The web page of the ABPress based in Oxford and Sibiu, soon open for business: muses and misspells on its books. Randomly decrepit, stiff joints, possibly neo-bankrupt: so out of touch it needs help, but so analogue it cannot be helped. Nonetheless temperamentally enthusiastic, moderately irascible.
It was Oxford based artist Stella Shakerchi who came up with the idea of hanging a collection of book cover design in the Albion Beatnik Bookstore windows, and the shop exhibition this year for Oxfordshire Art Weeks running throughout May is entitled 50 Shades of Re(a)d. The exhibition is a serendipitous selection of fifty books, each of the book covers depicted by Stella in crayon, paint, collage, as seemed suitable or whatever came to mind. The selection is subtitled an attempt to curate a vital book collection, and the accompanying book catalogues this choice with a little bit of trivial and textual description, or is perhaps a guilty justification for each title’s inclusion. Not that you have to justify a selection of books ever, and nor should such a collection ever be assembled in a hierarchical fashion, for reading is the most democratic of all art forms. For sure the true reader is schizophrenically promiscuous and desultory, and at the same time is an autodidact, possibly in love childishly with both listing in alphabetical or sequential order and also listing to one side with his or her bias or preference. So it is then that this selection is based on hunch and whimsy rather than any valid assessment backed up with footnote, index or annotation.
How to bring these titles together was a challenge, to make sense of what could only ever be a disparate selection. My thoughts turned first to the English Test cricket team (netball the sport for ladies, I guess), and then came to mind my memories of Alec Bedser, a much maligned figure of my youth whose task it was as a once great cricketer and as chairman of the Test team selection committee to appease at all times the county cricket circuit, the press, the public, and take note of the current form of cricketers, both parvenu and practised veteran, and come up with a well drilled and, most importantly, well balanced Test team. His appearances on television made him look shifty, as though he couldn’t be trusted; in fact he couldn’t be, and he never made a good fist of his job. This lodestar of failure gets my approval and he has become my role model. Do you choose the man of the moment or do you go for the confirmed batsman with a pedigree of run scoring, even if he is a bit rusty and old hat at the moment? One flash century in July does not a Summer make, of course, and the problems of choosing any list includes all sorts of compromise, heartache and inconsistency.
The number three in the batting order was the crux of all teams. First wicket down had to be padded up from the off and be versatile enough to take the shine of the new ball if an early wicket fell, or to kick start an accumulation of a serious score once lunch on the first day had been negotiated. But this was the easiest choice in my literary Test team, for it had already been made: Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs choice of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare were the ideals of Ken Barrington and Colin Cowdrey rolled in to one, dour defence and graceful stroke play, and not much sense starting elsewhere.
Categories of books have been constructed, roughly in shape with a particular stage of one’s life, from the nappy littered years of babyhood, the hunt-for-the-kiss sodden years of adolescence, maturity, contrasting moods and emotion, midlife crises, empire building, and the final decline and its denouement. Only two books (other than my Desert Island two) date from the nineteenth century. Random as a blunderbuss, choice dispensed like confetti at a wedding, senseless and never thought through.
Similarly, and depending on her mood of genre, I guess, Stella’s artwork can sometimes be a bit far flung. At times kitsch and tawdry (generally too many fairies and Xmas tree lights), at times a bit Buddhist (Kabbalah littered with higher ways and elevating thoughts that resemble dinner table place mats or constipated Buddha-like figures), and at times typically it is festooned with animals, usually dogs or cats, though the odd leprechaun doesn’t go amiss. How it is that a unicorn gets on to the front cover of her Bible is anybody’s guess… Tut, tut.
The only non-English speaking author selected (and not many Frenchman have played cricket for England either) is Georges Perec. Here is Stella’s apt depiction of the cover (the e on the now rather quaint telephone dial you will note has been removed appropriately), and the accompanying text.
Georges Perec was a central figure in the Oulipo group of writers, founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. The name is short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, which translates as ‘workshop of potential literature,’ and is a loose gathering of mainly French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques, and Perec’s popular work, translated as either A Vanishing or as A Void, has become its figurehead. The story is simple: Anton Vowl is missing. Ransacking his Parisian flat, a group of his faithful friends trawl through his diary for any hint as to his location and, insidiously, a ghost, from Vowl’s past starts to cast its malignant shadow… The novel is a lipogram, that is systematically avoids a certain letter, in this case the letter e (the most used letter in the English alphabet). It has been translated into many languages, though in Spanish the text misses out the letter a (the most commonly used letter in that language). The New York Times book review remarked that there “is not a single ‘e’ in this novel. That’s right: no here, there, where, when; no yes, no love, no sex!”
Perec, who died young in 1982, was a highly regarded French-Jewish novelist, essayist and filmmaker; most of his writing abounds with experimental wordplay, lists and attempts at classification, and they are usually tinged with garlic and melancholy. In 1978, he won the Prix Médicis for Life: A User’s Manual. The 99 chapters move like a knight’s tour of a chessboard around the room plan of a French apartment building, describing the rooms and stairwell and telling the stories of the inhabitants.
A pangram uses all letters of the alphabet in a sentence, such as :- frowzy things plumb vex’d Jack Q.
A pangrammatic lipogram or lipogrammatic pangram is a text that uses every letter of the alphabet except one, e.g. “a brown fox jumps quickly over a hazy dog” [t is omitted].
Lipogrammatic writing which uses only one vowel has been called univocalic.
1/ The first recorded lipogram was by the Greek lyric poet Lasus, who was born in 548BC. The Odyssey of Tryphiodorus consisted of 24 books, with no alpha in the first book, no beta in the second, and so on. It was said of the work that it could be improved by removing all other letters from each of the books.
2/ Californian musician Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby, written in 1939, also contained no letter e. To help him concentrate, Wright wrenched the letter e from his typewriter keyboard. At the time it sold about 50 copies, but is now sought after highly.
3/ Unhooking a DD-Cup Bra Without Fumbling is a 60,000 word lipogrammatic thriller by Adam Adams, published in 2008, without the letter e. The protagonist swaps a quaint sanctuary in Bangkok for a hard-riding gothic road trip in Asia.
4/ Ella Minnow Pea, written by Mark Dunn in 2001, is a “progresssively lipogrammatic epistolary fable.” The plot of the story deals with a small country that begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story it is no longer used in the text of the novel. It is not purely lipogrammatic, however, because the outlawed letters do appear in the text proper from time to time (the characters being penalized with banishment for their use) and when the plot requires a search for pangram sentences, all twenty-six letters are obviously in use. Also, late in the text, the author begins using letters serving as homonyms for the omitted letters (i.e. ph in place of an f’, g in place of c), which some might argue is cheating. (James Thurber did in fact write a short story, The Wonderful O, about a country where the letter o is illegal.)
5/ Eszperente is a lipogrammatic form of Hungarian, coined by Frigyes Karinthy (the author of Metropole), in which the e replaces all other vowels in a word.
6/ Mike Schertzer’s poetry collection Cipher and Poverty (The Book of Nothing), published in 1998, pretends to have been written “by a prisoner whose world had been impoverished to a single utterance… who can find me here in this silence:” the poems use only these 4 vowels and 11 consonants only.
7/ In Walter Abish’s 1974 novel Alphabetical Africa, the first chapter consists solely of words beginning with a; chapter two adds words beginning with b, so on; chapter 26 sees all letters in use, and then reverses the process for 25 chapters more.
8/ Gottlob Burmann was a German Romantic poet, born in 1737, who had a fetish dislike for the letter r. Accordingly he wrote over a hundred poems avoiding the letter r, and he sought to remove it from his conversation, an eighteenth century version of Unwinese (Stanley Unwin).
9/ Lope De Vega Carpio was Spain’s first great playwright. He wrote also five lipogrammatic novels, each one, in turn, omitting one of the five vowels.
10/ Essayist Joseph Addison (has any second-hand bookseller ever sold a copy of his essays?) wrote in 1711 of his disrespect for the “lipogrammatists or letter-droppers of antiquity” (referring to Tryphiodorus), “as true Wit,” he declares, “generally consists in this Resemblance and Congruity of Ideas, false Wit chiefly consists in the Resemblance and Congruity sometimes of single Letters, as in Anagrams, Chronograms, Lipograms, and Acrosticks; Sometimes of Words, as in Punns and Quibbles; and sometimes of whole Sentences or Poems, cast into the Figures of Eggs, Axes or Altars …” Addison, for sure, didn’t subscribe to Crossword Jotters Monthly. Incidentally this is the first use of the term lipogram in print.
11/ In Christopher Bok’s novel Eunoia (2001), each chapter is restricted to a single vowel. A typical sentence (from chapter four): “Profs from Oxford show frosh who do post-docs how to gloss works of Wordsworth.”
12/ One of the best known univocalic poems was written by C.C. Bombaugh in 1890, centred on the vowel o :-
No cool monsoons blow soft on Oxford dons,
Orthodox, jog trot, book-worm Solomons