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Anne Garréta’s Sphinx

Garreta Sphinx

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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. haskellmary #

    Terry: You may be interested in reviewing “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine. It’s a beautiful and profound prose poem about anti-black racism in America today. What surprises me as I have been reading is the embedded images of contemporary art and a JMWTurner coda! best regards, Mary Haskell

    Lexington MA 02421

    April 24, 2015
    • Mary, Thanks. I’ve read Citizen a couple of times, but I haven’t decided if I want to write about it yet. Her earlier book “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” also has images.

      April 24, 2015
  2. I have not been certain about reading this book. I am wondering whether the impact would lose something in English, a challenge in translating some Oulipo literature. I recall Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body exploring similar territory. Do genderless explorations translate? I once read a novel by a Turkish writer with genderless characters but, where the third person pronoun in Turkish is genderless, the translator defaulted to male for the characters and the title (The Messenger Boy Murders). Defeats the purpose. By contrast the challenges may be more profound in other languages. I was recently talking to a young gay man from Mexico. We were talking about the way, as queer people, we often employ a degree of gender ambiguity when not wishing to out ourselves for some reason or another. He mentioned his great relief in moving to Canada where he could employ English with greater freedom than afforded by Spanish where it is impossible to talk about “my friend” or “my partner” without conforming to the actual gender of the person in question. In practice, in English when engaging with people who chose a genderless or genderqueer identity the current fashion is to employ “they” and “their” which is feasible but does not necessarily make for fluid literary fiction.

    Sorry to go on, I just keep coming back to this title and debating whether it is something truly profound in translation.

    April 24, 2015
  3. Great to hear from you. I probably should have written more about Sphinx. I enjoyed the book and read it pretty much straight through. But I was more intrigued by the impact of not being able to assign gender to the narrator and A*** than to the story itself or other aspects of Garreta’s writing. In one sense it was liberating that the author did not tell me how to envision these two characters. But in another way my brain was a bit frustrated by my inability to conjure up some sort of image, especially for A***, who is partially described in great detail – except for aspects that would identify gender. Maybe after multiple readings that issue would diminish. The publisher’s blurb on the back cover touts the book as “a modern classic of experimental, feminist, and LGBT/queer literature,” but I can only speak to my personal response to the book. I do like your use of the word “fluid,” and I would agree that the lack of gender made Sphinx a work of literary fiction that was less than fluid for me.

    April 24, 2015

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