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.

 

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What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.

Eléctrico W by Hervé le Tellier, translated from the original French by Adriana Hunter

https://i2.wp.com/pubimages.randomhouse.com.au/getimage.aspxLet’s talk about Oulipo.  It’s a French movement that includes authors and mathematicians who use constraints when creating literature.  For example:  writing an entire novel without using the letter “a”.  Or using palindromes.  Or starting  every sentence with the same word or phrase.  Or, my particular favorite, replacing every noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (this constraint has its own name:  N+7).

Italo Calvino was a member of Oulipo – which is why If On A Winters Night A Traveler is a book of only beginnings.  As was Oskar Pastior, Duchamp and Georges Perec.  I consider Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch Oulipian, but discovered he was not a member.  That book, though, shares Oulipo’s fascination with puzzles – so it’s not surprising that Cortázar wrote it while living in Paris.

Hervé Le Tellier is a member.  Though, in terms of constraints the one he used for Eléctrico W seems a bit weak.  The novel follows the structure of Homer’s Odyssey.  And while I’m by no means an expert, it does so in such a vague way that I couldn’t find the parallels.*  Be that as it may – puzzles and games and Oulipo all put aside – Eléctrico W is an entertaining novel.

It was 1985, nearly twenty-seven years ago.  At the time I didn’t feel like showing it to publishers.  I did give it a title, though, and this morning, with the sun taking its time coming up, it is called Eléctrico W, the name of a tramline in Lisbon.  But that has been a provisional title for so long.

This paragraph is added in because, according to the computer, the manuscript comprised 53,278 words.  I wanted it to be a prime number.  Out of some superstition.  So I added an adjective here, and adverb there, I don’t even remember where.  And this is where the notebook starts again.

In these opening paragraphs we are introduced to the narrator, a middle aged journalist named Vincent Balmer.  He’s recently moved to Lisbon, leaving behind his life in Paris and an affair that had run its course.  He’s kept his job, though.  The French newspaper, which still employs him, has him cover  the trial of a serial killer.  He is partnered with a photojournalist, Antonio Flores, who he knows from the Paris office.  The two men spend nine days together.  One night  Flores reveals to Vincent that he grew up in Lisbon… eventually telling the story of his star-crossed love for a girl called Duck.  The story captures Vincent’s imagination (“imagination” being the key word) and he attempts to track down Duck with the vague idea of reuniting the pair.  Eléctrico W is the story of Vincent’s quest over those nine days he and Flores are assigned to the murder trial.

Vincent’s voice is introspective.  Sedate.   He does not seem to be subject to emotional peaks or valleys – regardless of what he sometimes claims.  While he  describes himself as more conventionally handsome than Antonio Flores, he lacks that male version of “jolie laide” which makes the other man irresistable to women.  In face, Vincent learns that Flores is currently sleeping with the woman who had broken up with him/Vincent in Paris.  She,  Irene, eventually joins the two men in Lisbon.  Despite all of Vincent’s professed passion for Irene his attempt at revenge seems half-hearted at best.  Based on my previous reading experience, Vincent is part of that long tradition of utterly charming but romantically (and otherwise) inept Frenchmen whom French authors seem to adore.  A cross between Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Gérard Depardieu.

Vincent also has a hobby.  Interspersed throughout the book are short stories which he is translating, written by the fictional Portuguese author Jaime Montestrela.  Montestrela who appears in many of Le Tellier’s books.

In the town of Chiannesi (Umbria, Italy), on Shrove Tuesday, it was customary for every inhabitant to swap minds with another, women played at being men, children being parents.  This swap included animals, and mice could be seen toying cruelly with cats.  The municipality brought a definitive end to this custom in 1819, when the swap between cows and flies led to a crisis.

A small step above flash-fiction, these relatively straight-forward tales (we’re told that Montestrela might have intended them as allegories, but as Vincent doesn’t seem too worried about what they represent why should we?) provide “air” between the denser, atmospheric prose that makes up most of the novel.

A cool breeze was blowing and I shivered in the shade of the cypress tree.  Graves seen in sunshine are never entirely melancholy.  There’s always a hint of life to distract the eye, a blade of grass glimmering, a carefree chaffinch pecking at the ground, a black beetle with heavy mandibles crawling over the gravel.  And when graves have no story to tell, we don’t linger over them.

All the writing, as translated by Adriana Hunter, is stylistically elegant.  As are the characters.  Vincent, in particular, is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist.  And Le Tellier’s plot nicely mirrors the tenets of the Oulipo movement.  Just like an Oulipian work is more than what is superficially apparent (though Eléctrico W still functions very nicely at that level if you aren’t interesting in delving into it) so is there more to the story of Antonio and Duck than meets the eye.  Early on Vincent tells us how at the end of their time together he looked at Antonio and “… no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”  He projects his own narrative onto these two people, much like Le Tellier has projected the structure of The Odyssey onto this book.  It complicates things, but not in a bad way.   It causes confusion and, at times, surprising reveals.  I wouldn’t call Vincent an unreliable narrator, just a misguided one.  And, to my mind, all the more interesting because of it.

Punlisher: Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 534 1

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* While writing this review I began to think that it’s not the plot of The Odyssey that Le Tellier is following, but the actual physical structure – words, lines, letters, phrasing.  This is purely guesswork on my part, though. I’ve found nothing to support it.