At the end of Nabokov's story "The Vane Sisters," the first letters of the words in the final paragraph contains a message to the narrator. Cynthia and
Sybil Vane speak beyond the grave to get the him to notice the icicles
on the house. I don't know whether I would have noticed the message
had I not read Strong Opinions, in which a grinning Nabokov reveals
the secret of the last paragraph, spoiling (as he says) a once in a
lifetime literary effect. Now I can not read the story without
detecting how odd the last paragraph reads. Could it be too many "y"
words -- yellow and yielded -- close together? Or the truncation of the
sentences, unlike most Nabokov sentences, although the immediate
preceding paragraphs seem to set up the last, paragraphs broken by
dashes, commas, and colons.
I am grateful knowing the reason for the disturbance of the language.
For example, when the narrator refers to "her (Cynthia's) inept
acrostics," we see a clue to Nabokov's game. There's also the pleasure
of reading the secret communication from the dead women to the
narrator. They have placed a thought in his head, subliminally, just
as Nabokov tries to place one in the reader's, which takes us back to
the start of the story. Incredibly, we really don't have to know
Nabokov's game to understand the story. It is something extra and
pleasurable if figured out -- and still pleasurable knowing about it
before having read the story. The pleasure may initially be strictly
the writer's, something sublime and unreachable, part of an invisible
architecture within Nabokov's aesthetic, based on a creative
Few writers have constructed novels on such a narrow creative
foundation, that is, depending entirely on a stylistic nuance. Imagine
the last paragraph of "The Vane Sisters" projected through the entire
story. More than being an experimental story or novel, this type of
story aspires to being a limited tour de force, that is, it might be
more experimental than As I Lay Dying or Infinite Jest, but its
aesthetic range and perhaps, even, our satisfaction with the work, may
not be as great.
To some of my students I have distributed pages from a couple of these
type of works and their reactions weren't much different than the
innocent reader of "The Vane Sisters":
My memory isn't accurate anymore. Mentioning my memory makes me feel
insecure. A few months ago Alex and Allen kidnapped a jeweler in
Antibes and killed him almost inadvertently. Between eight and eleven
a.m. his briefcase containing many fabulous diamonds disappeared from
Alex's apartment. (32)
And from a different work:
At night, his spotting an ant or cockroach scrambling on top of his
window crossbar only to fall back down again would, without his
knowing why, instill within him a profound discomfort, as though so
tiny an animal could function as a symbol of his own bad luck. (15)
Their first response -- and the first clue to what is "wrong" -- points to
the fact that neither passage has the word "the." How could such a
basic word be absent, I ask the class. Perhaps it's the consequence of
another, hidden game. Occasionally, someone figures out what's missing
from the second excerpt: the letter 'e'. I had taken the passage from
George Perec's La Disparation (A Void), to which knowledge the
incredulous students usually remark how many e's are in his name.
But what about the first passage? I drop large hints. Look at the
first letters of the words. Is there something odd about them?
Finally, I write another passage from an earlier part of the book on
I haven't been here before. I had hoped I could hire a car, but I
can't drive. I have been awfully busy finishing a book about Alva.
First I contemplated doing a book about another character, and another
country. Bit by bit I have assembled Africa. (21)
Finally, they notice the vocabulary restrictions. The presence of the
words, I tell them, depends on their place in the alphabet. The last
passage only had words beginning with the letters from 'a' to 'i'; the
first, 'a' to 'm'. Appropriately, they come from Walter Abish's
Alphabetical Africa. The novel is an alphabetical balloon, filling up
with word possibilities -- first chapter all A's, second A's and B's,
third A's, B's and C's -- until it reaches the letter Z, then the novel
deflates slowly, alphabetically, to its flaccid "A" form.
The two books differ in their respective constrictions in that Abish's
has access to most words once it reaches the "M" and "N" chapters.
Abish enjoys a sort of relaxation not available to Perec in A Void.
Perec has chosen to eliminate the most common letter. While he's never
as constrained as Abish is in the "A" to "H" chapters, the holding
back of the letter E, along with his narrator, Anton Vowl, recomposing
famous works ("The Raven" becomes "Black Bird" and "To Be or Not To
Be" is rendered Living, or not Living), borders on maniacal obsession.
Constriction, fortunately, translates into greater creativity just as
having less time drives one toward increased production. Without the
restraint, the novels would be bland and unassuming. Yet, taken as a
whole, both of these novels may leave one unsatisfied because the
forms have overwhelmed the content. One feels the same after reading
Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa. At best, they reflect an
aesthetic intuition for the limited power language.
Abish touches on this troubling thought that words limit what we have
to say. Is the answer: less is more? The readily available reservoir
of vocabulary dissipates our imperative for concision and truth. Yet,
this seems an unlikely conclusion after we have read Vladimir Nabokov.
In fact, Abish stretched the limitations of expression to an
extraordinary limit. Alphabetical Africa's advancing chapter after
chapter represents the release of an invisible grip on the writer's
and readers' throats. Built into his scheme is a near tragic sadness
as we read the descending chapters and return to inevitable verbal
The implications of Perec's lipogram novel suggests other analogies.
Imagine the absence of an organ -- kidney, lung, whatever you can
spare -- and the effect it would have on the entire body. The
elimination of E's, as Stephen Donatelli suggests in a review of
Perec's magnum opus: Life, A User's Manual, could represent the
absence of Jews in Europe, for Perec was a child survivor of a death
camp. A Void itself takes on the burden of the absence of a vital part
of the language and life. But as in Alphabetical Africa, the novelty
of the form overwhelms the plot and drama. The reader wearies over the
narrators' daunting elisions. Ultimately, they teeter on an aesthetic
Another novel combines the two aforesaid creative restrictions. Paul
West's Gala, a fictional sequel to Words for a Deaf Daughter, limits
the narrator to starting every paragraph with a word beginning with a
U, an A, a G., or a C. The restriction derives from the pattern of the
I can still make the paragraphs as long or as short as I fancy, but
I'll distribute the subject matter exactly as twenty amino acids are
distributed over the grid of the sixty-four triplets. So:UUU and UUC,
both phenylalinine, could be this or thatsubject (balloons perhaps),
while UUA and UUG, which follow, are leucine and could be, oh, Milk's
departureanticipated. . . . In any event, since phenylalanine doesn't
occur again, whereas leuline does, I'd better work out the subjects
I've most to say about and which I'll skimp. (113)
The structure relates to a genetic scheme outside of the narrator's
control because it was the same arbitrary mix that caused his
daughter's autism. At once fated to this result and giving himself up
to a literary pattern, West's narrator embraces his destiny, not
necessarily resolving but perhaps transcending it through imaginative
necessity. West's code in the succession of paragraphs consciously
communicates a joyful message of his love for his daughter. And what
the messenger RNA is to human life, the model of the Milky Way he
builds in his basement with his daughter stands for the universe. His
humility in relation to the genetic code and model galaxy enunciates
an uncompromising commitment to an aesthetic Nabokov, Abish, and Perec
also communicate to the reader.
Abish, Walter. Alphabetical Africa. New York: New Directions, 1973.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Complete Stories. New York: Vintage International,
Perec, Georges. A Void. London: Harvill, 1994.
West, Paul. Words for a Deaf Daughter and Gala. Normal: Dalkey Archive