Fans of the French Oulipo movement will know about A Void, the Georges Perec novel written entirely without the use of the letter “e.” What very few readers of any kind know, however, is that in 1939, thirty years before Perec’s novel was published, Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a book in English, Gadsby, that hewed to these same constraints. At The Atlantic, Nikhil Sonnad investigates how this experiment plays out in the book.
This essay is adapted from the introduction to the new Soft Skull Press edition of No Stopping Train by Les Plesko.
Has there ever been a writer so committed to the page and what went on it as Les Plesko? He believed in Art, in all its honesty and beauty. The only thing he loathed was that which affronted the Real — anything false, slick, self-serving. He was in rebellion from all that. You saw it in his unregenerate smoking; the mismatched socks; the wild head of straggly hair; his carlessness in vast, far-flung Los Angeles. From time to time, his students said, people dropped money into his coffee cup outside a favorite Venice Beach coffee house, thinking him homeless. It was all part of his High Beat Aesthetic, which was both a conscious embrace of his romantic ideal and an increasingly involuntary corner he’d lived himself into.
But now he’s gone. Dead, by suicide, on a September morning in Venice Beach, at the age of 59. He had become a cult-figure in Los Angeles literary circles, a writer’s writer — as Mayakovsky called Khlebnikov, “Not a poet for the consumer. A poet for the producer.” A brilliant teacher, he taught over 1,000 creative writing students across a 20-year career at UCLA extension. Yet at the time of his death, he was virtually unknown outside California.
I met him in the early 1990s, in the days of the legendary Kate Braverman writing workshop held every other Saturday in her apartment on Palm Drive. There, I saw him finish his first novel, The Last Bongo Sunset, and start the book that would become No Stopping Train. Even in those early days, his views on fiction became our mantras. “Don’t have ideas,” he’d say, which always made me laugh. What that could possibly mean? How could you write and not have ideas? It was only as I struggled with my own writing that the meaning — and the wisdom — became clear. It meant: Don’t force the work into a shape. It meant: Don’t lead with your head. Don’t know so much. Leave room to discover something.
The tragedy of Les, as well as his greatest virtue, lay in his absolutely uncompromising stance on art and life: the world of commerce and the world of Absolute Art is a Venn diagram with a very small overlap. Herein lies the most painful, brutal dilemma, as Plesko would discover once No Stopping Train was finished, and he began the search for a major publisher. Every year for 15 years, he braved that dilemma, sending the manuscript out once again. But the consolidation of publishing houses worked against him. Consolidation meant that novels were far more likely than ever to be judged for “reader friendliness” and potential for commercial success than for invention and strangeness and beauty. A work like No Stopping Train had an ever-decreasing chance in such a market — and Les would have recoiled even from the use of such terms as “market,” “marketplace” — when referencing literature. The repulsive necessity of reducing creative works to a unit of commerce. It was one of the great sorrows of his life that this, his best book, could not manage to hack its way through the thicket of obstacles growing ever more dense on the road to a wider reading public.
Yet at the same time, he refused to consider casual publication for this novel. His subsequent books, his desert novel Slow Lie Detector and the tender love story Who I Was, were both published by his friend Michael Deyermond in loving editions in Venice Beach (Equinox Books and MDMH Books, respectively). But Les was adamant; he wanted No Stopping Train to reach beyond small, appreciative literary circles of Southern California. He knew that a broader readership existed for this book, but it would require a more experienced literary house to connect to them.
The book had two strikes against it. Les’s lyrical, poetic style could be demanding of a reader, and the romantic pessimism of the point of view was far more European than American. Furthermore, it’s a book set in Hungary between World War II and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a corner of history generally unknown to American readers. Its literary modernism plus its historical framework made No Stopping Train a difficult work in the contemporary American publishing climate.
Hungary in 1956. A Soviet invasion to stifle a growing movement for independence. The moment can be viewed in many ways as the precursor to The Unbearable Lightness of Being’s Czechoslovakia, and the book shares themes with the Kundera novel: love and betrayal in times of political upheaval. Wars don’t just end — they leave bodies and ghosts. The collision of 1956 had its roots in the Second World War, where Hungary fought on the side of the Axis and experienced great hardship in defeat. In the division of Europe, Hungary fell on the Soviet side, so scores were being settled as people tried to survive, a situation Plesko brilliantly illuminates in his novel. No Stopping Train starts with the War and its aftermath; the girl Margit and her embittered mother; her love affair and eventual marriage to the document forger Sandor; and their involvement with the fearsome, magnetic redheaded Erzhebet, whom he’d once saved from the camps. In the years leading to the Hungarian Revolution, love and alliances shift repeatedly, as each character struggles with his or her own level of hope and despair.
Plesko specifically chose his homeland as the setting for his magnum opus. Born in 1954 Budapest, Laszlo Sandor was the child of a love affair between a pretty young blonde, Zsuzsa, and a man whose identity Les would not know until he returned to Hungary years later, when he discovered his father had been a famous actor. His long-time colleague Julianne Cohen said, “He brought home a head shot. The resemblance, uncanny. And a story of how the actor had leapt from a building to his death.” A terrible prefiguration of Les’s suicide in the fall of 2013.
In 1956, his mother fled across the border with a new husband, Gyorgy Pleszko, making her way to America and leaving two-year old Laszlo behind with her elderly parents who struggled with the realities of the “revolution.” She sent for him at the age of seven. He arrived in Boston, speaking only Hungarian, to meet his mother, a glamorous near-stranger, and his new family, which now included a baby half-brother. A new name. And a new language.
His encounter with English began a love affair that continued for the rest of his life. “Immediately, he was in school, and nobody spoke Hungarian, so he listened in from the back until sounds took shape and made a kind of music,” said Cohen. “He listened to the radio, watched TV, and listened to his mother and stepfather who never spoke Hungarian, fiddled with a reel to reel tape recorder until the music became word. At some point, he lost his fluency in Hungarian. Gave it up for new and interesting things — all that America had to offer a boy in the ’60s. Les was in love with language and in love with love and fell in love with the music all around him.”
But the ’60s in America had their pitfalls: “He made friends with people who were going places. San Francisco, Santa Cruz,” she recalled. “He tried college but he fell in love with heroin and dropped out. When you read The Last Bongo Sunset, you’ll come to know how he broke his own heart. But the tenacious [side of himself] quit using and thought maybe he could be an artist, a musician. He recognized he possessed a feel for word and deed and an eye for beauty. So he hit the road, taking jobs along the way searching. Fell in love with an older married woman as a hand on her ranch in the desert. It ended badly, broken hearts and incipient violence. Made his way back to Los Angeles: flag man for crop dusters, Country Western DJ. He took a sales job. He had a compelling voice; it roped you in and kept you there. Laced with smoke, sorrow, and an unbeliever’s faith in resurrection. He told the truth and you could trust that.”
I’ve seen those pictures of Les as a young man, a businessman with a phone to his ear, in ’70s wide lapels. They astonished me. For I knew him only after these formational years, the years that gave the raw edge to his first novel, in new sobriety in the Braverman workshop, writing the book in which he found his unique voice, his tone as an artist, and a moment of accolades. About The Last Bongo Sunset (reviewed just ahead of A Void by Georges Perec) The New Yorker said, “For the narrator of such extravagant, ravaging prose, it would be impossible to commit a cliché.”
But now that book is long out of print, and the last two novels reached only the circles already aware of Les’s work. What would ever become of the Hungarian novel, all these years in the making?
Shortly after Les’s death, as friends and students wandered in dazed disbelief, the Australian novelist David Francis — a former Plesko student and protégé — seated me next to an editor from Counterpoint at a PEN USA dinner. David knew that the story of our colleague’s death, and the tragedy of No Stopping Train soon would arise in conversation, and so it did. The editor, Dan Smetanka, was eager to see the manuscript. Who had the book? When could he read it?
Word went out. Les, a great letter writer, had sent various incarnations of the book to his correspondents over the years, notably to Julianne Cohen, to his former fiancée Eireene Nealand, and to his devoted student Jamie Schaffner. All of them were able to produce incarnations of the manuscript. Soon Les’s younger brother, George, received an offer to publish.
So comes the end of a very long journey for one small jewel of a book. It is with a profound and bittersweet pleasure that I now hold this volume in my hands. How proud Les would have been if he had lived to see this day, how happy he would be for you to turn the first page.
I wish you good reading.
Los Angeles, California April 21, 2014
I think for my 2012 “Year in Reading” I’m going to try and be topical, since I’m guessing this series will feature enough laundry lists of great books as it is. So, since my book The End of Oulipo? is publishing in January from Zero Books, I’ll make my topic Oulipo literature. I’ve certainly been reading enough of it lately.
This is the year I had the great good fortune to discover Harry Mathews, for a long time the only American Oulipo author, and certainly one of the greats of 20th-century literature. For Mathews newbies, I think there are two places to start, depending on your reading habits. If you like to be tossed into the deep end, then go for Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (and read Ed Park’s excellent essay on said book). It’s, well, a very strange novel about a quest to solve a riddle in a dead man’s will, where each chapter becomes a strange metamorphosis of the preceding chapters. It ends with one of the more beautiful extended metaphors I’ve read all year, and on which I write at length in The End of Ouliopo?
If you, alternatively, prefer good old plot, then start with what I and many others consider Mathews’s masterwork, Cigarettes, which is one of the most plot-heavy books you will read all year, despite Mathews’s insistence that it was his only “properly” Oulipian novel. (On the surface, it will appear much more Edith Wharton than Raymond Queneau.) I then recommend A D Jameson’s essay “I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes” for a great analysis of just why Mathews’s rendition of a plot-heavy novel is so damn literary.
Mathews also wrote Singular Pleasures, 61 short accounts of masturbation, along with a collection of other odds and ends. It is more difficult to find than his proper novels, but well worth seeking out.
This year I also read virtually everything of Georges Perec’s that has been translated (many for the second time). I’ll toss out a recommendation for his wonderful collection of essays and miscellaneous texts, Species of Spaces. It includes the story “The Winter Journey,” the best Borgesian short story written by a Frenchman. I will also put in a recommendation for Perec’s strange short novel W, or the Memory of a Childhood, which always seems to be left behind when people talk about the more bizarre A Void (the novel without the letter e) or the masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual.
Of the lesser-known Oulipo members, the works of Jacques Roubaud should not be missed. His Mathematics, just published this year, is a great introduction to this writer who marries Oulipo, Proust, and mathematics (it’s a strange marriage). Then there is the first book by the second American Oulipo member, Daniel Levin Becker, called Many Subtle Channels. Not a properly Oulipian book per se (if we’re defining that as having some sort of constraint), Many Subtle Channels is something along the lines of a memoir spliced with literary criticism, reportage, and good old boosterism of a fantastic body of literature. And lastly, I’ll toss in Marcel Benabou’s strange anti-novel Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.
And then, after the well-known Oulipo and the lesser known, we get to the authors I regard as somehow being in league with Oulipo, but not actually being a part of the collective. Christian Bök, who has taught microbes to make poetry, certainly must be some kind of kin to the Oulipo. I discuss both his Crystallography and Eunoia (the latter consisting of chapters that only utilize one vowel at a time) in The End of Oulipo? I also regard César Aira is having some relevance here for his “constant flight forward,” certainly a writing constraint of a kind. For an idea, have a look at his just-translated Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.
There are lots more out there to find, and many beyond that still only readable in French. Beyond Perec’s dream journals (which Levin Becker is translating for Melville House), there’s Ian Monk’s Plouk Town, (raved by Levin Becker and also called “untranslatable” by him — just the kind of challenge an Oulipian would relish), an anthology of “sequels” to Perec’s “Winter Journey” that is currently being translated, and Anne F. Garréta, whom my co-author, Lauren Elkin, recommends should be translated post-haste in The End of Oulipo? For an idea of the riches that await us, have a look at Drunken Boat’s Oulipo feature.
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As the “A Year in Reading” series continues, I asked Kirby Gann, author of Our Napoleon in Rags, to share with us the best book he read all year. Here’s what he said:After thinking over what books I read this past year that have stayed with me, I think I’d have to choose A Void by Georges Perec as my best “discovery” of the year. It’s one of the most cleverly effusive novels I’ve ever read, full of virtuosity, linguistic energy (in both the original and the translation), and unique invention. A metaphysical detective story bursting with plots and sub-plots, it tells the story of the disappearance of a man named Anton Vowl. Interestingly enough, it manages to do so without ever using the letter “e,” and yet the prose never feels forced or labored in order to accomplish that lack.The novel is a dazzling display of what a limiting structure can do toward firing the imagination, much like poetic forms such as the sonnet and ghazal do for poets. Usually I don’t go for “game” novels, but this one impressed me greatly.Thanks Kirby!