Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

February 7, 2012

Alphabetical anonymous


Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish (New Directions, 1974)


All history in Africa is hearsay, and consequently, although Africa indubitably exists, history cannot correct certain highly erroneous assumptions. But history can conceal assumptions. It can confound historians, authors, booksellers, and also doom armies. For instance, each African army is given a few erroneous dates, a few important defeats for discipline, a few false facts, and an arrival and a departure, all contained in a book, a fictional book, but extremely accurate, extremely factual concerning foreign invasions ... ["I", 21]   


I first learned of this book from The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. Under the section on "experimental novel" Lodge made mention of lipogram novels. Perec, of course, wrote something called La Disparition, a novel allergic to letter "e" in French. The English translation, A Void, was true to its linguistic esprit.

The American writer Walter Abish (b. 1931) does something similar in his first novel Alphabetical Africa. The rules of its construction are alphabetical. There are fifty-two chapters, each with letters for title: A to Z and then Z to A. As with acrostics, the first word of the chapter begins with the letter of the chapter title. Hence, Chapter "K" begins: "Knowing Kant intimately helps, as I keep a clear head." The second Chapter "K" begins: "Knowledge derived from books hardly ever improves killing efficiency ..."

Every word in Chapter "A" starts with the letter A: "Are all archeologists arrogant Aristotelians, asks author, as Angolans abduct Alva. Adieu Alva. Arrivederci. [2]" The words in chapter "B" begin with letters A or B. Each word in Chapter "K" will begin with letters from A to K. And so on until Chapter "Z" where the words begin with any letter. That's the first pass (A to Z), expanding the word choices as allowable letters start to accumulate. And then it reverses in the second, backward pass (Z to A), shrinking the word choices as letters begin to be subtracted one at a time.

Visually it looks like the figure below. The chapter proceeds vertically, with the allowable starting letters shown bold in black. The gray letters are off limits.


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


As if writing with 26 letters isn't hard enough. But here, it all appears wickedly simple. Effortless. And the plot? The plot is funny as hell. We have a narrator named A. or with an initial of A. (Author? Abish?). He is pining for his love, Alva. There are two shady characters, Allen and Alex, who killed a jeweler. There's the queen of Tanzania, the transvestite Queen Quat, and her invasion of another African territory. There are attacks of colonies of ants. Espionage. Escape and detection. War and wild sex.

There are also, inevitably, linguistic concerns: African click languages, mixed vocabularies, dictionaries of African words, the writing of history. The alphabetical structure is closely tied to the content. There is Africa's land area shrinking fast by continental drift, mirroring the shrinking of words in the book.

      Africa is diminishing in size. It is considerably smaller than all the pocket atlases indicate. Still, it is roomy enough for an Abercrombie & Fitch organized outing, six or seven men in bush jackets accompanied by fifty black gun carriers, basket carriers, tent carriers, but not more than fifty, since the now smaller Africa couldn't absorb it. ["V", 58]

What else do we get? Puns, word plays, quick brown foxes.

    Tanzania is celebrating the anniversary of Quat's arrival. Everyone is rehearsing for the gigantic tableau. Since's [sic] Quat's coronation, no one can quite trust or accept another person's gender. The customs officials have learnt to ask: are all airplane pilots airmale. They're always compulsively touching all those control knobs. ["T", 52]

By the time the book reaches the "S" chapter in the forward pass, the constraint becomes more and more relaxed as a good many words can now be accommodated. It also provides a summary of the first half of the book.

     Summarizing Africa: I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments. Soon I'll reach my destination. Soon I'll also complete my documentation and my book. ["S", 47]
 
A. is writing a factual book about Africa, a cross between history and memoir. He details all the means he is exerting to find his lost love, Alva. The literally expanding and contracting text is the very means by which characters enter and leave, locations change, and scenes play out, as determined by the letters that begin the proper nouns of names and places. We know that Allen and Alva and Alex can safely appear in all the chapters while Zambia and Zaire will have limited exposure in a pair of chapters. We can vaguely predict when an introduced character will be dropped in the second pass based on his or her name alone.

     You must find something to do ... You can't stay in the twenty-seven room house by yourself. You'll soon retreat into yourself, become a recluse, abandon language and thought. You'll lose more and more words. We mustn't let that happen to you. ["Y", 78]

Maybe the 27 rooms refer to the 26 letters of the alphabet plus another letter Z. That's the first 27 chapters, just before the letters start to lose more and more definition in the second pass. Maybe.

This is all well and good. Except for one thing: it fails the alphabetical scheme. Drastically. The violation of the constraints will gently, then savagely, strike the reader who pays very close attention to the slips. On page 2, the final sentence of "A" chapter, we read: "Alex and Allen alone, arrive in Abidjan and await African amusements [my underline]". On the "D" chapter, words are supposed to start only with A, B, C, and D. But instead we have, in page 9:

Alva's bare breasts droop, as Chester's alarming deafness darkens African continent, and all despair because Chester cannot hear Dogon birds chirp: biu, biu, biu, or Dogon birds bark: bow, bow, bow, or antelopes: blit, blit ... ["D", my underlines]

The web blog Attempts by Stephen Saperstein Frug collates these into a table of errata. Some 43 errors are so far identified (excluding the debatable second words in compound words). Surprisingly the errors I mentioned above, occurring in the first few pages, are not in the table. I detected five more errors not given in the errata, listed below. There may be more. I'm not paying that too close attention.


A1, p. 2premature I... arrive in Abidjan ...
D1, p. 9premature HChester cannot hear Dogon birds chirp
D1, p. 9premature Obiu, biu, biu, or Dogon dogs bark
D1, p. 9premature Obow, bow, bow, or antelopes
M1, p. 32premature THe appeared to have been a middle-aged man.


I would like to believe that these errors are intentional, that Abish constructed a pattern around them, a hidden formula. In the same way that the constraints of poetry (rhyme schemes, number of lines in sonnets) are doggedly pursued to focus and concentrate language, lipogrammatic works strictly adhere to an instituted rule or system. But sometimes poetry deviate from a rhyme scheme to create powerful effects beyond euphony. An iambic pentameter is broken by an anapest. In the end, poetry can soar free as blank verse. Fixed rules being better served when violated. From time to time, that is.

Did Abish deliberately plant the errors in Alphabetical Africa? Based on the errata published by the blog Attempt and the new errors I listed, we can look at the sequence of letters that deviated from the rhyme scheme.

Errors in Chapters A to Z:  I H O O I O O O L U L N O S T T O S O O P S T W Y
Errors in Chapters Z to A:  W W W W W W W W T Q O L L L L I H H F I I D C

The repetitions are highlighted. The long series of consecutive letters, 8 Ws and 4 Ls are quite conspicuous. Perhaps they tell something, perhaps they don't.

Was it not only the writer but the book's editor and copyeditor who were complicit in these errors? How could they miss the error right on page 2?

Ironically, in a chapter devoted to a hardliner and censorious copyeditor who erases every word that is erotic in nature (second "E" chapter, p. 140-141), three errors appear!

Two consecutive erroneous I's appear back-to-back, in the second chapter "C". For a chapter that should contain only A-B-C words, these discrepancies seem much too obvious to be overlooked.

After considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles. [146]

After I cross a close-by creek, am accepted by barricaded army as a celebrity. [147]

Perhaps A. (or Abish) is too sentimental to let go of "I". Just as he wrote a few pages back, in the chapter of the same letter, before bidding final farewell to that letter:

     Eventually, I'm convinced every "I" imparts its intense experience before it is erased and immobilized in a book. Ahhh ... how fast it disappears. He is being deceitful, claims Alva. Everytime I approach, he flees back into a book. He's afraid ... ["I", 131]

And so he, "I", flees back into the book.

A way to visualize the alphabet errors is to map out their locations, as illustrated below. The red color indicates an erroneous letter occurring only once in that chapter; the green means the error appears twice; the blue, three times; and the orange, four times.


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Can we ascertain from this figure whether the errors are deliberate ones or not? Are their placements too random, does a pattern emerge out of it?

Aha, the word "HILL" is formed in the upper half. Aha, look at the cluster of 3 red S's. Aha, isn't there symmetric correspondence in the forward and backward passes of several erring letters? Maybe one sees things one wants to see.

This failure of an alphabetical book by author Abish is about the creation myth: creating things (plot, characters, places, details) as they are written, as they happen on the page, as letters and words give birth to unintentional meanings and unintended ideas. The book is also about apocalypse, as it folds into itself, disappearing into another alphabet, another Africa. In between are human errors, typographical faults, reminding us that we are aware of the rules and that we can spot the flaws if we decide to look.



WALTER ABISH (IMAGE)


13 comments:

  1. Plus, when you compare the patterns of errata to the pattern formed by the place names in the third part of The Savage Detectives, they overlap precisely.

    Kidding, of course - but what stellar detective work, Rise. Just for fun, I fed the letters into an anagram generator, which returned: 'Splotchy widths quit now low wolf.' So there you go.

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  2. LOL. That anagram there is the answer!

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  3. Wow, what an interesting and playful book. If I'm ever in the mood for something majorly weird, I'll give it a go for sure! and I'm really impressed with your graphics work :-)

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  4. Rise, you're a madman. A worthy reader of this book, which I have read, too. I remember reading part of it aloud to someone to torment him - or demonstrate how the book worked.

    I like the leakiness of the rules, as if the exceptions slip in, as if the author is trying but failing to keep out the inadmissible words.

    I read something a couple of years ago about the translation of the novel into German - by gum the translator did it, although I do not know if he was able to duplicate the pattern of errors.

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  5. Bettina, thanks. It will not fail to deliver in the weird front. Alphabetical arouses avid attention and amusement at admirable artistry as at awesome apéritif.

    Tom, golly, one can only ask that gutsy translator, "How German is it?" That feat would have required a lot of gnashing of teeth. The errors made the novel more magical for me than if the rules were followed to the, to the letter! It made for happy mad readers.

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  6. sounds fun & loving the charts & things, have you read Christian Bok's Eunoia or Alastair Bonaparte's Children & Other Works Inspired by the OULIPO by Andrew Neuendorf.

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  7. What a wonderful post! 'Splotchy widths quit now low wolf,' indeed.

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  8. Gary, I haven't. I've heard of Eunoia's lovely concept.

    Jeremy, thanks. These linguistic splotches could be addictive.

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  9. There's a Calvino book in which there is a machine that criticises books simply by listing the most popular words (the themes) and then words that occur only once (subconscious themes) etc. I'm not sure you don't have one of these machines!
    (Apologies for inaccuracies in this very vague memory - it was my favourite part of the book (Castle of Crossed Destinies?))

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  10. Séamus, thanks for bringing that to my attention. I've never warmed to Calvino's style but The Castle is worth investigating.

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  11. What an amazing book! I wonder how hard it must have been to write this.

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  12. I imagine there's a dictionary by his side, and he's good to go. A quick brown fox jumping over.

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