This article explores the constrained writing practices of Austrian-American writer Walter Abish in relation to those of the French literary group the Oulipo, in particular Georges Perec. Specifically, it considers the formal, stylistic, and thematic similarities between Perec's La Disparition and Abish's Alphabetical Africa, focusing on the alphabetical constraint that structures Abish's novel. It demonstrates how, in true Oulipian style, the constraint goes well beyond the ludic or arbitrary imposition of a structural rule and examines how, set against the backdrops of colonial warfare and the Holocaust, Abish and Perec's novels elaborate themes of concealment, violence, and the limitations of language. I argue that, despite the common misconception that constraint-based writers are engaged in predominantly self-reflexive linguistic experimentation and lightweight textual play, novels such as La Disparition and Alphabetical Africa present powerful examples of “engaged literature,” their constrained writing techniques complementing, and often generating, their novels' themes and motifs and producing highly encoded and richly rewarding texts.
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Research Article| September 01 2017
Daisy Sainsbury; Constraints, Concealment, and Buried Texts: Reading Walter Abish with Georges Perec and the Oulipo. Comparative Literature 1 September 2017; 69 (3): 303–314. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-4164426
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