Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan

Sphinx BY Anne Garreta. edited by Emma Ramadan, Daniel Levin Becker. Deep Vellum Publishing. Paperback, 152 pages. $14.
The cover of Sphinx

Georges Perec once published an essay called “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books,” which confronts the “problem of a library”: how to classify one’s books when they so frequently defy categorization? What is a reliable way to arrange them so that you can lay your hand on the right one when you need it? Perec distinguishes between stable classifications and provisional ones, those that, “in principle, you continue to respect,” and those “supposed to last only a few days, the time it takes for a book to discover, or rediscover, its definitive place.” As a member of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), Perec was dedicated to finding the freedom in literary constraint, setting certain rules within which a text must unfold. In “Brief Notes,” he extends such rules to the library.

In her own essay, “On Bookselves,” Anne Garréta, Perec’s fellow Oulipian (though not his contemporary), protests that books, and spaces, are not so easily codified—there may in fact be no definitive means of classifying any given book. Garréta’s library is a place governed by affect and memory, where books are sorted according to whether or not they make mention of whales, contain the word “book,” were given to you by someone you loved, or you would have liked to discuss them with a lover. In terms of finding the book you need, this anti-systematizing system leaves something to be desired, but it may well be more rewarding, and more responsive to the reasons we read books in the first place, than the Dewey decimal system.

Garréta is a writer who insists on the open, personal nature of systems, as can be seen in her first novel, Sphinx (1986), published in France when she was only twenty-three years old. A love story written without assigning either lover a gender (though both are explicitly given different racial identities), it foils the binary classifications we usually apply to who we are and how we love. Reading the novel forces us to confront, and abandon, our need for narrative (and pronominal) definition. Nearly thirty years later, Sphinx is now available in English, thanks to an ingenious translation by Emma Ramadan that preserves the constraint under a totally different set of linguistic demands.

The narrator’s lover, A***, is a dancer in a Parisian cabaret. The narrator, who remains nameless, works as a DJ at the Apocryphe, spinning records as if s/he alone were responsible for keeping the crowd alive: “The numerous, innumerable bodies made up a monster of a hundred heads and tangled limbs whose only cohesion and life force came from the rhythmic impulse I dealt to it.” The narrator is moved by the sight of these bodies in space, terrible, beautiful, pulsing; such images of motion and continuity haunt the novel, and its tragic turns occur as interruptions, breakages, knifings.

The narrator is also mesmerized by A***’s body, and it is a tribute to how well a genderless narrative can work that, though we don’t know what kind of person we are watching, the description of their movement as “cat-like or divine” here seems to have restored to it some of the meaning it has lost through overuse. A***, however, accuses the narrator of being in love only with an image, not with A***, the person. It is as if the narrative’s constraint is the narrator’s own blinkered view of the world, which the reader must share. We see without seeing; when the narrator looks in the mirror we see the clothes, and even the bags under the eyes, but we can’t get a good look at the face. Early on, the narrator sees a dead body, its “unseeing eyes staring at me” (“Les yeux du mort . . . sans regard me regardaient”; Ramadan renders this “The dead man’s eyes . . . were regarding me with no regard for me,” but it’s a rare instance where I would have chosen a different translation.) Eerily, the reader’s gaze stands in for the dead man’s: we scrutinize the narrator, but our narrative-blind eyes don’t know what they’re looking at. It is Garréta’s (and Ramadan’s) achievement that over the course of the novel, we learn not to care.

Sphinx is a love story that resists scanning, resists attempts to shoehorn it into a traditional narrative; when the narrator wants to declare his/her love to A***, s/he can’t render it discursive. S/he writes: “I was alternating aimlessly between snippets of narration, the minutes of my interior monologue, syllogisms and images, passing without transition from slang to high style and from the trivial to the abstract, without ever finding the right tone or genre in which to deliver my words.” Ramadan carries the text over from French beautifully, working with Garréta to create it anew in English, and the resulting book operates in a similarly restless, high-and-low vein. The line “Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. Dans la confusion nous nous endormîmes” becomes “Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.” That x of mixed sexes is drawn into the crossing of those wonderful Anglo-Saxon crotches, which doesn’t sound lyrical or sexy—until it does.

It’s difficult to talk about the book aside from its experiment; the constraint is generative here, as it should be in any good Oulipian text. As Ramadan notes in her afterword, the narrator does many things through the streets of Paris—s/he “wanders, descends, ascends, climbs, strolls, promenades, returns, roams,” and so on—not because Garréta is averse to putting things plainly, but because, Ramadan points out, if s/he simply “went” somewhere, the past tense in French would require agreement and thus allocate a gender to the subject. Je suis allé, for a man; je suis allée, for a woman. Garréta has to adopt the imperfect, a past tense used for recurrent actions, and so the narrator becomes the sort of person who is always inventing habits. The language is baroque, yet measured; at times a fermata hangs on each syllable. These are words chosen not only for their meaning or their sound, but also for what they do or do not give away about the things they describe.

With Sphinx, we finally have a novel in English by a female member of the Oulipo. The group is not well known for its women. As Garréta herself said at a 2006 event featuring three out of four of them (there were then twenty-one living members altogether): “The existence of God may very well be less improbable than this all-women Oulipo.” Since the Oulipo aims in part to research and invent new constraints that could be adopted by other writers (or already have been), Garréta’s has been added to their online database as the “Contrainte de Turing”: “absence of any gendered linguistic marker which would allow the reader to assign a sex to a character, narrator, or speaker.” If the genderless approach of this Oulipian novel (or rather this novel co-opted by the Oulipo, as Garréta wasn’t actually a member when she wrote it) is indeed one that the group actively hopes other writers may take up, then it’s possible that it will lead to freer, more playful thinking about gender within the Oulipo.

Sphinx could seem, on the surface, like the perfect Oulipian text—gender is nothing if not a constraint! And yet, what kind of constraint is it? Surely not the “labyrinth” described by Raymond Queneau, one of the group’s co-founders, that the writer builds himself and must then try to escape. With all due respect to Perec’s and Queneau’s achievements, avoiding gender in narrative is nothing like trying to write a book without a given vowel. Gender isn’t just a game, a task we one day set for ourselves; it’s a social role that pre-exists us, which we recreate every day and which affects every aspect of our lives. To transcend gender, Sphinx has to work against language, trying not to play with it but to remake it. Instead of setting false limits, it must test the very real ones that usually confine us. In that sense, Sphinx is the opposite of an Oulipian text: the linguistic “constraint” is actually a prison break.

Sphinx is being called the first genderless love story in English, and to the best of my knowledge this is true; Jeanette Winterson’s 1993 Written on the Body is the only book I can think of that comes close, with a genderless narrator but a female love interest. That novel offers a choice between two readings: heterosexual or gay. Garréta’s novel does Winterson one better. The original French edition bears a dedication in English, “To the third” (echoes of a fin de siècle notion of a third sex?), and tries to open up room for people to exist without being assigned one gender or another. As I read, I couldn’t keep from mentally filling in the unisex name Alex, though I can appreciate that Garréta was trying to leave room for a sex beyond unisex, beyond anything as recognizably part of our culture as a lover called Alex. (And others will note that A*** is also close to Anne).

In this sense, just as the novel is genderless, it is also genderfull, as the narrator's and A***’s sexes reconfigure and reform like the mass of people the narrator watches dancing in the dark at the Apocryphe; one minute you’re sure A*** is a man, the next the narrator is definitely a woman, then the other way around. Garréta finds endless shades of in between and out of bounds, her characters taking shapes no other text before—or since—has imagined.

Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Essays in Wandering, forthcoming from Chatto & Windus next year, and coauthor, with Scott Esposito, of The End of Oulipo? (Zero Books, 2013). She lives in Paris.