Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Of Gadsby, Lipogramic Literature and The Future of Donald Trump


"E" is the most commonly used letter in the English language. Not only that; it’s the most commonly used letter in lots of other languages including French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Danish, and Dutch. So there are undoubtedly easier letters to omit if one decides to construct a lipogram—a text that deliberately omits a particular letter—no matter what one’s nationality or native language might be.

All of which makes the fact that not one but two authors managed to write entire novels without ever using the letter "E" all the more amazing. The first of these, Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby is a 50,000 word novel which he self-published in 1939 —and there’s nary an "E" in sight (at least not once you get past the author's name or the introduction, in which Wright mentions how people often told him that such a feat was impossible). How did he do it? Simple (well, sort of): he simply disabled the “e” key on his manual typewriter.

Inspired by Wright, French Jewish novelist Georges Perec (1936-1982) decided to write his own lipogramic novel without the letter "E"—in his first language, French. Published in 1969, it was called La Disparition and was later, incredibly, translated into English in 1994 by Gilbert Adair, who renamed it A Void, as the literal translation (The Disappearance) would have contained three examples of the prohibited letter in question).

This kind of highly disciplined writing is known as “lipogramic literature,” generally defined as “ . . . a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is avoided.” Historically, this is nothing new: extended Ancient Greek texts avoiding the letter sigma (Σ, the 18th letter in the Greek alphabet) are the earliest examples of lipograms.

In his review of La Disparition, Italian journalist and short story writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985) noted that Perec “bears no resemblance to anyone else.” Indeed, there is another best-selling “author” named Trump of whom the same can honestly be said: that he “bears no resemblance to anyone else.”

“Ah!” I can hear my many detractors bellowing. “We were wondering just how long it would take you to get around to disparaging Donald Trump, the best POTUS in all American history.” Sorry it took so long (precisely 330 words), but it’s the god’s-honest truth: he is unquestionably unlike anyone else who has ever held that office. Unlike Gadsby or La Disparition, 45’s utter otherness has not been - indeed, has never been - based on a conscious intellectual challenge of being sui generis. Rather, it’s because he has long possessed a different mindset than any of the preceding 44 American chief executives. His unconstrained manner public expression - not to mention his relationship to the truth, or sense of self - have been totally at odds with that which we’ve come to expect from American presidents. He’s not just missing the most common letter in the alphabet; he is totally bereft of that which separates self-aware primates from trilobites.  Yes, this is a pretty harsh judgment, but one which - so far as I can tell - is eminently merited.

Over the past several weeks, the march toward impeachment - not to mention removal from office - has been as relentless and inexorable as Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” As a result of Boss Tweet’s capitulation to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thereby sentencing our Kurdish allies to death and upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East, ‘45 has begun losing the support of his most ardent, most devotedly compliant paper tigers in Congress, the Department of Justice, Foggy Bottom and even the “700 Club’s” Reverend Pat Robertson, who recently warned that the POTUS is “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven.” And, speaking of religion, one wonders how much longer his most zealous Jewish supporters (the ones who are more than willing to overlook everything squirrely about him because “He’s the best friend Israel ever had!”) and begin realizing that by pulling our troops out of Northern Syria, he’s essentially ceded power in the area to Russia and Iran . . . which will likely imperil the Jewish State.

This matter of the Rev. Robertson and white evangelical Christians has me particularly stumped.  Why would Trump’s base - which uttered not a peep over the immorality of separating Hispanic children from their parents and then stuffing them into dangerously over-crowded holding facilities - why should they now find his abandonment of the Kurds and quid-pro-quo with the Ukrainian president so immorally offsetting?  Why after all the years of silence about his many affairs, his shutting down the government in order to get a border wall he had promised a thousand times over would be paid for by the Mexicans, and his obsessive “lapdogism” when it comes to autocrats and murderous dictators, why now the beginnings of this seemingly unstoppable march to the sea of political oblivion?  

Perhaps in the not so distant future, after the partisan dust has begun settling and ‘45 has gone on to the next (and perhaps last) phase of his public life - that of the perpetual defendant - some brilliant, highly motivated lipogramacist will write and publish a novel which avoids the letters t-r-u-m- and p. And, if there is any justice in the world of letters, this novel will suffer the same fate as Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby: shortly after its vanity publication, a warehouse containing the vast majority of extant, unsold copies, burnt to the ground . . . thus consigning the novel’s protagonist, John Gadsy, to the fires of eternal obscurity.

385 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone