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.