You Won't Find the Letter "E" in Either of These Two Novels

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by Aliya Whiteley

The letter "E" is so integral to many languages that it’s amazing to think that even a short conversation could be conducted without it. For instance, in one episode of How I Met Your Mother, Lily and Robin challenge their friend Barney to try and get a girl’s phone number while wearing a trash bag and without using the letter "E." Okay, so he succeeds, but the conversation isn’t very scintillating. (And the garbage bag is not a great look, either.)

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

All of which makes the fact that not one but two authors managed to complete entire novels without ever using the letter "E" all the more amazing.

Written in 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby is a 50,000 word novel—and there’s not 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). But Gadsby sticks to its own rules admirably. If there are abbreviations used, they are only ones that still would not contain the letter "E" if written out in full. In order to make sure he didn't accidentally cheat, Wright reportedly tied down the letter "E" on his typewriter.

Inspired by Wright, Georges Perec decided to write his own 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 direct translation would have been The Disappearance which, you might have noticed, contains three examples of the letter in question).

La Disparation has since been translated into many languages in the same lipogrammatic form, including German, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Turkish, Romanian, and even Japanese. You have to wonder who had the harder job here: the author of the original novel, or the writers who managed to stick to the rules when they translated it.