Sphinx by Anne Garreta, tr. from the French by Emma Ramadan

Title: Sphinx
Author: Anne Garréta
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 9419 2009 1

SphinxSince finishing Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, spectacularly translated by Emma Ramadan, I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about this book that so dazzles me.  I keep returning to the passage –

…The party lasted well beyond the usual timeframe. Strictly speaking, I was no longer listening to the music; it was passing through me.  I was cuing up the records as if by instinct, my vision obscured by a veil of blood. I was in a coma agitated by rhythms that were more and more painfully arousing my desire without ever draining it. In a vague fog I discerned the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need. George told me later that everyone who entered the club mixed gradually into this mob and that between the hours of two and six in the morning nobody left, the employees were overwhelmed. At eight in the morning, emptied, I collapsed onto a bench and went to sleep.

That night sealed my reputation. It still reigns supreme in my memory; no other night ever achieved such furious intensity…

There have been enough reviews posted online by now that it should come as no surprise to learn that Sphinx is an Oulipian novel and that the particular constraint it operates under is gender. Specifically, an absence of gender identification. Garréta, and her translator Ramadan after, set themselves a monumental task of eliminating masculine and feminine from language. It is difficult to discuss Sphinx while ignoring this subversive act but I find that too often the novelty of Oulipo, the gamesmanship and artistic bravado, is allowed to overshadow what should be the central premise of my (of any) review – whether the final product is well-written – and to limit how we discuss the work. The fact that the author writes under constraint is really just ornamental gilding.  That delightful, if inessential, layer of the novel that remains unnecessary to our enjoyment of the book yet adds to our appreciation. It is something I come up against when describing Oulipo to a particular friend of mine.  I go on and on about the technical skill involved in writing under this or that constraint, only to receive the response – ‘I see. Oulipo. I’m pretty sure that’s an Old French word for “sitting around drinking absinthe and making shit up”.’  Because, when you say it all out loud it does sound a bit pretentious and showy.  And it does beg the question, when you’re devoting so much time to grammatical or structural minutiae what are you sacrificing? The assumption being something is getting lost, the focus being all on conforming to the constraint. The difficulty lies in convincing readers that the answer can be: nothing. From the right pen, of course.

First let me say that Anne Garréta has written a novel that very much reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s Written On the Body (though Garréta’s book came first, published in French in 1986 while Winterson’s novel was published in 1992) in both prose and premise.  This struck me immediately. Winterson’s novel – about a nameless, genderless narrator in love with a married woman who is diagnosed with Leukemia – poses the question Why is the measure of love…loss?”. Garréta’s book deals in those very same themes. The prose style is also similar: dense, ornate, sensual.  Winterson’s a little more earthy, Garréta & Ramadan more formal. Both narrators are self-absorbed in their grief. Taken altogether I believe it’s safe to make the if then statement – if you enjoyed Written On the Body then you will also enjoy Sphinx.  Though this is not meant to imply that they are in any way the same book or story.  They are most definitely not.

Emma Ramadan refers to Sphinx‘s unidentified narrator as Je in an essay she wrote for 5 Dials. It seems as good a name as any (and much better than constantly referring to ‘the narrator’). And so Je is a former religious student turned D.J., infatuated with an African-American dancer named A***.  In one way Sphinx is Je’s attempt at charting the course of their relationship.  The events in Je‘s life that lead to their first meeting, Je & A***’s courtship, cohabitation, visits to America and Je’s connection to A***’s family. The relationship lasts long enough that the initial passion wears off and is replaced by whatever it is that comes after. But A***  dies and Je is left behind to sort through the memories and emotions of their time together. We become lost in Je‘s skewed perspective – narcississtic and self-absorbed – which we’d like to attribute to grief but which ultimately we come to understand is the central component of who Je is. A man/woman locked so far into his/her own psyche as to be almost incapable of acknowledging a world separate from/outside of it. It makes a modicum of sense when we read “I was about to turn twenty-three…”.  Je’s complaints of ennui, Je’s intellectual pretensions, sense of superiority and nihilism can only be acceptable, and then just barely, in young adults… even among Parisians. And so Je remains compelling despite his/her obvious flaws.

I felt as if I had never been permitted such transparency with anyone – anyone but A***. Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked myself, or at least what I thought I knew of myself? 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 identity. I was forcing myself to forget this nudity. My soul was not retreating behind a multitude of appearances that it could have incarnated endlessly, but rather, hollowed from the inside, was being instilled with doubt over this cavity that it hadn’t filled with anything. I was then forced to recognize what I had always secretly wanted others to discover: “I” is nothing. It was a painful triumph when, faced with this beloved being, I finally achieved what I had always been aiming towards: the ability to confess my own weakness, my nothingness. But the weight of this nothingness was revealed only to me; it remained unintelligible to A***, and I remained in the barrenness, the ruin, at last revealed as if by accident, following this confrontation with m own nudity and death. “What am I,” I was asking myself, “other than what you do not know how to say about me?”

There’s more happening in Sphinx than gender obscuration.

Gender, though, remains at the center of this book.  And, whether we mean it to or not, it becomes something of a game to look for hints or flaws that might reveal something. It seems right to admit that early in my reading I assigned Je a sex.  And when I say “sex”, what I mean is that I assigned Je a male or female body. (I won’t say which, and I hope you’ll understand why in a moment).  The body was really more a function of environmental factors in the story rather than any behavior Je displayed or any slip the author (or translator) might have made. At first this troubled me – as if I’d somehow failed the challenge of setting aside my preconceptions. Until I realized that all I had actually done was provide Je with genitalia – not gender identity.  And that I never felt compelled to do the same with A*** – whose appearance, personality, sexual parts and gender identity remained nebulous – changing from page to page.

Which brings me back to the passage at the beginning of this review. I’ve gone back to read and re-read it at least a dozen times.  The night at the club, described early in the book, that marked the peak of Je’s career.  Je, whose narrative voice – both evocative yet precise – driven but emotionally cold – perfectly described the synchronized, rhythmic mass of bodies on a dance floor.  “…the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need.”   It’s a lovely bit of prose. One that made me realize I was mistaken in believing that Garréta’s characters, Je and A***,  exist without gender.  Rather – Garréta has achieved the complete opposite.  They,  Je and A***, simultaneously encompass all possible variations of gender and gender identity. Which some might say amounts almost to the same thing… but not quite.


 

A few notes about the author, the English translator and translation of Sphinx:

Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel.  It was published in 1986 when the author was twenty-three.  Garréta is one of the few female members of Oulipo and the first member to have been born after the group’s genesis.  She won the Prix Medicis in 2002 for her book Pas un jour.

The English edition of Sphinx, published by Deep Vellum Press, contains both an Introduction by Daniel Levin Becker and a Translator’s Note by Emma Ramadan.  Both are worth reading and add to the pleasure of the book.  In addition Ramadan wrote an article on translating Sphinx for Five Dials No. 33 – which can be read online here. Even if you are not a translator, or a translation junky, the challenges of bringing this novel to English are absolutely fascinating.

 

A New Ol’ Girls Club

The blogger Biblibio posted a call to arms in this December 9th post Where In the World Are Women Writers?  and the follow-up Women in translation – responses.  After informally crunching the numbers he/she came to the conclusion that less than 30% of the literature translated into English is written by women.  After reviewing my reading history I came up with results that were startlingly similar.   Leading to the obvious question:  What the hell is going on?!

I can’t speak for the publishing world as a whole, but I can unequivocally state that I do not seek out male over female authors.  Keeping that in mind I went back and tried to determine how the books I read this last year first came to my attention.  The result was a mixed bag of publishers, podcasters, book critics, bloggers, booksellers and Goodreads.  In other words, useless.

But, just when I was getting my indignation on in defense of the feminine gender, it was brought to my attention by a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 Open Book Podcast that the majority of literary prizes in English for 2012-2013 were won by women authors.  Alice Monro (Nobel), Hilary Mantel (too many to list), Lydia Davis (Man Booker International), Eleanor Catton (Man Booker), Angela Jackson (Edinburgh Festival First Book)… you can see the entire list on the Open Book website.  In fact, women have made a strong showing overall on the long and short lists of all the major English language literary prizes this past year.

Obviously, this doesn’t in any way refute or reverse Biblibio’s findings.  Yet it does reinforce my belief that this disparity is not happening intentionally.  Publishers care about selling books and publishing good literature (hopefully not in that order).  It’s doubtful that they have any investment (emotional or otherwise) in an author’s gender.  My hope is that what we are dealing with is residual gender bias from the 20th century… a habit easily kicked if readers are willing to make the effort.  And more importantly, if those of us who review are willing to get the word out.  Because if they sell publishers will take notice.

Case in point:  who knew that the Scandinavians were so into crime (or, let’s face it, could name the 3 Scandinavian countries off the top of their head?) before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Now, I realize that in some circles “quotas” is a dirty word.  But they have frequently been proven effective.  So I propose this informal challenge to fellow readers, bloggers and reviewers:  in 2014 challenge yourself to read a set number of books in translation written by women – and then review them.  The review part is key.  Whether on a blog, as a contributor to a traditional media outlet or on Goodreads it’s important to give these authors a little marketing nudge.

Hmmm… this could merit a hashtag.  Something I’m terrible at.  Anyone?

This year my personal goal is to read and review 52 books – one per week.  Half by women.  I intend to alternate – every book by a male author will be followed by a female author, and vice versa.  With a modicum of planning this shouldn’t be difficult to implement.

Until I started actively seeking books in translation I had no idea of the incredible literature from around the world I’d been missing out on.  Now I look at my bookshelves and see authors whose names, three years ago,  I didn’t know.  I can’t wait to see who gets added in the year ahead.