Six of the Best … Constrained Writings

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Writing a novel is bloody hard work, and I would be wary of anyone who said it was easy. I’ve done it twice – there’s a third on the go – and I honestly wonder how I manage to do it at times. However, there are some people who simply aren’t content with just writing a novel. They want to make it harder. Today, we’re talking about constrained writing.

Constrained writing is a literary technique that sees the writer bound by a condition that forbids something, or ensures a particular pattern. One of the most famous of these constraints is a “lipogram”, where a particular letter is forbidden. This seems easy when the letter in question is Q or J, for example – Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven actually features no Z but this doesn’t appear to have been intentional – but to really challenge oneself, you can ban the use of a much more common letter. Or the most common letter of all – E. Gadsby is a 50,000 word novel by Ernest Vincent Wright which was published in 1939 and doesn’t use the letter E at all. Annoying for him, however, there are two in his name. The opening paragraph is as follows:

If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

The thing I find oddest about lipograms is that you think they’ll sound nonsensical, but actually they often read just fine. Unfortunately for Wright, eagle-eyed readers have discovered a few E’s in the book. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive task, and inspired a similar project that I’ll discuss below. Lipograms, however, are not the only type of constrained writing available. There’s of course it’s opposite, the anitlipo, in which each word must contain a specific letter, although I couldn’t find any novel-length examples. For completions sake, a sentence or work containing all the letters of the alphabet is called a pangram. Since most works do this without any effort, the challenge here is to produce the shortest possible, the current record (involving no abbreviations) is the twenty-eight letter sentence, “Jived fox nymph grabs quick waltz”. More on these below.

Alliteration, as we all remember from language lessons, is when a series of words all begin with the same letter or subset of letters, and are difficult to do over prolonged works, although the best one I’ve found is below. Perhaps you would rather not constrain yourself based on letters, but on something apparently more esoteric, like word length. Pilish is where the number of digits in consecutive words match the numbers of pi. Mike Keith wrote a short story called “Cadaeic Cadenza” which used the first 3,835 digits of pi. The novel Not A Wake got to 10,000 places, and is the longest verified pilish work in existence. If you really want to challenge yourself, you can remove an entire aspect of language. In 2004, the French novel Le Train de Nulle Part was written by Michael Thaler and doesn’t use a single verb.

Just when you think you’ve reached a point where it seems they’ve made it difficult enough for themselves, along come authors like Jerzy Andrzejewski and his novel The Gates of Paradise, which contains just two sentences. The novel is about 40,000 words long and the second sentence contains four of them. Or how about Never Again by Doug Nufer, in which no word is used more than once.

And then there are the really tricky ones. Bilingual homophonous poetry is where a poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time by only using homophones. “One syllable article” writing is unique to the Chinese language, using words that are all homophones of one another, meaning it looks normal written down, but spoken aloud will produce a single sound over and over. A particularly famous example is The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, which has 92 characters, all with the sound “shi”. It doesn’t even have to be words: Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang doesn’t use a single comma.

If you feel like trying this out for yourself, then actually it’s a great bit of fun and it can be an interesting writing exercise. The website Quadrivial Quandry is perhaps a good starting place, as it uses the mandated vocabulary style, giving you four words a day to try and incorporate into a single sentence. And no, they’re not easy words. Alternatively, pick a random letter and try and remove it from a page of writing. You could also have a go at twiction, writing stories that can fit into a single tweet (which used to be much more of a challenge when the 140 character limit was in place). Ready that thesaurus!

And so, here are six of the best constrained writing books!

Ella Minnow Pea

In Ella Minnow Pea, we decamp to the island of Nollop, just off South Carolina, where the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is preserved on a memorial statue to its creator, Nevin Nollop, and is taken very seriously by the island’s people. When the letter Z drops off the statue, the government ban its usage. This doesn’t affect too much in society, but then the Q drops. And then J. Then D. As letters disappear from the sign, so too they disappear from the novel which is made up of a series of letters between residents, and before too long the islanders find themselves in a position where they can only use the letters L, M, N, O and P. Someone else needs to come up with a new pangram, and fast.

Author Mark Dunn is someone who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, having also written the novel Ibid, which is composed entirely of the footnotes to a work that has been lost. Much of the humour of Ella Minnow Pea comes from the characters altering the language to suit the new rules. While sometimes they just simply remove whole words, other times they change spellings (when F is lost, they begin to spell “after” as “aphter”, for example), and the fear of being found using a banned letter is very real, with themes of totalitarianism and freedom of speech beautifully explored in a unique scenario. Because of its emphasis on language, I therefore find it surprising that it has since been turned into a musical and, as of 2019, a film is in the works. This is, I think, the first constrained writing novel I read, and as such the one I hold in the highest regard. It’s funny, twisted and very unusual.

A Void

A Void by Georges Perec is one of the most famous lipogrammatic novels in the world, but what makes it even more impressive is the frequent translations. Originally published in 1969 in French as La Disparition, the novel follows a group of friends who are trying to find their companion Anton Vowl, but the novel doesn’t contain a single letter E (except the four unfortunately found in his name). At around three hundred pages in length, this is a particularly awesome accomplishment, and I struggled to do it just in my short review of the book, so I can’t imagine the pain of doing it for a whole, fully-functional novel. It was finally translated into English in 1995 by Gilbert Adair, but his was not the first attempt and three other translations – called A Vanishing, Vanish’d! and Omissions all exist.

The book has since been translated into various other languages, with every translator imposing a similar rule on themselves. Because E is such a prevalent letter in many languages, that’s usually the one that gets removed, but the Spanish version removes the A, Russian the O and Japanese the I. In 1972, Perec penned a novella called Les revenentes which uses E as the only vowel. He joked that he used up all those that he’d saved during the writing of La Disparition. This, too, was translated into English with the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.

Alphabetical Africa

Ages ago an archaeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist. Ahhh, atheism … anyhow, Albert advocated assisting African ants. Ants? All are astounded. Ants? Absurd.

Something strike you as odd about that? That’s a paragraph from the opening chapter of Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa. The first chapter sees every word beginning with A. In the second, words beginning with A and B are both allowed, and so on. It all starts to sound kind of normal by about chapter nine when words beginning with I get introduced. In the middle, everything is allowed and then, starting from Z, the primary letters disappear once more. It sounds difficult enough, but when you consider that many basic words can’t appear until really late in the text (“the” in chapter 20, “what” in chapter 23, “you” in chapter 25), it seems impossible.

Despite all this madness, a plot still shines through about a journey through the African landscape, an invasion by Zanzibar and torture by Queen Quat. Because of the limitations, some of the plot can be predicted, such as knowing when Zanzibar’s troops will arrive and when Queen Quat will have to disappear from the narrative, but it doesn’t make it any less absurd and wonderful.

Eunoia

Christian Bok’s Eunoia (named for the shortest word in English to contain all the vowels) is perhaps the strangest on this list, as it does the opposite of A Void but five times. Each of the five main chapters uses one vowel each, which allows each letter to showcase its personality, as they all produce startlingly different sounds. Here are five sentences, one from each chapter, that reveal what a mad project this is…

A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.

He engenders perfect newness wherever we need fresh terms.

Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script.

Dons go crosstown to look for bookshops known to stock lots of top-notch goods.

Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust funds plus slush funds).

Bok gives himself further rules, too. Each chapter is about the art of writing, must avoid excessive repetition of words and use as many as possible (the postscript says 98% of available words are used) and the letter Y is entirely banned too, so it can’t serve in its part-time position as a vowel.

And if that wasn’t mad enough, in the final chapter called “Oiseau” (the shortest word to contain all the vowels in French) contains further insanity, including a poem called “Vowels” where the only letters available are those in the word vowels, a lament to the letter W, and a list of all the words in English that contain no vowels at all. This is perhaps the most ambitious constrained writing project here, if not ever.

let me tell you

All of these books are obviously hampered by a limitation of the words they can use, but what if we bring it down to the words used by one person specifically. In let me tell you by Paul Griffiths, we get the story of Hamlet but from the point of view of Ophelia – but only using the words that Shakespeare gave her in the original text. Opening with “So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know…”, she discusses her love for her father, and her confusion regarding the Prince of Denmark himself, all the while increasingly feeling like she needs to escape the narrative she’s trapped in. With such a restricted vocabulary, the novel takes on musical qualities as words reappear over and over again in different contexts. This concept is so great, I wonder if I couldn’t be applied to other fictional characters – the smaller the role, the tougher the challenge.

Green Eggs and Ham

Dr Seuss was famous of books with simple language and catchy rhyme schemes, but perhaps his most famous title was written as the result of a bet between Seuss and his publisher, Bennett Cerf. Following on from The Cat in the Hat which used 236 different words, Cerf bet Seuss that he couldn’t complete one with even fewer. Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1960, with just 50 different words used in the whole text. Despite this stringent limitation, by 2001 it had become the fourth-best-selling English language children’s hardcover of all time, and by 2014, over eight million copies had been sold.

And for those who are really curious, the 50 words are:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“A Void” by G-org-s P-r-c (1969)

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a void

“Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light.”

This post is mostly about lipograms. A lipogram (for any man or woman out past this monitor with no grasp on this word’s signification or connotation) is writing with constraint, such as taking out a particular symbol of our linguistic toolkit and not allowing it into a book, play or ballad. A Void (originally La Disparition in Français) is a fiction of full duration that has a total lack of a particular grammatical prop (to quoth our book’s blurb). Which? That which is most common in our jargon. A non-consonant that shows up not at all in 278 lists of paragraphs. Now, with much difficulty, I will try to copy this action in my post. Pass luck my way!

So. Location? Paris. Plot? Conflicting, smart and wily. Author? That you must look up without my aid, as this poor chap’s autonym contains four of our taboo initial. I can say, though, that it was Mr Adair who brought this Parisian’s story to our British coast. Kudos must rain down on this translator, who has such skill to pull off an act of amazing transnational wordplay.

Our story, such as it is, follows protagonist Anton Vowl, an insomniac and curious man, who starts noticing things amiss in his days. A void, if you will. Trying to find out what is going on, our man absconds with small warning. His companions and chums, now full of confusion as to his location raid his flat, find his diary and start to fix a jigsaw that Vowl was doing. Is Vowl hiding, or has an onimous, ill-boding action had its dark way with him? Living or pushing up tulips? Olga, Arthur, Amaury and Squawk must find out.

Showmanship is also on display within, such as with proxy forms of famous historical works, most notably a popular soliloquy from a world-class bard born in Stratford-upon-Avon (“Living or not living: that is what I ask”), and a scary composition about a particular black bird that affirms a synonym for, “Not again!” (Work it out, guys.)

All must assign paudits to our author, with his magical ability to construct a functional narration without allowing author or bookworm so much as a sniff of that missing symbol. I may try and copy his skill in this post, but a short handful of words is nothing in comparasion to what witchcraft this saint of wordplay has wrought. I doubt not for a jiffy that it is a book of fantastic skill, although ocasionally wording is a bit much, sounding almost archaic as our author must do a small amount of acrobatic wordsmithing to comply with his laws and stick to his guns. Floaty, occasionally stodgy communication, and using tricks of a rascal and crook in particular paragraphs, such as using USA-isms (“ax”, “gray” and so on) or cutting off folk part way through dialog. I’m guilty of similar tricks too…

It’s hard going, but it’s totally worth it. Six stars, for I cannot apply a digit a fraction minor thanks to my limitations. For my following post, I shall go back to normal for, as you may fancy, this was hard! How an author can maintain it for a full yarn, I cannot fathom. Congratulations to him and his translator!

Want to know about a book that contains our total linguistic toolkit, but also cannibals, gods, black magic and tabloid journalists? Hop aboard an Atomic and Bloody Bus, now on Amazon, a first book by yours truly.