The making of lipograms—writing that purposely omits a certain letter of the alphabet—has a long history in literature. The word comes from the Greek lipo, meaning “lacking,” plus gramma, meaning “something written or drawn.” The first lipogram may have been an ode to centaurs by Lasus of Hermione (born 568 B.C)which the letter sigma was omitted, presumably because its sibilance was deemed unsuitable for poetry. Among one the earliest was Tryphiodorus, an Egyptian-born Greek, who around the fourth century A.D. chronicled Odysseus’s journey in twenty-four books, each of which omitted one letter of the alphabet.
Gyles Brandreth, the novelty sweater wearing British broadcaster and author has rewritten several of Shakespeare’s plays, each without a specific letter: Hamlet with no I (“To be or not to be, that’s the query”), Macbeth with no A or E, and Othello without an O—the latter two feats most remarkable, inasmuch as the name of Macbeth, dragging its A and E with it, appears forty-two times in Shakespeare’s text, and Othello, enclosed by its two O’s, makes twenty-four appearances.
You will probably want to rush right out to tell your friends that the oldest known lipogram now extant is a sixth-century history of the world, De Aetatibus Mundi et Hominus, by one Fabius Planciades Fulgentius. As with Tryphiodorus, Fabius’s scheme was to omit successive letters of the alphabet in each chapter, only fourteen of which still exist.
The modern master of lipograms is undoubtedly A. Ross Eckler, who lives in New Jersey (a state in which E is the only vowel), and who has a Princeton PhD in maths. You’d need such a degree to comprehend fully some of the elaborate logological examples in his book Making the Alphabet Dance. One of Eckler’s most prodigious feats is the rewriting of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in several versions, preserving both sense and meter, successively without the letters E (the most frequently appearing letter in the English language), S, H, T, and A. Without an E, for example, Eckler changes “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow” to “Mary had a tiny lamb, its wool was pallid as snow.” (Sometimes you have to lose something of the meter.) The opening line of the version without a T is “Mary had a pygmy lamb, his fleece was pale as snow.” And in the version without A, “Mary” has to become “Polly” and the “lamb,” a “sheep.”
Much more impressive lipograms are found in the work of the American Ernest Vincent Wright and the French writer Georges Perec, both of whom wrote entire novels—Wright’s about 50,000 words, Perec’s twice as long, and in French—without using the letter E. Wright called his book Gadsby: Champion of Youth (an allusion to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), and, lamentably, on the very day of its publication in 1939, he died. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to report the death of an E-less author by writing “that man did succumb with finality.” Gadsby was reissued in 1997 by the Light-year Press and is now apparently out of print. Rare used copies are sometimes available at amazon.com, and the entire text of the novel appears on a Web site called spinelessbooks.com. Wright explains his phenomenal achievement in an introduction (which does use the letter E, just to get it out of his system):
“The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. . . . As the vowel E is used more than five times oftener than any other letter, this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that ‘it can’t be done; for you cannot say anything at all without using E, and make smooth continuity, with perfectly grammatical construction’—so’twas said. This has been accomplished through the use of synonyms; and, by so twisting a sentence around as to avoid ambiguity.”
Judge for yourself, intrepid reader, how lucid the prose is with this sample from the first chapter:
“Now, in all such towns, you will find, occasionally, an individual born with that sort of brain which, knowing that his town is backward, longs to start things toward improving it; not only its living conditions, but adding an institution or two, such as any city, big or small, maintains, gratis, for its inhabitants. But so forward looking a man finds that trying to instill any such notions into a town’s ruling body is about as satisfactory as butting against a brick wall. Such ‘Boards’ as you find ruling many a small town, function from such a soporific rut that any hint of digging cash from its cast iron strong box with its big brass padlock, will fall upon minds as rigid as rock.”
Perec’s E-less novel, written in 1969, is called La Disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair, not literally as The Disappearance, which has three E’s, but as A Void, which avoids E’s with ease. In the novel the hero comes across a soliloquy by one William Shakspar that in its English translation might sound slightly familiar:
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,
Which by our opposition is subdu’d?
Like Wright of Gadsby, poor old Perec also died young, at the age of forty-five.