Sphinx by Anne Garréta
Translated by Emma Ramadan
Publication Date: April 21, 2015
Originally Published by Grasset (France, 1986)
ISBNs: 978-1-941920-09-1 (paperback) | 978-1-941920-08-4 (ebook)
Sphinx was published with support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States.
Press & Reviews:
A timeless love story . . . A wonderful work to include as part of Women In Translation Month, a landmark of modern literature, a work which can raise numerous debates and discussions, and that alone is a worthwhile enterprise. In my humble opinion, a certain contender for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Thanks to Deep Vellum Publishing for bringing this book to the English reading public. One you need to invest in.
Sphinx is an almost effortlessly readable, atmospheric love story, like a Marguerite Duras novel starring a pair of genderless paramours who haunt the after-hours clubs and cabarets of Paris. The conceit is so simple and so potent that it’s impossible to get too far without pondering big questions about the role gender plays in the way we think about love in literature — and in life.
“Centering her tale on the love and lust of a young couple in the Parisian underworld allows Garréta to train our eyes on the physical beauty of youth, the sensuality of anonymous bodies, and our preconceptions regarding both. The bodies of je and A***, left bare of gender markers, create the need for a new, more vigilant kind of reading that involves a constant undoing of assumptions. They cry: Read yourselves, not just us.“
“The set-up is such a classic, relatable tale of falling in — and out — of love that one wonders why gender has always been such a huge factor in how we discuss relationships, in fiction and otherwise. . . . So, the author, and the translator, created their own language, championing love and desire over power and difference.”
Almost every page amounts to tightrope-walking, whether nonchalant or fraught . . . considerably more than a language game.”
Garréta’s stylistic experiment has been carried out at once boldly and discreetly — it is difficult not to be lured into the story . . . [Emma Ramadan] has skillfully brought this thought-provoking novel to the English-reading world, where it has long been overdue.
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.
For Garréta, it just may be possible then that the body occupies the space of language as powerfully as its capacity to produce it.
Garréta’s removal of gendered grammar is less an indictment of gender—or sign-bearing bodies—and more of a narrative challenge, a queering of language. This is also to say Sphinx is less of a queer romance novel than it is a poetic queering of love itself.
However, the fragments that do surface from this unconscious reservoir are vividly and eloquently incarnated. This is particularly true of the prose around lights, music, and bodies—the primary elements that compose nightclubs. They are rendered in rapturous tones . . . I could go on—exquisite fragments like these are packaged in nearly every page.
This is the battlefield of love, stripped down to its gory human essence. Sphinx looks at love and grief with brutal honesty—a meditation without resolution…[Garreta’s] been called influential and groundbreaking, and with this, her first translation into English, it is easy to see why. Sphinx is an important contribution to queer literature—fascinating, intelligent, and very welcome.
Sphinx is a novel of passion and loss that transcends gender and speaks to the universality of desire and loss, morality, spiritual crisis and the need to connect and belong. It’s also a novel that captivates and propels the reader to question the boundaries of desire and memory—and which one ultimately holds us captive.
- Review of Sphinx—“The Daring Young Women on the Flying Trapeze”—by Chris Clarke in The Quarterly Conversation (June 16, 2015).
Ramadan is not simply walking along underneath Garréta’s tightrope, looking up, and parroting her every movement. This is not a separate, unconnected tightrope—the two of them are intimately and inextricably connected.
I loved the book; it was a fully immersive reading experience.
- Dallas Observer lists Sphinx as one of its 13 Books to Read this Summer (June 9, 2015).
- Tony’s Reading List‘s May Reading Recommendation is Sphinx (June 6, 2015).
- Sphinx selected as a Staff Pick by Tom Roberge at Albertine Books in NYC (June 3, 2015).
I must start by saying that I simply devoured this book. Its romp through seamy Paris nightclubs; its exacting portrait of a passionate affair; and its exploration of both mileus with a deft mixture of immediacy and intellectual detachment had me absolutely obsessed with it — I just had to know what was happening next.
Dense, ornate, sensual…
- Sphinx book club pick by Small Press Booksmith at Brookline Booksmith (May 21, 2015).
- Sphinx included in Flavorwire‘s list of “17 Pathbreaking Non-Binary Gender-Fluid Novels” (May 11, 2015).
- Review of Sphinx in The Complete Review (May 10, 2015).
Quite remarkable, and a rewarding piece of experimental — in the best senses of the word — fiction.
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?
A powerful literary, darkly existential meditation on memory, attraction and identity.
- Sphinx included in Entropy‘s April Books preview (April 30, 2015).
- Excerpt of Sphinx in Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading (April 29, 2015).
- Excerpt of Sphinx in The Believer Logger (April 28, 2015).
- Review of Sphinx in Zyzzyva (April 27, 2015).
…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.
- The Paris Review Daily lists Sphinx among its Staff Picks (April 24, 2015).
In Sphinx, though, the constraint becomes much more than a mere game; I would even venture to call it political.
- Review of Sphinx in Vertigo (April 24, 2015).
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.
The body may be divine, but it can only be seen in such close focus that individual limbs can hardly be distinguished: we are left with flesh and bone, plus a few spinning hormones.
- Review of Sphinx in Typographical Era (highest rating: 5-typewriters) (April 14, 2015)
With sexes mixed and genders blurred Anne Garreta’s spectacular debut novel forces us to challenge our most deep-seated beliefs when it comes to dealing with matters of the heart.
- Sphinx included in Three Percent’s April Translations Preview (April 2, 2015).
- Excerpt of Sphinx at 3:AM Magazine (March 30, 2015).
- Sphinx included in Library Journal‘s roundup of LGBT books to read before Pride Month in June (March 30, 2015).
- Review of Sphinx in The Mookse & The Gripes (March 27, 2015).
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.
- Translator Emma Ramadan on translating Sphinx in Five Dials, Number 33 (October 2014, PDF)
Translating Sphinx means being able to picture any given scene four different ways at once, and making sure the reader can do the same.
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 book, Pas un jour (Grasset, 2002).
Other works available online by Anne F. Garreta:
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.
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.
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.