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.


Beatitude Blog Tour: Interview with Author Larry Closs

My review last week made it pretty obvious how much I loved Beatitude.  So when TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog asked if I wanted to take part in a book tour I said yes.  I had the opportunity to ask Larry some questions about his novel, his connection to the Beat generation, and where the hell he got not one, but TWO previously unpublished Ginsberg poems!??  Here’s what I found out…

BSR:  Larry, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  While I’ve always had an interest in the Beat Generation, it wasn’t until I read Beatitude that I began to see the Beats and their lives as a 20th century heroic epic. They’re so easy to romanticize:  the brilliant writing, the never-ending road trip, the camaraderie between the men. But they also did a lot of damage—to themselves and those around them. There’s a dark side to their story, filled with hubris & tragedy. Can you start by talking about that?

LC:  The Beats are, indeed, very easy to romanticize, but the reality was often otherwise—for them and for many of those associated with them. In contrast to the wide-eyed wonder, ecstasy of experience and laissez-faire liaisons were depression, addiction and loneliness that resulted in seriously damaged souls. Disaster was never far away. Jack Kerouac’s friend Bill Cannastra died at 28 when he leaned out of a subway car, drunk, and struck a pillar as the train pulled of the station. William S. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head during a game of William Tell. Lucien Carr, a friend of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, stabbed David Kammerer to death, allegedly for aggressive, unwanted advances.

Unrequited love was a constant theme of the Beats, in a variety of configurations. Ginsberg was in love with both Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and although he had a sexual relationship with Cassady for years, it was never the romantic ideal he would have preferred. Ginsberg was also in love with Burroughs for a time—unfortunately, not at the same time that Burroughs was in love with him.

Women who traveled in the Beat orbit generally faced much of the same, in addition to particularly contrary expectations. The Beat Generation was basically a Boys’ Club, the members of which welcomed a woman’s open-minded attitude about sex and intimacy but otherwise held her to the restrictive norms of the 1940s and 1950s. Memoirs and autobiographies by Kerouac’s wives and lovers (Joyce Johnson, Joan Haverty, Edie Parker and Helen Weaver) and Cassady’s second wife (Carolyn Cassady) reveal what it was like to love someone who often was and wasn’t there, literally and figuratively.

All of this contributed to the larger-than-life quality that permeates Beat literature. Every great story traffics in extremes—extreme tragedy, extreme joy. The Beats had plenty of both to draw on and their journey is all the more fascinating for their willingness to expose how they did and sometimes didn’t deal with either.

BSR:  Who’s your favorite member of the Beat generation? I noticed that in the novel you (and your characters) focus a lot on Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassady… but Burroughs only gets passing references. Until the end, that is, when Ginsberg explains him and his writing so beautifully.  I suppose what I really want to ask is:  what are your feelings on Burroughs?

LC:  What attracted me to the Beats was their search for truths in everyday experience. To that end, I find Kerouac and Ginsberg to be the most insightful and transparent. I like Ginsberg a lot but I lean toward Kerouac because, as a writer, I connect more with prose than poetry. So, Kerouac is my favorite.

Like all great literature, the Beats’ work stands on its own, but it is enhanced immensely by even a passing knowledge of their lives, since so much of their lives inspired their best work. Knowing that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were great friends, I was intrigued by all three and curious to see how they aligned or differed. I read Burroughs after I’d read Kerouac and Ginsberg and I was taken aback by how utterly opposite his writing seemed. In contract to the frankness, spirituality and hope of Kerouac and Ginsberg, there was defensiveness, horror and doom with a dose of the blackest humor I’d ever encountered.

It took me a long time to realize what Ginsberg says about Burroughs in Beatitude—that it was all just a cover for the same tremendous vulnerability displayed by Kerouac and Ginsberg. The last journal entry he ever wrote says it all: “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. Love.”

BSR:  Beatitude tells two stories: the history of the Beats (and their relationships to each other) and Jay & Harry’s relationship. How did you make the connection between those two narratives? Did you decide you wanted to write a novel about the Beats—or did you begin with the story of Jay and Harry? Which came first—the chicken or the egg?

LC:  My original idea was to write a novel about two young men who become friends based on their shared fascination with the Beat Generation. Early drafts had very little background about the Beats but I began to realize that not everyone was as familiar with references that I considered general knowledge due to my own interest.

There was a story that recently made headlines, for example, about Jack Kerouac once suggesting to Marlon Brando that he buy the movie rights to On the Road and that the two of them should co-star: Brando as Dean Moriarty, Kerouac as Sal Paradise. That wasn’t news to me—it’s in just about every book about the Beats ever written. At one point, it was in mine. But it was news to most. Likewise, I once mentioned the story of Kerouac writing the first draft of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot scroll to someone—a story I was certain everyone knew—and he said he’d never heard it.

So, as Beatitude evolved, I began to include more and more information about the Beats to make it a self-contained, self-explanatory experience. At the same time, as I continued to write, Harry and Jay’s relationship grew more complex, thanks, in part, to the presence of Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra. Reading through the manuscript-in-progress at one point I was suddenly struck by the parallels between the lives of Harry, Jay and Zahra and the lives of Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg. That realization added a whole other layer and took the book in a new direction.

BSR:  I really enjoyed the interview with Ginsberg at the end of the novel. There was something very touching about this man sitting there in an apartment surrounded by photographs and talking about these people he’d loved. How did you research that conversation? Is it complete fabrication on your part or did you cherry pick from existing interviews?

LC:  Anyone who knew Ginsberg well will tell you that he was a man of many dimensions. For me, he always brings to mind the verse from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, one of his favorite poets: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes, but few are fearless enough to expose all of them. Part of Ginsberg’s genius was to make himself simultaneously vulnerable and unassailable by being completely open about each and every one of his idiosyncrasies. I wanted that to come through in my depiction of him.

I encountered Ginsberg several times and interviewed him once, though the interview was never published. I’ve read as many books about the Beats— collections of letters, interviews and biographies—as books by the Beats. I used all of those as the inspiration for the Ginsberg who appears in Beatitude and to write the interview with him near the end of the book. I did not use quotes from other interviews because that would have required reprint rights and fees. As for the setting, there are, luckily, a lot of photographs of the Beats—many taken by Ginsberg himself—and I studied various photographs of Ginsberg’s apartment to create a plausible fictional version.

BSR:  And those unpublished poems by Ginsberg?  How did they get to be in the book?

LC:  I had a recording of a poetry reading that Ginsberg did at MoMA in 1995, when Beatitude takes place. In the novel, Harry, Jay and Zahra attend the reading, and, to bring the scene to life, I featured excerpts from several of the poems that Ginsberg performed. To clear the rights to the excerpts, I submitted a list to Peter Hale at the Allen Ginsberg Estate. Peter discovered that two of the poems—“Like Other Guys” and “Carl Solomon Dream”—had, surprisingly, never been published (“Like Other Guys” appeared only as a 26-copy broadside). Peter directed me to Ginsberg’s literary agent at The Wylie Agency, and after the rights were sorted out, Wylie offered to let me include the full text of the poems in an Appendix. I was, of course, thrilled that two poems by Allen Ginsberg would be published for the first time in my first novel. For a Beat aficionado, it doesn’t get much better than that.

BSR:  Throughout the book Harry has a problem categorizing his love for Jay—and the fact that it could exist as anything other than romantic. I’m not trying to say that Harry isn’t in love with Jay—he obviously is. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to say that he loved Jay more than Jay loved him. It’s just a different kind of love—a concept which I think you deal with brilliantly through the course of the novel.

Which made me think:  Those same societal preconceptions could make it very easy to categorize Beatitude as LGBT literature – simply because it deals with romantic love and intense friendships between two men.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

LC:  As its name suggests, Rebel Satori Press, my publisher, focuses on books that explore “revolutionary personal transformation” through inspirational fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Rebel Satori’s specialty imprint, QueerMojo, is home for cutting edge works of particular interest to the LGBT community. Interestingly, the founder of Rebel Satori, Sven Davisson, felt that Beatitude belonged under the Rebel Satori imprint, not QueerMojo.

Since its publication, Beatitude has been reviewed by a multitude of mainstream and LGBT publications, websites and book-related blogs. In one of the very first mainstream reviews, the writer described the book as “gay literature” in the first paragraph. Shortly after, a reviewer on an LGBT book site wrote that she “would probably not label this novel as ‘gay’ if asked.” In your own review, you write that Beatitude “shouldn’t be pigeonholed as any one thing: as a love story; LGBT lit; a memorial to the Beats; a book about NYC. Because it’s all those things and more. There are multiple layers to the story Closs has given us, and it’d be a mistake to allow ourselves to get caught up in just one.”

I didn’t set out to write a “gay novel.” I’m not even sure what makes a novel “gay.” A gay writer? A gay narrator? Two gay characters? Three gay characters? What’s the tipping point? How many gay characters does it take to screw in a…? Is a gay novel about an experience that only an LGBT person can have? Putting prejudice, bigotry and religious nonsense aside, what experience would that be? When Brokeback Mountain came out, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were constantly asked what it felt like to kiss another guy. Ledger was so exasperated by the question that he finally snapped: “It’s kissing a human being. So fucking what!” The point is: Remove gender, sexuality, race, class and nationality from the equation and human experience is universal. I read and relate to plenty of “straight” novels but I’ve never thought of them as such. No one does. They’re just novels.

The three most famous works produced by the Beat Generation writers illustrate the issue: Kerouac’s On the Road generally isn’t considered a gay novel, although it features gay characters and gay sex. Ginsberg’s “Howl” isn’t classified as a gay poem, although there’s plenty of graphic gay imagery and Ginsberg himself was openly gay. Naked Lunch by Burroughs, who was also openly gay, is often categorized as a gay novel—nearly everyone in it is gay—but the novel is more famous (notorious) for its relentless hallucinatory psychosis and that usually trumps the gay label.

Are novels gay by virtue of who writes them or who reads them? It’s like a Zen koan. Two monks observe a flag flapping in the wind. “The flag is moving,” says one. “The wind is moving,” counters the other. Their master overhears them and says, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

To me, Beatitude is a novel. Like it says right on the cover. But I know that readers will view it through their own preconceptions, which is entirely appropriate, because how preconceptions affect the ability to view things accurately is one of the themes Beatitude explores.

Larry Closs is the author of Beatitude, a novel, and a New Yorker who often wanders far from home. Follow him on his website, FacebookTwitter, YouTube and Instagram (larrycloss). 

Click HERE for the next (and, sadly, the final) stop on the BEATITUDE blog tour.

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When Harry Meets Jay – Beatitude by Larry Closs

Beatitude is one of those books that might just build a cult following.  It contains a love story – but not in the traditional sense. It talks about the Beat generation – but in a new way.  Well written and completely engrossing, this is a novel that refuses categorization.

When Harry meets Jay the two discover that they share an obsession for the Beats. Harry’s recovering from a devastating love affair.  Jay is handsome, interesting and writes poetry.  They become best friends, inseparable, bonding over books and recordings Harry scores through his job as a writer for a popular entertainment magazine.  All is wonderful…and then Harry does what he’s sworn not to do.  He falls in love.  With Jay. Who is straight.  And has a girlfriend.

What happens next is unexpected.  Because that love triangle?  Well, it never gets off the ground.

Harry Charity (in my TOP 10 of best character names EVER!)  narrates Beatitude.  He’s an incredibly vulnerable man, someone you can’t help caring about and rooting for.  He never comes across as needy or whiny about his situation.  And even when he wears his heart on his sleeve and makes mistake after mistake in his friendship with Jay – you still want him to come out of it OK.

Jay is not the bad guy of this story, by the way.  Despite the fact that for a while I believed, along with Harry, that he was throwing out mixed signals. And before you think you know what’s coming next:  Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra, isn’t the bad guy (er, girl) either.   They both come to care for Harry as much as Harry cares for Jay… just in a different way.

The antagonist of Beatitude isn’t a person, it’s a situation.  Dominated by a misconception about what makes a friendship between men.  And that’s where the Beats come in.  These were men defined by their relationships with each other – sometimes  sexual, sometimes not.  But they were always important, essential even, to the individuals creative process and eventual mythos.  Larry Closs uses this history to flesh out the basic concepts of  male love and friendship – in all forms.  The enemy, if there is one, is society’s conventions.  An idea that  falls right in line with the Beats’ message.

Ginsberg even makes a few cameos in the novel (which also contains two of his previously unpublished poems).  There’s a wonderful conversation between him and one to the main characters at the end of the novel. Without giving too much away – I found this encounter touching and lovely.  We visit the aging Ginsberg (vividly drawn) in his apartment.   It’s filled with photographs of friends and fellow Beat artists, most of whom are now dead.  And the reader suddenly gets a sense of what it means to outlive the people you love.

And that’s the heart of Beatitude:  the reminder that love is love, regardless of whether it’s romantic or platonic. Larry Closs weaves together a beautiful and complicated narrative around this idea. He’s created a novel that shouldn’t be pigeonholed as any one thing: as a love story; GLBT lit; a memorial to the Beats; a book about NYC.  Because it’s all those things and more. There are multiple layers to the story Closs has given us, and it’d be a mistake to allow ourselves to get caught up in just one.

Note:  The Next Best Book Blog will be holding a blog tour for Larry Closs’ Beatitude beginning Sunday, January 22nd. BookSexy Review will be hosting Larry for an interview that week.

Publisher: Hulls Cove, Maine. Rebel Satori Press (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 60864 029 4

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