Garréta pulls off a stylistic feat: it is impossible to determine the gender of the two main characters. Is theirs a woman-woman, man-man, man-woman, or woman-man relationship? The reader must work this out—and will fail.
Sphinx by Anne Garétta, translated by Emma Ramadan, Deep Vellum, 134 pp., $14.95.
Anne Garréta’s Sphinx impressed French readers and critics when it was published in 1986. Recounting an increasingly amorous friendship between a French theology scholar (who is the narrator) and A***, an American nightclub dancer who works in Paris, Garréta (b. 1962) pulls off a stylistic feat: it is impossible to determine the gender of the two main characters. Is theirs a woman-woman, man-man, man-woman, or woman-man relationship? The reader must work this out — and will fail.
Yet is guessing at, let alone defining, the gender of the two characters really so important? Garréta’s exploit, recalling the constraints employed by the Oulipo group (to which she was elected in 2000), enables her to emphasize the phenomenology of friendship, amorous attraction, and erotic desire. The phenomena of human interaction are sexless in this book whenever the two characters are involved, even during their sexual acts. In their midst, a few male and female characters have brief roles, and A***’s mother takes on importance, at the end, when she is dying in a hospital. But this book is essentially a dual de-gendered portrait. Garréta’s original focus jolts the reader into looking afresh at the realities of mutual fascination, bonding, and attachment.
As the narrator becomes ever more sexually attracted to A***, who is initially less responsive, non-gendered attraction is thus depicted. The reader ponders what might be called the “unadulterated” contents of such attraction. To be more explicit, when a “crotch” is evoked, the reader — unless he or she projects him- or herself into the plot — must attempt to imagine sheer sexual sensation, not any purportedly “masculine” or “feminine” sensation. Think of seventeenth-century British and French philosophers discussing consciousness and sense impressions per se. These are the emotional, ideational, and sensate phenomena that Garréta attempts to isolate. The author could be described as constructing an inverted or negative image through the constraint of her storytelling: by eliminating gender from the interplay of the two characters, she implicitly argues that, in our real non-literary world, gender is socially constructed.
We learn a few facts about the narrator and A***. The latter is ten years older than the former, is a half-white, half-black New Yorker, and has long been an expatriate in Paris. The narrator is a divinity student as the plot unfolds, but ends up taking a break from the university in order to work, unexpectedly and after a dramatic event, as the disc jockey of the Apocryphe Night Club.
As a DJ, the bookish narrator is soon the talk of the town and, brilliantly mixing records at the club, keeps people dancing until the wee hours of the morning. As elsewhere in Sphinx, the narrator reflects philosophically on this odd job: “I would argue that a good DJ is one who, rather than simply responding to repetitive wishes that are consciously formulaic and elementary (such and such a record, such and such a song), subconsciously manages to fulfill an unknown desire by creating a unity out of something superior to adding up so many records, so many requests. To appease is not the same as to fulfill.”
Garréta astutely blends such “pedantic disquisition” (as the narrator puts it self-ironically) and more graphic scenes. “I had come to the end of this chapter of my De natura rerum noctis dedicated to the essence of the position of the DJ,” the narrator notably adds to the preceding reflections, “when I noticed A*** standing near the bar, no longer accompanied by that new moronic lover, being served a glass of champagne by the barman.”
Even as the scholarly DJ’s intellectual field is “apophatic”—i.e., “negative”—theology, key words such as “Apocryphe” (apocryphal) and indeed the title, Sphinx, symbolize Garréta’s questioning of what a human being is or only seems to be, of how we become what we are or what we think we are. In negative theology, God’s attributes become imaginable by ruminating about what cannot be said or imagined about God. The cogitates contemplates similarly about the self and the Other.
Although the Sphinx’s famous riddle solved by Oedipus — “Which creature is four-footed in the morning, two-footed at noon, and three-footed in the evening” — does not pertain to Garréta’s plot, the (somewhat modified) English lyrics of the French singer Amanda Lear’s song “Sphinx” do:
I can’t stand the pain
and I keep looking for all the faces I had
before the world began.
I’ve only known desire and my poor soul will burn
into eternal fire.
And I can’t even cry,
a sphinx can never cry.
I wish that I could be
a silent sphinx eternally.
I don’t want any past
only want things which cannot last.
Phony words of love
or painful truth, I’ve heard it all before.
A conversation piece,
a woman or a priest, it’s all a point of view.
Garréta gropes behind the social and cultural relativism of the “point of view.” Sphinx-like enigmas are omnipresent: What is the self made of, how is it made, and who is this Other—or Others—to whom one is sometimes mysteriously drawn?
Meditating on the relationship with A***, for example, the narrator wonders: “Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? [. . .] No, more likely I had exposed my own collapse, the ruin of the edifice I had so painfully constructed out of rhetoric and made to stand in for an identity. [. . .] I was then forced to recognize what I had always secretly wanted other to discover: ‘I’ is nothing.”
The ‘I’? Like many French writers and poets over the ages, Garréta examines the foundations of the self and being. Cartesianism is rarely far away in French literature and often comes all the closer when its postulates are given a rebellious spin. The philosopher of Les Passions de l’âme and Discours de la méthode famously remarked: “I think, therefore I am.” As to Sphinx, one could venture this inverted paraphrase: “I think, and if indeed I am, I am perhaps not as I think I am.” Not surprisingly, mirrors are significant props in Sphinx. Take this key scene, during which the narrator and A*** have an argument:
“I demanded to know what was wanted of me, what need I had to satisfy. [. . .] Leaving the dressing room, A***, from the door, turned back and hurled this question at me without waiting for a response: “How do you see me, anyway?” [. . .] My gaze fell upon a large mirror opposite the door, which had slammed shut after the question. I stared at the door’s reflection. A response came to my lips, which I murmured pensively in the silence: “I see you in a mirror.”
In the nightclub dressing room as elsewhere in the novel, non-gendered means neither abstract or disincarnated. The issue of gender is, in fact, never raised as such; it is only implicitly articulated through the de-gendered stylistic conceit. Garréta’s writing is precise as far are objects and streets of Paris and New York are concerned. It is ideas, emotions, and sensations that she refines, stripping them of their feminine or masculine envelopes so that we may better observe their crystalline essence. The de-gendering constraint therefore functions as a sort of distilling process. The literary equilibrium that Garréta maintains between the real daily world, where the narrator is a scholar-DJ and A*** a nightclub dancer, and the idealized world of their genderless affection, gives Sphinx its depth and reveals its artifice. By removing gender from language, the author forges a language that stands at a remove from daily discourse as we know it; these stylistic efforts have been made in order to force us to scrutinize the ways we perceive each other in new ways.
The novelist offers insights into amorous friendship (amitié amoureuse), a form of bonding in which establishing a “couple” is much less envisioned — even though the two characters in Sphinx end up living together — than developing an open-ended, non-exclusive intense intimacy from which sensuality is by no means excluded.
Garréta pinpoints the pleasures and frustrations of such an arrangement. One of the peculiarities of the relationship is divulged when the narrator avows: “I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the originality of A***’s views, or by a similarity in our tastes; we neither combated nor conversed. Our time together and our conversation were simply a pleasure, like the contemplation of A***’s body or A***’s dance, an aesthetic pleasure that I could attribute to a lightness of being that never dipped into inanity.” Yet issues of trust, possessiveness, and responsibility inevitably arise, especially in the last section, which starts to unfold just before a second dramatic incident occurs.
There are at least two lapses in the storytelling. When A***, accompanied by the narrator, returns to New York to see their mother, their stroll through Harlem is conventional in events and scenery. And just after this passage, a short chapter relating a three-month trip through European cities likewise seems drafted to designate A*** and the narrator’s differences more than to disclose them more subtly through detailed scenes. Expectedly, the narrator wants to visit museums, A*** to enjoy the sea. The disparities in their whims and routines are stated, not shown. Yet there are several moving passages in the novel, notably one describing the characters’ first kiss. And the narrator’s self-analysis is often compelling. All in all, Garréta, who has invented a literary device to drive a philosophical hypothesis home, mostly avoids the trap of being overly didactic.
Won’t a reader be tipped off by this review or others that the two main characters are genderless? Don’t Daniel Levin Becker’s Introduction, Emma Ramadan’s Translator’s Note, and the back cover spill the beans? Perhaps, but Garréta’s stylistic experiment has been carried out at once boldly and discreetly — it is difficult not to be lured into the story.
Ramadan has done a fine job producing an English version as tantalizingly non-gendered as the original. In addition, she has worked around obstacles that are inherent to English. As she comments in her extensive Translator’s Note, “English [unlike French] has semantic gender, meaning that inanimate objects are not assigned a gender, but people and living creatures are (with exceptions) referred to either as masculine or feminine.” In other words, possessive adjectives in English create thorny technical problems for the translator of a genderless novel. If the narrator or A*** is holding a glass of champagne, it’s his glass or her glass but it can never be its glass.
Ramadan alternates between four different strategies in English to solve the quandary: “using a demonstrative [pronoun], dropping the article altogether, pluralizing, or repeating A***’s name.” “In other places,” she adds, “I rewrote certain passages to avoid personal pronouns, or applied adjectives directly to the subject rather than to something possessed by the subject.” Hats off to her. She has skillfully brought this thought-provoking novel to the English-reading world, where it has long been overdue.
John Taylor has recently published three translations: Georges Perros’s Paper Collage (Seagull), Philippe Jaccottet’s The Pilgrim’s Bowl (Seagull), and José-Flore Tappy’s Sheds: Collected Poems (Bitter Oleander Press). He is the author of the three-volume essay collection Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction). His most recent collection of short prose is If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press).