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Creative Restraints

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 restriction. 

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 the blackboard:

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 of 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 constraint. 
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 implosion. 

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 genetic code:


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, 1997.

Perec, Georges. A Void. London: Harvill, 1994.
West, Paul. Words for a Deaf Daughter and Gala. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press. 1993.


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