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.

Posted in France, novel and tagged , , , .


  1. Oh dear!!!! All of you are too intelligent for my level (remember I’m Spanish) and though I studied a lot, many times my sight can`t spot a “bloomer”… in Spanish “gazapo”….

  2. How intriguing. And infuriating. And uncommonly frustrating. Two can play, but without much satisfaction, though it’s not difficult to slog through. Hah! 😉

  3. Sounds intriguing. I must ask my sister and brother in law if they’ve heard of either book. They’ve lived in Bordeaux for around 40 years as translators and interpreters so the linguistic element would be right up their street, if you’ll excuse the cliche!

    • Perec has a bit of a cult following but it was only with La Vie mode d’emploi that people started really to take notice. As for the other one, i’m amazed anyone even thought of translating it!

  4. Am pretty sure I recall that “e” is by far the commonest letter in written English. (Dunno about French.) Avoiding “e” in a book that is anywhere near readable is a big accomplishment, as well as a very weird one.

    • A weird accomplishment indeed – but he was a bit of a weird guy. It’s the most common letter in French too – 15% of all letters in a text, the next being ‘s’ with 8%. In English ‘e’ is 12.7% followed by ‘t’ at 9%. (Thank you wikipedia…) So it’s a marginally more difficult accomplishment in French.

  5. Well, that’s just heartbreaking (with or without ‘e’), about his difficult life. I can’t imagine that a book like that, however, would be ‘good’ or easy reading per se. More so an exercise, if not an exorcism, for the author him/herself. I’ve heard of Perec only in passing, but on this post, I’m much inclined to try finding his work. Gee, thanks, Curtis—another item for the TBR stack! 😉

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