Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Once more unto the Bök, dear friends

I wanted to come back to Christian Bök’s lovely book Eunoia. It’s a short book, less than 100 pages, quite re-readable and endearing. He spent 7 years writing it, and published it in 2001 to surprising but well-deserved critical acclaim and commercial success; 20,000 copies sold, not bad for a book in that blurry space between prose and poetry. Bök, who only had a previous book of poetry to his name, probably didn’t expect this, as we self-deprecatingly acknowledges in a meta-fictional aside:

Relentless, the rebel peddles these theses, even when vexed peers deem the new precept ‘mere dreck.’ The plebes resent newer verse; nevertheless, the rebel perseveres, never deterred, never dejected, heedless, even when hecklers heckle the vehement speeches. We feel perplexed whenever we see these excerpted sentences. We sneer when we detect the clever scheme – the emergent repetend: the letter E. We jeer; we jest. We express resentment. We detest these depthless pretences – these present-tense verbs, expressed pell-mell. We prefer genteel speech, where sense redeems senselessness.

As you can see, the text only uses words with the vowel E. Eunoia is a collection of lipograms, one per vowel. ‘Eunoia’ is the shortest English word to contain all five vowels and means “good thinking”, which is an apt name for such an intelligent book. Bök, influenced by Georges Perec whose A Void avoids the letter E, inverted the concept. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement because, in spite of the Oulipo-like constraint, the book has plot, logic, coherent grammar, complex figures of speech, and lots of humour. As far as form goes, it’s one of the most impressive displays of virtuosity I’ve ever seen in English language.

Now one of the goals of the book was to prove that each vowel has a personality. “A unique personality for each vowel soon emerges: A is courtly, E is elegiac, I is lyrical, O is jocular, U is obscene,” the back cover says. I don’t find this convincing: certainly a chapter with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu will be obscene, but no less than:

“Slick pimps, bribing civic kingpins, distill gin in stills, spiking drinks with illicit pills which might bring bliss. Whiz kids in silk-knit shirts script films in which slim girls might strip, jiggling tits, wiggling hips, inciting wild shindigs. Twin siblings in bikinis might kiss rich bigwigs, giving this prim prig his wish, whipping him, tickling him, licking his limp dick till, rigid, his prick spills its jism. Shit! This ticklish victim is trifling with kink. Sick minds, thriving in kinship with pigs, might find insipid thrills in this filth. This flick irks critics. It is swinish; it is piggish. It stinks.”

Chapters A and E seemed equally courtly, and lyrical passages are not exclusive to I. Personality certainly must be shaped by the vocabulary at his disposal, but for every cunt there’s a twat and for every fuck there’s a bang. I think the personalities that emerged have more to do with the way Bök’s imagination interacted with the words he had available, that magical thing we call creativity. To me it’s rather his personality that’s showing through the meanings he constructed with each story.

But I think the book does show English language’s personality in another way; although Eunoia is an ars poetica digressing through potentialities, it’s also a lament to its limitations. In Chapter A, the character, if that means anything here, is Hassan Abd al-Hassad. Along with Chapter U, it’s one of the book’s most repetitive parts. Bök, you see, was forbidden from using pronouns; ‘Hassan’ shows up 6 times in this short text:

Hassan asks that a vassal grant a man what manna a man wants: Alaskan crabs, alfafa salad and kasha, Malahat clams, lasagna, pasta and salsa. Hassan wants Kalamata shawarma, cassabananas and taramasalata. Hassan gnaws at a calf flank and chaws at a lamb shank, as a charman chars a black bass and salts a bland carp. Hassan scarfs back gravlax and sprats, crawdaw and prawns, balks at Parma ham, and has, as a snack, canard à l’ananas sans safran. Hassan asks that a vassal grant a man jam tarts and bananas, jam flans and casabas, halva, pappadam and challah, babka, fasnacht and baklava.

When Ubu gets on the stage the same thing happens. The other chapters have ways of ameliorating this constraint. Chapter O, for instance, is the chapter of the third person plural:

Goths who rob tombs confront old ghosts (most of whom prowl from ghost town to ghost town to spook poltroons). Lots of ghosts, who brood, forlorn, on moods of loss, how long-lost consorts – blond frows, sworn to honor fond vows of forsworn troth (now long forgot). Most consorts, too forlorn to long for comfort from sorrow, sob: boohoo, boohoo – so bozo clowns, who know not how to frown, don coxcombs, for pomp, for show, to spoof droll plots from books. Most fools who josh lords or mock snobs don hoods or cowls to do so (for wroth lords who scowl oft long to shoot folks who honor no form of snobdom). Most fools go: ‘oops, ow – oh, bollocks: ho, ho’.

Here the text has multiple subjects, which gives the action more variety. In Chapter E, also known as the retelling of the War of Troy, Helen is the protagonist; here there’s more room for maneuver because Bök has pronouns like “me”, “she”, “we”, “her” e “herself”. (At one point he even uses “thee”, which makes sense given the Homeric setting; I love that popular fiction trope of putting mythological characters speaking with faux Shakespearean terms.) This newfound freedom also allows the chapter to use dialogue and reflexive structures; if Hassan is all about exterior, Helen is about me and the self. Chapter I, since it has “I”, goes one step further, it’s even more intimate and self-centered. It’s also the most inquisitive chapter since Bök at last has at his disposal the vocabulary (“is”, “it”, “why”, “might) to ask questions:

Hiking in British districts, I picnic in virgin firths, grinning in mirth with misfit whims, smiling if I find birch twigs, smirking if I find mint sprigs. Midspring brings with it singing birds, six kinds (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift), whirling shrill chirps, trilling chirr chirr in high pitch. Kingbirds flit in gliding flight skimming limpid springs, dipping wingtips in rills which brim with living things: krill, shrimp, brill – fish with gilt fins, which swim in flitting zigs. Might Virgil find bliss implicit in this primitivism? Might I mimic him in print if I find his writings inspiring?

Bök is certainly dependent on vocabulary, he follows its lead, allows it to create possibilities. For instance, Chapter A has a remarkable text on drugs and premonitions because it can:

Hassan wants a catnap and grabs, as a calmant, hash, grass and smack, khat, ganja and tabac – an amalgam that can spark a pharmacal flashback. Hassan falls slack, arms asprawl, and has a nap that spawns dark phantasmatas. Satan stands back, aback a damask arras, and draws a fractal mandala – a charm that can trap what a Cathar savant calls an ‘astral avatar’ (part man, part bat – and fang and claw) – a phantasm that can snarl and gnash at a carcass. A fantast chants ‘abracadabra’ as a mantra, wags a wand, and (zap) a sandglass cracks. A hag as mad as Cassandra warns a shah that bad karma attracts phantasmal cataclasms.

Still the available vocabulary is not that restrictive. “Eunoia abides by many subsidiary rules,” the author wrote. “All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”

Each chapter illustrates many different potentialities, but then denies many more; I, thanks to the “–ing” suffix, is the only one that uses the gerund; O, since it has the monopoly on “no”, ”nor” and “not”, abounds in negative sentences, and that too becomes part of its personality. Each chapter, perforce, must use simple, declarative syntax; many of the elements that allow the creation of more complex grammar are multivocalic: while, whereas, because, since, therefore, although, and therefore prohibited to Bök. Each letter has exclusive rights on a very small cluster of conjunctions, adverbs, prepositions, articles and pronouns, the synapses that interconnect the phrases’ neurons. Thus A does what it can with “as”, “a”, “that”, “at e “and”; thanks to the repetition of “and,” this chapter has a touch of oral literature (which seems right to me; Hassan made me think of Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of The Arabian Nights.) E, better equipped, benefits from “nevertheless”, “wherever”, “whenever”, “hence”, “then”, “where”; I has “in,” “it,” “which.” I was thinking why O uses the third person plural; I think it’s so Bök can use verbs like “to go” and “to do”; one of his subsidiary rules was to exhaust all the available vocabulary; he couldn’t do that if he conjugated them in the third personal singular, with the “–es” suffix getting in the way. O oversees “who”, “whom”, “both”, “on” and “to”, which allows him to use verbs in the infinitive. U has “thus”, “but”, “such”, “must”, “up”. Obviously since these elements are reused several times; each text acquires its own syntactical personality; the reader can predict the type of sentences he’ll found next. Even so there are surprises; I thought E would use the past tense – that “–ed” suffix – but actually he coherently wrote the whole book in the present tense.

Eunoia is an amazing book, with dazzling verbal tricks. However, although I don’t wish to downplay Bök’s amazing feat, I also have the impression that he fared so well because the English language evolved to permit him to pull off this stunt. Apropos of him I wrote a bit about the differences between Portuguese and English before; and I still think he was very lucky to have a language so monosyllabic, so poor in declensions and conjugations, so devoid of information in its syntax. It’s almost as if English evolved to allow someone to create this book; that it had to wait so many centuries is also quite incredible. So congratulations to Christian Bök; he’s not just a great virtuoso, he also had the genius to notice all this untapped potential that others ignored.


  1. Great review, and what a great book! I've heard of it, but have been hesitant until now as to whether I should get. You've made sure I will. And, of course, the tricks you can do with a text completely depend on the language used. What is possible in one language might be unfeasible in another, at least without breaking the rules. I can imagine some OULIPOesque work in Chinese or Arabic that does things that would be just impossible to render in languages with the Latin alphabet.

    1. Dear Andrei, thanks for reading it. I'm glad I've persuaded to read this book. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

      What the Arab alphabet allows, graphically, is simply astonishing! That fusion of writing and pictures is on a whole other level.

  2. I recommend Crystallograhy as well (reminded because current reading of Celan also mines geologic territory). What I said last year: "Poetics refracted therethrough: 'a pataphysical encyclopaedia that misreads the language of poetics through the conceits of geology.' Some gems, and works overall, but I'm an easy mark for this sort of thing."

    1. Thank you, nnyhav, I will certainly read it. I find the choice of crystallography an interesting, telling theme. I've been reading up on crystals and how their structure has a tight, periodical pattern; that makes me think of Bök's own writing, utterly in control, orderly, concerned with the overall look. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but maybe not.