The Case of the Missing Letter


Georges Perec

My last post asked the question, What’s odd about it? There followed two paragraphs, one in English, one in French, both with the same strange feature of being e-less. That’s right – not a single ‘e’ to be found. Congratulations to Susie Kelly for spotting that. It’s difficult, not say maddening, to write without ‘e’s – I wanted to use the word language but since I couldn’t, I used vernacular instead, not realising it contained the dreaded letter till after I’d published the post. So now it’s lingo.

Of course, why one should want to indulge in such writing masochism is a mystery. But that’s exactly what the French writer Georges Perec did. And not just a paragraph but a whole book, La Disparition, 300 pages long, published in 1969. In fact, the missing letter has been said to represent Perec’s parents: his father died at the front in 1940, his mother was deported to Auschwitz. The letter ‘e’ in French is pronounced the same as eux meaning them. La Disparition, a sort of metaphysical whodunit, describes the search for a missing person, Anton Voyl (voyelle). Amazingly, it was translated into English, the title becoming A Void and the character’s name Vowl.

An incredible tour de force, however, doesn’t necessarily make a good book. It’s definitely a tough read. Fortunately, Perec went on to write a masterpiece, La Vie Mode d’Emploi, translated as Life a User’s Manual. It’s just as ingenious in its way, but far more readable. And it has all the vowels you could wish for.