The Times lauds 'galvanic' Eunoia

By Leo Robson
The Times
November 14 2008

There is a vibrant, if marginal, tradition of writers who work within self-imposed formal or linguistic constraints. It includes Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov, but its most accomplished figure is Georges Perec, the French novelist who wrote La Disparition, a novel without a single use of the letter 'e'. The days of Perec and the experimental coterie Oulipo may seem distant, but Christian Bök has revived their spirit in his 'univocal lipogram' Eunoia, a work of prose-poetry that fulfils its brief of using only one vowel in each of its five chapters without cutting corners or descending into nonsense.

As if the central rule did not provide enough difficulties, Bök worked with subsidiary guidelines. The book contains no use of the letter 'y' and each chapter uses 98 per cent of the relevant vocabulary. Repetition must be minimal; each chapter must describe, among other things, a voyage by sea; and each sentence must 'accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism'. It is little wonder that the book required 'seven years of daily perseverance', as Bök says in the rule-free coda.

This labour has produced a book that is easy, and pleasurable, to read. Eunoia is characterised not by obvious sweat and strain, but by playfulness, fluidity and self-conscious wit: 'Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech. The text deletes selected letters. We see the revered exegete reject metred verse — the sestet, the tercet ... He rebels. He sets new precedents. He lets cleverness exceed decent levels.'

At other times, the rhythms bounce and tumble, creating an impression of haste despite the meticulousness and graft of the book's composition.

Although Bök's title — the shortest word in English containing all five vowels — means 'beautiful thinking', the book is not an exercise in New Age abstraction. For the most part, it makes sense.

Bök has added a short second section, Oiseau, in which he plays linguistic games involving homophones, consonants, and anagrams. Elsewhere, he has attempted to meet conventional demands, and with the exception of chapter 'U', where the vocabulary is too limited, he succeeds.

'A' tells the story of Hassan, an Agha Khan who suffers an asthma attack, 'E' is a retelling of The Iliad, from the point of view of Helen, who 'never vents spleen', 'resembles the lewdest jezebel', and 'rejects her self-centred meekness', 'I' is a gathering of first-person thoughts and stories, and 'O' portrays, among other things, monks, snobs and Oxford dons.

The book's freshest insights pertain to the resilience and manipulability of language. The experiment reveals that each vowel has a character, and lends itself to different kinds of sound and to different lengths of word. Bök shows the transformation that literary language undergoes when stripped of its easy freedom, awakening the reader from an attitude to exotic vocabulary and linguistic ingenuity that holds — say — Martin Amis and John Updike as standard-bearers. And it is surprising to discover that there are so many, and so many useful, words that fit Bök's requirements.

Christian Bök is a Canadian; his chief influences are movements initiated in France, like 'pataphysics and surrealism; his reference-points include Vermeer, Hegel, and Snoop Dogg; his verbal effects are reminiscent of Shakespeare, Beckett, Dylan Thomas, and Dizee Rascal. The approach of self-expression through self-repression proves a goad; the limitations clearly galvanised Bök, and the effect on the reader is galvanic too.

Orson Welles once said that the enemy of art was the absence of limitations; Bök shows that the excess of limitations can be art's greatest enabler and ally.

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