturday–that is, May 10.  Similarly, “this Saturday” is pretty clear–it’s the day after tomorrow, May 17.

 But when it comes to “next Saturday”, to me it means the next Saturday after “this Saturday”–that is, May 25.  The place that the communication breaks down seems to be that most people use “next Saturday” as a synonym of “this Saturday” in this case.  I’ll admit that I recognize that it’s a problem for me, so when I’m making plans, I usually try to include a date, just so no one gets surprised.

You may think that I’m just over-intellectualizing.  It seems to me that there’s a window into the much deeper question of how we manage to communicate across the barrier of separate consciousnesses.  There always has to be an agreement about what we’re talking about.

I was surprised to read some novels about life in the British navy in the 1800s that at the time, the day started at noon [rather than midnight] with the astronomical observation of the sun.  And, when I was in college and was regularly staying up past midnight, the group collectively defined “tomorrow” as “after one sleep or after 6 a.m., whichever comes first”.  In this case, as a group, we came to a definition that worked better for our situation.  The trick, I guess, is to identify those circumstances where we need to explicitly make clear how we’re using language.

There aren’t enough words in English for smells and tastes

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008
For the past year or so, I've been going to the wine tasting that the local wine shop has every weekend.  [Schedule].  As a way of focusing my attention, I've started to write ... [Continue reading this entry]