Monday, June 27, 2011

Novels and poems and word play, oh my! (Continued)

Continuing from my last post on unusual uses of word play in literature, I want to start off with several novels that would be very difficult to put down... not because they are so suspenseful or riveting (which they might very well be), but because there's simply not a break in the narrative in which to do so.

The first of these is the one-paragraph novel "Leeches" by Serbian author David Albahari, published in 2011. Although it consists of a single 300-page paragraph, the author claims that it has dialog and chapters all contained within that one paragraph. I've actually browsed through this one at the book store, and although I do indeed see dialog in it, I was unable to delineate chapter breaks in it merely by scanning the pages.

If a one paragraph novel isn't hard enough to read (or should I say stop reading), try "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. It's a novel written in a single 130 page sentence. I don't know the exact word count. Nor do I know whether the word count of the English translation is greater or less than that of the original. But whatever it is, it can't top the sentence length in "The Gates of Paradise," a novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski. The novel is comprised of 40,000 words in two sentences... and the second sentence is only 5 words long. That means the first sentence runs on for 39,995 words, and it contains very little punctuation. This takes the run-on sentence to new levels. As for the world record for long sentences in English-language literature, that distinction currently belongs to Jonathan Coe for the 13,955 sentence in his novel "The Rotters Club," published in 2001. Coe claims that Bohumil Hrabal's run-on opus inspired his own long sentence. Take that, James Joyce! Your infamous sentence in "Ulysses" that clocks in at 4,391 words is mere child's play!

It's time to segue from the longest to the shortest: the six word story. The craze for this literary form started with the unverified legend that Ernest Hemingway made a $10 bar bet that he could write a six word novel. The result, scribbled on a napkin, was: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." True or not, this legend inspired a rash of six word stories and memoirs. Larry Smith, founder and editor of the storytelling magazine SMITH asked readers and some noted authors to come up with six word memoirs, which he placed on his website. In 2006, he published a book of website contributions called "Not quite what I was planning." Several sequels followed. You can view contributions to the Six Word Memoir project on Smith's website:
I've written my own six-word memoir. It was fun. Try one of your own. If you're brave enough, you can submit it to SMITH and it might wind up in a future book.

Now for something completely different (and I don't think there's even a term for this wordplay form): Jonathan Safran Foer's "Tree of Codes." It's literally a novel cut out of another novel. It features die-cut pages from the novel "The Street of Crocodiles" by Polish author Bruno Schulz. Thus the title "Tree of Codes" derives from "T[he st]ree[t] of C[r]o[co]d[il]es"  (where the letters in brackets are cut out of the original title page). Similarly, the rest of the novel is created by cutting away letters and words in a layered fashion from the original novel. It's an example of a book as sculpture, and it's a true work of art. It's hard to describe how the book actually looks. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, see a few of the book's pages for yourself, by going to
The pages of this book are very delicate, so you're not going to find it on the shelves of a chain bookstore. In fact, I think you can only buy it from resellers these days.

Another artistic form of word play can be found in the books of Mark Z. Danielewski. His 2000 novel "House of Leaves" not only tells a strange story about a weird house, but it includes strange word typography as well. There are lines placed any which way on the page to mirror the events they're describing, backwards sentences, crossed out sentences, and other odd experimental forms. His 2006 novel "Only Revolutions" is presented as a flip book with two stories printed side by side and upside down from each other, with font sizes that shrink as each story progresses. Each page also contains a side bar with a time line of world events. Reading this novel is like watching a three-ring circus.

Next comes a poetic form of word play called anagrammatic poetry, where the each line of the poem is a rearrangement of the same set of letters. An example is David Shulman's 1936 sonnet "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Here is the start of the 14-line sonnet, each line of which is an an anagram of the title:
A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!
Not bad, considering the letter constraint. The complete sonnet can be found on the Internet and is included in the book "Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay" by Ross Eckler. Even our old friend Georges Perec tried his hand at anagrammatic poetry along with all his other literary word play. In his French poem "Ulcerations," every line is an anagram of the title. I doubt it was as difficult to write as Shulman's sonnet, though, because the eleven letters of the title are also the eleven most commonly used letters in the French language.

Finally, there's the literary output of the Oulipo group (of which the word play guru Georges Perec is, not surprisingly, a member). "Oulipo" stands for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle" (roughly translated as "workshop of potential literature"). Formed in 1960, its members spend their time creating constrained writing, mostly in French. The more constrained, the better.

Oulipo experiments with many techniques beyond the lipograms, palindromes, and anagrams I've already mentioned. Others include univocalism (where a poem's words all contain the same vowel), N+7 (where every noun in a text is replaced with a noun seven entries after it in a dictionary. Or instead, every verb is replaced in the same fashion. Of course, each dictionary could produce different results), and preverbs (formed by joining the front half of one proverb to the back half of another, producing such proverbs as "A rolling stone gets the worm").

Some of the Oulipo creations are truly bizarre. Member Luc Etienne made a Moebius poem by writing a different poem on each side of a strip of paper (with each poem written upside down with respect to the one on the other side), twisting the strip, and fastening the two ends together. The result was two interwoven poems on a Moebius strip. These literary experiments might be avant garde and a challenge to create, but I doubt that many of them have true literary merit.

Of course there are plenty of common word play devices used in literature that I haven't mentioned, such as puns, alliteration, invented words, and so on. But I've covered all the off-the-wall ones I could think of. If you can come up with any others, feel free to add them as comments to this post.


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