Anne Garréta - a remarkable work of literary ingenuity: a beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and “A***,” written completely without any gendered pronouns or gender markers referring to the main characters. The first work by a female Oulipian published in English.
Anne Garréta, Sphinx. Trans. by George Henson, Deep Vellum,
excerpt 1 and excerpt 2
A debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garréta, one of the few female members of OuLiPo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Queneau, among others. Sphinx is a remarkable work of literary ingenuity: a beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and “A***,” written completely without any gendered pronouns or gender markers referring to the main characters. Sphinx is not only the first novel by Garréta to appear in English but the first work by a female Oulipian published in English.
In outline Sphinx is a conventional sort of novel: from a point a decade or so after its beginnings, a narrator reflects on an early passion and its aftermath. When barely twenty, the unnamed narrator fell for A***; for several years they were together, in a somewhat tumultuous relationship which then came to an abrupt end -- and continued to reverberate for the narrator. It's a deeply introspective text, the first-person voice tracing the path that leads to the release-through-writing that this essentially confessional text finally, after so many years, affords.
Embarked on: "what could have been an honest intellectual career", the narrator was studying theology, but it wasn't completely satisfying. An unlikely alternative offered itself in Paris night-life, at an exclusive club called Apocryphe, where a situation leads to the narrator standing-in as DJ -- and taking to the job: so starts: "a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering". Encountering and being completely taken by A***, a dancer at another club, the Eden, adds another twist: they become close and, despite their differences: "Our time together and our conversation were simply a pleasure".
The narrator is drawn to A***'s "irresistible body", but:
A*** thought it wise to disavow the idea of amorous possession, which could do nothing but exacerbate my confusion and forbid us from returning thereafter to that honest friendship, that guarantee of stability, to which we would better off confining ourselves.
From entirely different milieus -- A*** comes from America, and is black, with family in Harlem; the narrator a well-heeled white Parisian intellectual -- they are an oddly matched pair, with very different interests. What connection there is is on a very basic level -- though undeniably very powerful. Nevertheless, imagining a life together: "We were presenting each other with illusions", and at least on the part of the narrator seduction becomes an act much like creative writing itself:
The game of "and if" wore down A***'s reluctance; every day, we already belonged to each other in our imaginations. My desire was gaining power through a trick, was gaining life through a fiction.
They do become lovers, and a real couple; they travel together, including visiting A***'s family in New York. There are tensions in the unlikely relationship, and the abrupt end to it is devastating to the narrator, who can only begin to get over it some seven years later, in reconnecting with part of A*** and their shared past. Catharsis then allows for this text to finally flood free.
Stylized and largely avoiding emotion -- the narrator-as-subject isn't entirely specimen for the narrator-as-writer, but there's a sense of restraint to the language throughout -- Sphinx is nevertheless (or, of course, in part also because of that) a powerfully moving love-story.
There's more to it too, of course: anyone who has heard of the book before picking it up is likely aware, and both jacket-copy and Daniel Levin Becker's Introduction point it out as well: Garréta is a member of the Oulipo, famous for writing under constraints, and this novel operates under one. Becker doesn't reveal it -- and urges the reader: "to do everything in your power to stay ignorant for a while longer" -- but it is impossible to discuss the book, and its success (and that of this translation), without addressing it.
What's so unusual and remarkable about how Garréta has written the book is that her narrator (and A***) are never identified (or identifiable) by gender. The book isn't without gender -- many characters are clearly identified as male or female -- but the narrative is genderless. Especially in French, this is much harder to do than one might imagine -- Emma Ramadan's fascinating afterword explains some of this -- but it's also difficult to render that in English. Ramadan has managed this very impressively: comparing the French original and the translation, it's truly remarkable how she strikes the same tone so consistently throughout. Even as the constraint does not operate identically in English (as Ramadan notes: "French contains grammatical gender, meaning nouns are assigned either masculine or feminine gender, and pronouns and adjectives then take on agreement" -- which makes it very difficult to avoid tipping one's gendered hand ...), this is a(n all the more) remarkably true translation.
One consequence of the genderless narration is in shifting physicality, the relationship necessarily considered more cerebrally and analytically than wallowed in physically -- even as physical desire figured significantly in it at the time. With the narrator's gaze: "narrowing and stiffening under the tension of carnal desire" at the time, the (genderless) narration, a decade on. allows for a pulling back, a more considered gaze.
Intimacy does build to sex between the narrator and A***; appropriately the narrator reports: Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. Dans la confusion nous nous endormions.
Crotches crosses and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.
The narrative is, of course, technically 'liberating' -- if language can not be entirely freed of gender (deep-rooted as it is, especially in French), Sphinx shows that at least our stories can be told without it. As such, Sphinx is an unusual universal love-story, adaptable by readers in a way most traditional stories, with their male and/or female leads, can't be.
Readers will presumably react differently to the text (in part also depending upon how much information about it they bring to it -- those who have read this review surely approaching it differently than those unaware of what Garréta has done). Many -- more attuned to the physical, or with pre-conceived romantic ideals and expectations -- will perhaps be unable to keep themselves from generating or imposing a sex on the narrator and/or A***. (Garréta's two central characters are not blank slates, not even physically: aside from their skin color she does describe some purely physical attributes; whether or not these are leading would seem to depend on the reader.) Yet what's perhaps most remarkable is that it really doesn't matter: regardless of what you make of the characters, or not, Sphinx functions equally well. Arguably, the genders of the narrator and A*** are open questions -- yet they aren't really questions at all: they do not matter. Yes, the story would shift, depending on what sexes are assigned to each of the two -- but it is not necessary (indeed, seems superfluous) to assign any sex: the story, as is, is complete.
Sphinx is also successful in bringing its fundamental question to the fore: what is of interest is not the genders of the narrator and A*** but how gendered language, and our use of it, is, and how that situates characters (or us). Garréta puts this on the table, but doesn't force it down the readers throat; in the guise of its story of love and loss, Sphinx never comes across as polemic or programmatic (even as, in its Oulipian way, it literally is).
Stylized -- which is only partially a consequence of Garréta's imposed constraint -- but not contrived, Sphinx is a very fine piece of writing in and of itself; it works on all of its many levels.
Quite remarkable, and a rewarding piece of experimental -- in the best senses of the word -- fiction. - M.A.Orthofer
In Daniel Levin Becker’s introduction to Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (1986; tr. from the French by Emma Ramadan, 2015), he admits about the Oulipian that “most novels in the milieu are preceded at some distance by their reputations.” The restraint can seem a sales pitch, but what makes an Oulipian novel successful, emotionally and intellectually, like Garréta’s, is the way the restraint can so tightly align with every other aspect of the novel. In her translator’s note, Ramadan engagingly explains both how the very rules of French are used as a tool to further this alignment and how she, incredibly, managed the same, in completely different ways, in English. Ramadan not only accomplishes the challenge of translating the restraint but she does so without sacrificing the beauty or sense of Sphinx and allows the complexity of Garréta’s work to live in English, to lend its cities, Paris and New York, as much depth and sensual understanding as it does its characters.
Sphinx’s story is a complicated, deep, and intense love between the narrator and A***; the constraint is that both characters remain entirely without gender. Deepening the sensation that these two have broken free, the people who move around them are identified as male or female. Gender exists, but for these two, their gravitational attraction renders gender irrelevant, in their love and in their sex. And it is not just gender is made malleable. In the very beginning, it’s clear that normally opposite aspects of life will blend towards each other, that apparent differences are, in the reality of experience, necessarily and beautifully interchangeable. Introducing the story to come, or more accurately, to be brought out of memory — for the whole book has the melancholic veil of memory drawn across it — the narrator asks: “Is it blasphemy to insist that my lucid crossing to hell was a direct road to redemption?” This type of movement, through a place or identity mapped far from both beginning and destination, Garréta makes essential to her characters and to her writing.
I want to step away from the restraint and the other expected or traditional boundaries that fall away, because focusing too heavily on that makes it easy to lose sight of other pleasures of Sphinx. In the midst of thinking intellectually, conceptually, of a book that does ask for that way of thinking, gorgeous prose should not be cast aside, and Garréta’s is that indeed. Hers is some of the most evocative, affective prose I have read. Like the angels and demons Garréta writes as two intertwined beings, swapping roles, her sentences haunt as much as they grace: “death lived inside of me [. . .] death had come up to the surface in my sleep to take possession of my carnal covering, to put it on and to cover me in turn with its cast-off rug.”
Her prose is capable of being clear, definite, and physical, and of flying off into imagery far from her character’s lives. When the prose slides into the imaginative, she paints a full, living moment. The narrator, describing her “tour of cabarets,” “running after the sublime,” is not chasing a only phantom ship, which would on its own be an appealing and clear image in meaning and aesthetic, but: “I was chasing after an image of ruffled sails that raise themselves like a phantom ship on a sea of oil, drifting, coming together, breaking free at the command of imperceptible trade winds, trailing around an infinite sorrow to the four corners of the stage.” Such lines are not only beautiful, poetic, but are a clear line of thought; the narrator’s actual movement is not lost in poetics. Garréta brings clarity and abstraction cleanly together, and in this short work balances such riffs of prose with the advancement of her characters and the plot that is their relationship. The entire novel, in prose, in ideas, in thoughts and actions, is an expression of love. In one of the those moments of directness, the narrator articulates a belief I never recognized enough to articulate: “I concluded that making love without laughing was as bad as gifting a book written in a language the recipient does not know.” Garréta brings these out so that in life they can be appreciated all the more.
The shifting center that Sphinx orbits eccentrically is A***, dancer, singer of the song that lends its name to the book — a person as sphinx. Not only genderless, A***’s identity and personality are ever-shifting, yet not chaotic, somehow stable instead. The narrator is at a loss in describing A***, finds contradiction necessary, not something to be startled by or reluctant to accept. A*** “was infused with a crafty and charming naïveté” and is “both frivolous and serious.” For those who have met, or, influentially, had as a lover, a person who is frivolous and serious, the phrasing turns on itself to reveal a person in motion, who moves from one to the other in swift journeys.
Following such a person can be jolting or calming, or both simultaneously. The other pairing runs deeper; instead of A***’s aspects causing pleasurable tension within A***, it is a quality itself — naïveté — that houses contradiction. “Charming” easily belongs to naïveté, but “crafty” does not, would even seem to deny it. It is against the freedom, the necessary ease of naïveté for it to be crafted, yet, the narrator is not wrong. This is the lure of A***, the ability to be multiple, to be porous to the world and within.
The porous membranes of Sphinx let it be a novel of openness, as if a living being, letting you in and out, affected and changed each time you begin or cease reading. Those membranes are all over, walls put up so they can be phased through. As A*** is a being for whom it is essential be a shape-shifter, and who thrives by embracing it, the narrator struggles with that, though doesn’t fight fighting against it, indeed bravely turns towards it. That move to embrace does not have to always be successful: a native French-speaker, highly educated, heavily influenced by A***’s African-American background, the narrator calls the influence of A***’s English a “stigmata,” so often a mark of disgrace.
The stigmata is also a mark of Christ, and the narrator, a theology student, lucidly uses “passion” in the meaning of suffering, a tradition tied to Christ. The English given by A***, “a monstrous hybrid, mingling Oxford and Harlem, Bryon and gospel” may be a stigmata, but it is one of compassion, a pain to bear with pride. The passion is a protest against those who question the relationship between two lovers who “shared no social, intellectual, or racial community,” who, “Black skin, white skin: our looks were against us.” It is as malleable forms with porous boundaries that the lovers survive. Stigmatic wounds suffered, marks where opposites met and interpenetrated, in the process are marks of courage.
They imagine the other in that clear-eyed manner that lovers must. A*** and the narrator see their inversions in the other, and to accept that, try to become: “I made myself into a demon, and A*** symmetrically put on the mask of the angel I had abandoned.” That this demon who becomes an angel dances at a club called Eden, that this club is where the narrator falls to salvation instead of falls from, furthers these inversions.
That this is not boundarylessness, that boundaries are necessary so that they can be passed through, matches the novel’s constraint, flowing it beyond gender into every nuance. It is a book ever becoming more itself. The narrator first sees A*** at a cabaret, in the midst of “a melancholic, disinterested contemplation of a succession of bodies,” and senses “a body, just one” that “filled the place with a seduction that permeated so deeply.” A***’s effect on the narrator comes from this blending, this potential to be one distinct being and at the same time melded with the mass.
The shape-shifting of people, of language and personalities, lends a sense of the ethereal or ephemeral to Sphinx, and while the latter is the way of existence in the novel, the former is brought to ground by the unrelenting presence of bodies. The narrator watches A***, moves focus from one body part to another: “those hips, narrow and broad at the same time, those legs I never knew how to describe except, mundanely, as slim and long [. . .] my lips against the inner thighs.” Even there, in something so physical, the body is as capable of transformation as language, legs impossibly both narrow and broad. This unexplainable sense of shifting body is built on the visual performance of cabaret — the make-up, the costumes.
The great victory of love in Sphinx is that in all the mentions of body, of body parts, in the descriptions of A***’s physical being, ever detached from gender, leading to “the” leg, “the” arm, nothing is objectifying, even as a body part is observed the way an aesthetically pleasing object might be. The narrator’s love is stronger than that, gentler, more attentive. In removing gender, the male gaze is removed, leaving a gaze that gives itself over, loses itself inside what is gazed on: “Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.”
Sphinx is a novel of dancing — A*** is a dancer, the narrator becomes a DJ — and itself dances the way a boxer does. Garréta lands her smattering of punches, fiercely, precisely, covering the body of the reader: intellectual hooks in philosophy, aesthetic jabs in prose, emotional haymakers in the rises and falls of love. She moves carefully, quickly, tuned to the pace of the dance of the fight. In one of the most gorgeous, devastating scenes, the narrator utters an enigmatic sentence to herself, which many novelists would leave, simply content that it suggests meaning, but Garréta’s narrator admits that though it satisfies, it is utterly enigmatic. The next move, the type that makes Sphinx the tight masterpiece that it is, is when the events that follow blow away the mist that obscures clear sight of the utterance, so it becomes portent. Mysterious and obscure to physical and emotionally wrought is the shift that Sphinx makes again and again to the very end, until the difference is no longer definable, all in the growth and preservation of love, even when that love can only continue in memory. - P.T. Smith
Anne Garréta’s Sphinx is a thought-provoking novella, part philosophical tract, part wistful love story, describing a nameless narrator’s descent into the Parisian night scene. After being introduced to a fashionable club by a priest (no, that’s not a typo), our friend spends the nights discussing theology against a background of hypnotic beats, watching the beautiful people of the French capital move to the music.
When the DJ of the club becomes (permanently) indisposed, the narrator glides seamlessly into the booth, quickly becoming a fixture not just of The Apocryphe, but of all the other clubs and burlesques around, and it’s not long before we are introduced to A*** – at which point a charged, sensual pursuit evolves. A***, a dancer, appeals to the narrator, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) their differing personalities – but how long can such a mismatched relationship survive?
Sphinx is a fairly brief work, clocking in at around 120 pages, but it’s one that you’ll need to read carefully, for a number of reasons. While some sections are light and breezy, pulling us along through the Parisian nights in the wake of our young, charismatic guide, others are more contemplative, with the theology student’s intellectual side coming to the fore. Whatever the tone, though, the writing is rarely simple, forcing the reader to stay on their toes, lest they miss some information holding a key to the novel’s secrets.
The text is written as a memoir of sorts, with the narrator reflecting on the events of youth, a decade or more in the past:
“Remembering saddens me still, even years later. How many exactly, I don’t know anymore. Ten or maybe thirteen. And why do I always live only in memory? Soul heavy from too much knowing, body tired from feeling pensive and powerless at the same time, so riven by this obsessive ennui that nothing, or almost nothing, can distract it anymore.”
p.1 (Deep Vellum, 2015)
From the distance of maturity, the events of those heady years develop a different feel, less imbued with a happy, nostalgic air than pronounced in a sombre tone, as if all that happened was experienced by someone else, a person who no longer exists.
The narrator is a theology student, tempted into the darkness by the drabness of the ‘light’. This descent into the Parisian underworld can be seen as a ‘fall’ of sorts (one facilitated by the friendly priest…). Our friend is successful and intelligent, but jaded – there’s a need for something to really live for, and it turns out that this is to found in the clubs:
“The Apocryphe! Dark nights light up with red. Somewhere between brothel and butcher shop, its ambiguous essence was never revealed except to those who knew how to decipher mirrors’ reflections. One had to guess at everything, trying to grasp words on lips, fugitive gestures, events captured in the mirror, while pretending to stare at oneself. A macabre masked ball, people tripping over streamers that snaked down from the ceiling and coiled around the supporting pillars” (pp.9/10)
The distance from doctrine seminars to the hedonism described here is quite a fall for an ambitious young student – one which is complete when A*** comes to dominate the scene.
The second major character of Garréta’s novel is a dancer exuding energy and sexuality. The narrator is unable to resist, setting off on a determined pursuit, despite the warnings of friends and acquaintances who fear that the two are ill-matched. However, it seems, initially at least, that their romance is a case of opposites attracting and complementing each other:
“That night the inversion was complete: I made myself into a demon, and A*** symmetrically put on the mask of the angel I had abandoned.” (p.43)
With the lovers in each other’s arms, the fall is complete, but literature (and life) is rarely that simple – what happens afterwards, once the gloss of the relationship has worn off?
You may have noticed that the word ‘fall’ appears several times above, and that’s no coincidence. The narrator twice mentions Albert Camus’ novel(la) La Chute (The Fall), a book which features a rather one-sided conversation between an anonymous visitor and a chatty fellow whose successful life began to spiral out of control after a tragic event. In Sphinx, we feel ourselves placed in the role of Camus’ patient listener (you’ll have to bring your own drinks, though…), with Garréta’s narrator also using us to unload an emotional burden.
While the narrator of The Fall has a far more sardonic, sarcastic air than the unhappy soul relating the events of Sphinx, there’s definitely a temptation to draw parallels between the two books. Both are seemingly post-religious narratives, with their respective protagonists concerned with the question of how we can find happiness in a life which inevitably moves towards decay and death. The ending of Sphinx, in Amsterdam, is also a nod towards The Fall, with both the location and the canals reminding us of the turning point of Camus’ work.
All in all, Sphinx is an excellent book, one to read quickly and reread at leisure – it’s just amazing that it took this long for it to appear in English. Props to Will Evans at Deep Vellum for getting this one out, and thanks to Emma Ramadan for doing a wonderful job on the translation. What in particular? Well, you see, the real secret of the Sphinx is yet to be revealed…
I feel that I’ve forgotten something here – oh yes… The main feature of Sphinx is that the sex of the two main characters, the narrator and A***, is never revealed (you may have noticed that I attempted to do the same thing in the first part of my review…). Garréta is a member of OuLiPo, a group of writers attempting to create literature while fighting against the constraints of language, and while Sphinx was written well before her admission to the group, the novel certainly fits OuLiPian criteria.
Slowly, details of the lovers are revealed (the narrator is white, young, a theology student; A*** is black, American, a dancer with a sculpted body), but it is left to our imagination to assign gender roles; if we want to, of course. This is a love story where (if you accept a binary view of gender) there are four possible alternatives, and the reader has no idea which the ‘real’ one is. Garréta, amazingly, hides the sex of the two main protagonists throughout the whole book, fighting with all her might against the rigid constraints of a language designed to put people in their place, and keep them there.
Ramadan, while facing different issues, has a similar fight on her hands. While she is freed from the conflict Garréta had with French gender-defining verb endings, a different struggle emerges where the new writer must tackle the way English uses possessive adjectives and pronouns to pin down the protagonists’ gender. Sphinx contains an excellent translator’s afterword which details more of the difficulties Garréta faced in French (constraints which, to some extent, determined how her characters behaved) while also outlining the issues the translator herself had in English. You can check out a slightly different take on the topic in an essay published in Five Dials, in which Ramadan expands on the issues inherent in translating the book, and the methods she adopted to resolve them. I struggled to hide the truth for 700 words or so – 120 pages is some feat :)
All in all, then, Sphinx is another wonderful addition to the body of fiction available in English. Please check it out and, if you have the time, why not try some of the other Deep Vellum releases too – on the strength of the first two I’ve read, they’ll definitely be worth your while, whatever your gender…- tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/sphinx-by-anne-garreta-review/
I was only a few pages into Anne Garréta’s novel Sphinx when I became aware that something was mildly unsettling, but I didn’t know what it could be. It took another twenty or thirty pages before it dawned on me. I was having trouble pinning something down about the unnamed narrator and the main character – known simply as A*** – with whom the narrator seemed to be falling in love. Neither had been assigned a gender. There were no revealing pronouns or any other linguistic giveaways to indicate if the narrator or A*** were masculine or feminine. There was definitely a lot of flesh, however. The narrator worked as a DJ and A*** as an exotic dancer in a Parisian cabaret. Racially, one is black and the other is white. But none of the increasingly eroticized descriptions were providing a glimpse of gender.
I have a kind of “meh” relationship with Oulipo (Workshop of Potential Literature). I can definitely relate to the idea that the use of self-imposed constraints can actually be liberating to a writer – whether the constraint is the desire to write poems that rhyme or the decision to avoid the vowel ‘E’ as George Perec famously did in his novel La Disparition. But since many constraints don’t dramatically affect the reader’s reception of a book, Oulipo has seemed to me a movement of more concern to writers than to readers. That changed for me with Sphinx.
By sheer coincidence, while I was reading Sphinx, I was also reading David Winter’s excellent collection of essays Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory. One of his essays is a discussion of Daniel Levin Becker’s book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, which is an insider’s view of Oulipian literature. Winter briefly discusses one of the common criticisms of Oulipo, namely that the movement “has signally failed to follow…political tendencies to the end of the line.” In other words, “the potential which Oulipians exercise is essentially apolitical.”
Well, with Garréta’s Sphinx, that concern is clearly invalidated. Garréta’s decision to avoid gender in Sphinx extends far beyond linguistic games. Her refusal to assign gender to the two main characters in her book forcibly changes the traditional relationship between reader and text. As a tactic, it calls into question time-honored assumptions about how readers might internalize, visualize, and identify with fictional characters. Every page of Sphinx becomes a reminder of our insistent desire to gender-ize people and objects.
Published in France in 1986, Sphinx was Garréta’s first novel and is only now being released by Deep Vellum in an English translation by Emma Ramadan. If Garréta had originally written in English, her task would have been much easier, since gender avoidance can be achieved by eliminating a small list of personal pronouns and possessive adjectives like he, she, her, hers, and his. But in a gender-based language like French, the difficulty – and the implications – of Garréta’s determination to avoid gender is magnified enormously. In her Translator’s Note at the end of the book, Ramadan explains what Garréta had to do in French to to dodge the gender of her two main characters. Among other things, she could not employ the most commonly used past tense (known as passé composé) since that verb form requires the writer to identify the gender of the person performing the action.
For more on Garréta and Oulipo, check out the 28-minute conversation between several Oulipians (including Anne Garréta), recorded by Michael Silverblatt in 2009 for his Bookworm audio program.
Beyond the elegant, geometric design of its cover, Sphinx (Deep Vellum; 120 pages; translated by Emma Ramadan) is an ambiguous, multifaceted beast. With its third publication, Deep Vellum, an eclectic Dallas press, brings the work of French writer Anne Garréta to English readers for the first time. Nearly thirty years after its original publication, Sphinx also marks the first English translation of a female member of Oulipo (short for ouvrir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop for potential literature”), the exclusive, prestigious writer’s workshop that included George Perec and Italo Calvino among its members. (Garréta is the first member of Oulipo to be born after its founding.) The goal of so-called potential literature is to restrict or manipulate language structures to open up the narrative possibilities of literature. And, indeed, there is something both freeing and unsettling about the prose of Sphinx. Though the sentiments at the heart of the novel are universal–love, passion, and melancholy–the agents of such feelings are strikingly absent, phantom-like forms that refuse to be pinned to the page and examined as specimens.
This is not to say that the novel lacks specificity. The setting is the seedy, erotically charged underbelly of 1980s Paris. Within a slough of nightclubs and cabarets (with symbolically suggestive names like the Apocryphe), our narrator slips from the diligent life of academia into the nocturnal lifestyle of a DJ. It is during this transition that the narrator falls for the alluring A***, an African American expat from Harlem. In fact, as fate (or, more likely, Garréta) would have it, the two meet at a club called the Eden, where A*** is working as a dancer. Could A***, with those three garish little stars, be some sort of homage to Adam from the Garden of Eden? There certainly is something inherently divine, definitely sublime, about A***’s perfect, agile body, which is often the object of our narrator’s (and therefore our) gaze. Though the comparison seems ill suited when we are reminded that A***, whose gender we’re never sure of, is notoriously promiscuous and spends long hours binge-watching television.
It seems fitting that historians do not agree on a definition of the sphinx. Most sources describe the creature as an amalgamation of parts, with the body of a lion and the head of a human. A few sources adjoin a pair of wings to the creature. The confusion only deepens when we notice that in Egyptian mythology, the sphinx is distinctly male; in Greek mythology, she is female. Garréta’s mastery is in never committing to one allusion or formation, like the mythological sphinx. Subsequently, she avoids didacticism, while still hinting at moral and philosophical dilemmas. From the very beginning, the story is framed as a symbolic fall from grace. As our guide through a modern Hades of sorts, our narrator asks, “Is it blasphemy to insist that my lucid crossing to hell was a direct road to redemption?” These kinds of lines tempt the reader, who desperately wants to make sense of the text, to impose structure and meaning based on familiar models. The reader of Sphinx is inherently self-conscious, continuously inserting, and then retracting, his or her assumptions generated by the perceived gaps left by ambiguity.
A modestly thin book, the novel reveals a cavernous depth. This profundity emerges less from the subject matter than from the way it is told, although, as we will see, language ultimately affects its content in surprising ways. The fact is that Sphinx is at its core an extremely ambitious experiment pushing the boundaries of language. Heralded by some as a genderless love story, it manages to never reveal the gender of either narrator or A***. One has to be careful, however, in labeling this text queer or genderless literature, though the current political climate certainly pushes one to make such connections. The label genderless assumes that what is unnamed is vacant, a massive though common misconception. What Garréta achieves is a masterful and deliberate failure to specify. Simple enough in theory, the result is a labyrinth of linguistic twists and turns as the author (and now translator Emma Ramadan) evades pronouns and other gender-specific language. By refusing to pin down the two lovers’ genders, she opens up the apophatic nature of language, while forcing the reader to confront his or her own discomfort upon facing an abyss of uncertainty.
The strenuous nature of these linguistic gymnastics may explain why it has taken nearly 30 years for the novel to be translated into English. The translator of an Oulipian work needs to be just as agile, just as daring as the original author. Working within the constraints of the original text, Emma Ramadan maneuvers through the entirely different terrain of the English language. In some ways it seems that the experiment may in fact be easier in English than in French. After all, in English one only has to avoid pronouns and a few pesky nouns (such as “husband” or “actress”) to evade gender altogether, whereas French demands strict gender agreement between nouns and most adjectives and past participles, as well as some preterit verbs. While this may have eased the translation process in certain ways, Ramadan had to be sure not to obscure the subtle ways in which Garréta’s language choices affected the content. As the translator points out in her note at the novel’s end, Garréta made a stylistic choice to mainly use the imperfect verb tense in order to avoid those preterit verbs that begin with the auxiliary verb aller. The imperfect, besides requiring no agreement with gender whatsoever, carries the meaning of habitually doing something in the past. Though there is no precise equivalent to the imperfect in English, Ramadan mimics the openness of these verbs by introducing the conditional “would” before most verbs to give a feeling of habit. And it is this verb tense that is surely responsible for the enduring heaviness of the prose, for the habitual malaise, which the narrator refers to almost ritually as ennui.
The constraint informs the narrator’s fascination with bodies as well. Playfully skirting the issues of gender and sexuality, Garréta manages to sidestep the pronouns he and she by substituting bodies for people. As a result, her narrator’s passion is, self-admittedly, “the contemplation of bodies.” Pronouns are no longer necessary, as body parts become the true protagonists. It is the body that moves, that sways, that touches, that acts, rather than the body’s owner. The affect is a fractured world. People fill the clubs and yet their presence is rarely felt apart from the swaying of murky forms.
Sphinx envelops its reader in its seductive atmosphere. The narrative raises questions like a half-extended hand, refusing to do all the work and requiring complicity from the reader. Backstage in the dressing rooms of the cabarets, the narrator catches a glimpse of his or her reflection, but what does that image look like? The answer cannot be contained on a single glossy pane of glass. It is an amalgamation of parts, shifting with each new myth it inhabits. And this is what makes it an Oulipian text. It asks us to reconsider the role of language. It asks us to look into that dressing room mirror and revel in the multifaceted creature we see, too profound to be contained. - Sarah Coolidge
My recommended summer reading is the critically acclaimed thin novel Sphinx by Anne Garréta – originally published in French by Grasset in 1986 when the author was 23. This year, it has been eloquently translated into English by Emma Ramadan with support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States. Published as a simple affordable paperback or ebook by Deep Vellum Publishing (a Dallas-based not-for-profit literary arts organization), it tells, in sometimes ravishingly beautiful (if ornamental) language, of an odd sort of love relationship set mostly in seedy 1980s night time Paris. An, at first, cerebrally-intensive affair plays out between the genderless/nameless 22 year old narrator (a lapsing theology student and newbie chichi club DJ) and A***, a 32 year old, genderless, black New Yorker and erotic dancer working a trashy-sex club on the left bank. With such sentence fragments as “… I moved through the smooth insides of a whirlwind and gazed at deformed images of ecstatic bodies in the slow, hoarse death rattle of tortured flesh,” its genderless cadence speaks to the broad poetics of love and its powers of latent liberation in almost apocalyptic fashion, so fashionable in the 80s. At times I was delightfully reminded of Jean Genet’s great masterpiece of excess: Our Lady of the Flowers.
Sphinx is a pleasingly transgendered work of art in terms of its malleability. The two lovers (the narrator and the narrator’s love interest) give no indications of grammatical gender when in dialogue. There are, however, possible (possibly misleading) hints I detected, such as offers of cigars to the narrator and some crude macho verbiage used.
All of the minor characters in the book are fully embodied/gendered (if unnamed) such as Padre***, a rather scandalous priest who introduces the narrator to club night life and then assists in a coverup of a drug overdose that offers the narrator her/his prime DJing gig at club Aprocryphe (as described, sounds like Les Bains Douches). Alternately reading A*** as either Adam or Amie supplies the story with added levels of intrigue. Even more so as the intimacy of the affair begins largely a-sexually. This “love” is somewhat of a mystery at first, as the two characters share no common intellectual or aesthetic interests or passions. The sole engine of narrative development is the brainy white narrator’s carnal passion for A***’s stupendous black body; the product of a mixed race American family. A desire/vision so strong that the narrator once describes it (oddly) as seeing through a “veil of blood.”
Involved in theological speculation, the narrator naturally intertwines internal-monologue references of sexiness with Godliness – and that brought to mind certain extravagant Prince songs from the 80s, like Controversy. Also the book’s descriptions are typical of the hothouse style of some of the best 80s books, recalling for me Anaïs Nin’s A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, Gary Indiana’s White Trash Boulevard and Patrick McGrath’s The Grotesque. But Sphinx, at times, uses a syntax so rich and evocative as to border on logorrhea. A style so purple as to spill over into ultraviolet.
Besides this bruised desire, a few other aspects of difference/attraction between the narrator and the narrator’s love interest are explored fleetingly, such as those between A***’s American-in-Paris exuberance and the narrator’s generally refined/restrained French sophistication/ennui. Midway into the book, there is a strongly disjointed scene between the two friends where the giddy narrator is keen on declaring love and repressed sexual desire for A*** at the Café de Flore. These strong emotions are met with rebuke.
There was an added level of confusion in this scene. At first the narrator proclaims distain for the intelligencia that gather at the Flore (stating that he/she has never stepped foot into the place) and on the following page takes a table there where she/he “always insists on sitting.” A strange and unnecessarily confusing mixed message, I would say, in already muddy waters.
Hopes of jelling such desires are intended on a trip the friends make to Munich, where the narrator tours church architecture in search of metaphysical and artistic wonders (and eventual sexual gratification won through imaginative perseverance) with a visit with A*** to Saint***. The description of Saint*** suggests that it is (thinly veiled) the 18th century church Saint Johann Nepomuk, better known as Asamkirche (Asam Church) after its architect Egid Quirin Asam. Together with his brother, the painter and architect Cosmas Damian Asam, they created a masterpiece of sumptuous Rococo there where on entering the vestibule of the church, one encounters a consummate example of Bavarian excess. In this hybrid space, painting, sculpture and architecture work together in fabricating something between a prodigal odium, a playhouse, and an angelic quixotic grotto.
Saint*** plays a pivotal role in explaining the continuation of their unrewarding asexual love relationship by emphasizing genderless angelic bodies in relationship to space, weight, and light. After visiting Saint***, sharing a bed, the lovers “love” each other, but do not touch. As such they remain bound up with the principles of otherness and mutability typical of angelic spectral theology where angels are thought to be carriers of messaged sentiments. In that the feelings/messages delivered are airborne and move, angels fly and are winged, implying that they have virtus (inherent power and potential). Thus, since the lovers contain the principles of virtual mutability, they posses a quasi-material body that cannot be circumscribed by place or endowed with position.
The genderless lover-angels I discovered midway in Sphinx seem constructed from the quantum nature of light. They are hyper-sensitive semi-material lovers, fabricated of semi-transparent matter. They hover above distinctions. This intuition on my part was confirmed when the lovers, back in Paris, tipsily dancing, achieve a state of “lightness of being.” That exalted state leads them to the long awaited consummation of their affair where the “temporal order of events, even the simple spatial points of reference” blurred and disappeared when their “crotches crossed.”
Hence, these lovers appear as paradigmatic representations of the out-of-bodiness of virtual substance characteristic of spirituality (ignudo spirto). That image of fleshy distentio seems, to me (albeit symbolically), to be the main point of Sphinx. The idealization of the lovers genderless flesh and their side-by-side spatial location on the bed, provide them with possession of the virtual. These winsome figures’ semi-transparent relationship to each other conceptually carries over from Asamkirche’s richly architecturally domed space from which angelic figures emerge and return towards the light-filled circular opening. A rounded light which constantly re-defines them with every fluctuation in its intensity. A garland of angels is transposed there into relief sculptures which overflow the frame and expand as if they were released from materiality on route to, and from the intricate dome which dominates the composition and which both physically clarifies and luminescently dissolves their form.
The title Sphinx, comes from an English language song that the narrator, prior to a trip to New York, hears and fixates on while watching A*** dance on stage in a club. I suppose the author, Anne F. Garréta, drew this audio image from the disco era song written by Amanda Lear with music by Anthony Monn (who produced the track). The Sphinx was released as the first single from Amanda Lear’s album Never Trust a Pretty Face. During the 1960s, Amanda Lear was companion to Salvador Dalí who told her to pretend to be man, and she played with that perception throughout her career. It had been said that Lear worked transvestite revues in Paris (like Madame Arthur and Le Carrousel) much like those described in the novel. Lear was untruly rumored to be transsexual and even a hermaphrodite Sphinx, the book, makes use of this little known connective material so as to bake into its genderlessness theme an inverse proposition that gestures at genderfullness.
This implied mid-book angelic fullness is pretty much that apex of the love story, as the lovers, now living together in Paris, start to drift apart. The narrator prefers reading Gustave Flaubert and looking at the Renaissance paintings of Andrea Mantegna, while A*** prefers shopping and low-brow TV shows. This slow drift apart is finalized with a tragic break: that I won’t spoil for you here by recounting. I can say that A***’s image, in the eye of the narrator, enters a “virtual space” that “swallowed up” the gaze of the narrator. Following this break, the narrator turns sad, inward and taciturn, returning to academic theology; mining the negative depths of Apophatic speculation. There are long pensive sections here punctuated with drastic and flamboyant descriptions of two further demises. One marked by an almost angelic act of ephemeral and quixotic compassion and charity – the other by stupid brutality. Neither of which washes away the shimmering virtual depths of intelligent tenderness one lives with when reading this book.
One caveat: Save for last the interesting Introduction by Daniel Levin Becker that situates Garréta’s work within the tradition of experimental Oulipo formal constraints. Following the success of Sphinx in France, Garréta was invited in 2000 to join the prestigious Oulipo group due to this book’s inventive use of gender neutrality. In French, nouns are gendered, and consequently the sex binary pervades subject-verb agreement. Garréta navigated her way around this binary with admiral delicacy and her English translator Emma Ramadan has paralleled the feat. But you don’t read Sphinx for the word games. You read it for the painterly imagery, lush language and passionate inquiry into the virtual aspects of desire, need and sexual passion. - Joseph Nechvatal
Sample works by Anne F. Garreta:
“On Bookselves” from the OuLiPo official website (also published in McSweeney’s Issue 22 “The State of Constraint: New Work from Oulipo”):
Gift“To Sleep, Perchance to Dream” from Words Without Borders:
What is the Oulipo ? An ironic gift in a world of words, words, words surging into books, books, books. In facing this madly proliferating multitude of language there has to be some method. Oulipians pursue deliberate principles of book composition, or, to put it more bluntly, methods and principles designed to both deepen this chronic affliction of ours and learn to live with it. Paul Braffort’s « Invisible Libraries » and Georges Perec’s « Brief notes on the art and manner to put some order in one’s library » are two examples of such efforts. The Oulipo proffers both the poison and the cure for our predicament : methods to write all as-of-yet-still-potential books and principles to array those that already exist, have existed and will exist. For, what is composition if not a considered and deliberate imposition of order?
– Why can’t we just let books be books, running wild, happily piling up, frathouse-party-style, on top of each other, burrowing under beds, flapping in the wind ?
– Because, it seems, we have so strived to fill the world (and all critical subsets thereof : our studies, bedrooms, houses) with them that they threaten to crowd us out.
– But why such striving in the first place ?
– What if it were in the secret hope of condensing the world into them, trapping it in neat little bricks, and perhaps, ultimately replacing it?
Books may well be an alien species, parasites proliferating on the body of humanity, breeding uncontrollably in modern climates. You think the genetically re-engineered, radiation-mutated vermin or virus, the face-hugging alien were bad ? Picture in their stead the ultimate uncanny alien species : books.
Then, just take another look at your bookshelves, at your bedstand.
Censorship“Oulipian Moment for the End of Times” from Drunken Boat:
We know that the earliest readers of Remembrance of Things Past objected to the length of its incipit narration of its hero’s noddings-off and nocturnal (and diurnal) reveries. A gentleman who spends forty pages explaining how he tosses and turns in bed and rumples his sheets is surely enough likely to rumple the patience of his readers.
If patience is a bedsheet, which virtue is a pillow?
Let us leave this enigma aside and return to the Proustian text whose standing has been polished by that great falsifier, convention. What modern reader does not thrill at the delicately Oedipal considerations of the mother’s kiss at Combray? We clamor for more! And the critics and publishers are, alas, only too obliging!
I have long suspected that the public, exoteric text of Remembrance of Things Past is a fake. A skillful fake, but a fake nonetheless. I suspect it was the object of censorship: censorship in which Marcel himself was, perhaps, complicit . . . in order to see his work published, to win the Goncourt, to make peace . . . and censorship that is enthusiastically perpetuated, to this day, by Proustians and pastry chefs alike.
This censorship will, naturally, have disfigured the text. Some will compare it to the veil punctured by the psychoanalyst who recognizes the unconscious desires beneath the dispersed, mutilated figures of the dream; others will find in it that which analytic interpretation deploys in its Oedipal conquest of the flux of the machine désirante.
I have already proposed, in a novel called The Decomposition, a strategy for reversing the censorship, for opening the potentiality of the Proustian text. (You didn’t know Proust was an Oulipian author? You think that, like a Mormon, I’m posthumously baptizing and dunking into the waters of Potentiality everything that crosses my path?) Now I envision an additional strategy, and I hold that the only accurate reading of the oneiric prelude of Remembrance of Things Past can be obtained by a schizoid oneiric scheme.
[This was first read—in French!—on Thursday March 21, 2006, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. The author has adapted it into English.]
Dear public of the monthly Oulipo public readings:
I put myself in your shoes (at least in imagination). I thus imagine that you are at this moment looking at the stage of the BNF auditorium. I also imagine that, if you are indeed looking at the stage, you are probably seeing something on it. Something quite curious. Maybe even slightly ominous. Certainly perplexing. Should we venture to say, something catastrophic?
If you attend the Oulipo readings regularly, you have gotten used to seeing on stage a more or less varied, more or less numerous assortment of Oulipians.
I put myself in your shoes (again, in imagination … be advised that I like comfortable, rugged shoes, can’t walk in heels, and feel quite naked and exposed in sandals, so maybe I’m only putting myself in certain kinds of shoes, even in imagination … ). You are possibly looking; it is probable, if that’s the case, that you are seeing; and it is certain, if that is the case, that you are telling yourself: “But, où sont-ils? Where are they? Where is Marcel Bénabou? Where is Jacques Roubaud? Where is Jacques Jouet? Where is François Caradec? Where is Olivier Salon? Where is Ian Monk? Where is Hervé Le Tellier? Where is Frédéric Forte?” You even wonder about the more rarely sighted Oulipians. Where are Harry Mathews, Paul Braffort, Bernard Cerquiglini?
You must be telling yourself that this has to be some trick, some ploy, some new Oulipian invention, and that THEY are on their way, that THEY are going to pop out of the wings, once the Oulipian constraint will have run its formal course. You may even be reflecting that the Oulipo, after so many years of lipogrammatic functioning along the lines of La Disparition (no trace of an ‘e’, i.e., of the feminine) has decided to indulge in a brief spell of Revenentes (only ‘e’s, only the feminine). You wish.
I’m starting to feel quite comfortable in your shoes (in imagination only), but there’s no lifting ourselves out of this situation by your bootstraps. Let me assure you: there is no ploy, no feint, no recourse. You are all alone with us: Valérie Beaudoin, Michelle Grangaud and myself.
The wings are empty; the dressing-rooms deserted; there will be no ex-machina male Oulipian tonight to resolve and save the ending of this considerable tragedy in the realm of French (and possibly world) culture:
An Oulipo solely represented by women.
“The Secret Jardin” (on the creation of the High Line in NYC) in the New York Times (August 21, 2005)
HOW will it feel to meander through a park 30 feet above the streets of Chelsea? Thanks to a recent decision by a federal agency giving the city an important green light to create just such a park along the High Line, the long-unused elevated railroad bed that snakes through the lower West Side, New Yorkers may well find out. People will not be able to stroll along that viaduct until 2007, when the first segment of the refurbished High Line is scheduled to open. For a quicker taste of what the future may hold, here is the story of another such midair park – the only other one, in fact. It is called the Promenade Plantée, and it is in Paris.
Anne F. Garréta is the first member of the Oulipo to be born after the founding of the Oulipo. A normalien (graduate of France’s prestigious École normale supérieure) and lecturer at the University of Rennes II since 1995, Anne F. Garréta was co-opted into the Oulipo in April 2000. She also teaches at Duke University as a Research Professor of Literature and Romance Studies. Her first novel, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986), hailed by critics, tells a love story between two people without giving any indication of grammatical gender for the narrator or the narrator’s love interest, A***. Her second novel, Ciels liquides (Grasset, 1990), told the fate of a character losing the use of language. In La Décomposition (Grasset, 1999) , a serial killer methodically murdered characters from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. She met Oulipian Jacques Roubaud in Vienna in 1993, and was invited to present her work at an Oulipo seminar in March 1994 and again in May 2000, which led to her joining the Oulipo. She won France’s prestigious Prix Médicis in 2002, awarded each year to an author whose “fame does not yet match their talent” (she is the second Oulipian to win the award–-Georges Perec won in 1978), for her latest novel, Pas un jour (Grasset, 2002).