In Daniel Levin Becker’s introduction to Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (1986; tr. from the French by Emma Ramadan, 2015), he admits about the Oulipian that “most novels in the milieu are preceded at some distance by their reputations.” The restraint can seem a sales pitch, but what makes an Oulipian novel successful, emotionally and intellectually, like Garréta’s, is the way the restraint can so tightly align with every other aspect of the novel. In her translator’s note, Ramadan engagingly explains both how the very rules of French are used as a tool to further this alignment and how she, incredibly, managed the same, in completely different ways, in English. Ramadan not only accomplishes the challenge of translating the restraint but she does so without sacrificing the beauty or sense of Sphinx and allows the complexity of Garréta’s work to live in English, to lend its cities, Paris and New York, as much depth and sensual understanding as it does its characters.
Sphinx’s story is a complicated, deep, and intense love between the narrator and A***; the constraint is that both characters remain entirely without gender. Deepening the sensation that these two have broken free, the people who move around them are identified as male or female. Gender exists, but for these two, their gravitational attraction renders gender irrelevant, in their love and in their sex. And it is not just gender is made malleable. In the very beginning, it’s clear that normally opposite aspects of life will blend towards each other, that apparent differences are, in the reality of experience, necessarily and beautifully interchangeable. Introducing the story to come, or more accurately, to be brought out of memory — for the whole book has the melancholic veil of memory drawn across it — the narrator asks: “Is it blasphemy to insist that my lucid crossing to hell was a direct road to redemption?” This type of movement, through a place or identity mapped far from both beginning and destination, Garréta makes essential to her characters and to her writing.
I want to step away from the restraint and the other expected or traditional boundaries that fall away, because focusing too heavily on that makes it easy to lose sight of other pleasures of Sphinx. In the midst of thinking intellectually, conceptually, of a book that does ask for that way of thinking, gorgeous prose should not be cast aside, and Garréta’s is that indeed. Hers is some of the most evocative, affective prose I have read. Like the angels and demons Garréta writes as two intertwined beings, swapping roles, her sentences haunt as much as they grace: “death lived inside of me [. . .] death had come up to the surface in my sleep to take possession of my carnal covering, to put it on and to cover me in turn with its cast-off rug.”
Her prose is capable of being clear, definite, and physical, and of flying off into imagery far from her character’s lives. When the prose slides into the imaginative, she paints a full, living moment. The narrator, describing her “tour of cabarets,” “running after the sublime,” is not chasing a only phantom ship, which would on its own be an appealing and clear image in meaning and aesthetic, but: “I was chasing after an image of ruffled sails that raise themselves like a phantom ship on a sea of oil, drifting, coming together, breaking free at the command of imperceptible trade winds, trailing around an infinite sorrow to the four corners of the stage.” Such lines are not only beautiful, poetic, but are a clear line of thought; the narrator’s actual movement is not lost in poetics. Garréta brings clarity and abstraction cleanly together, and in this short work balances such riffs of prose with the advancement of her characters and the plot that is their relationship. The entire novel, in prose, in ideas, in thoughts and actions, is an expression of love. In one of the those moments of directness, the narrator articulates a belief I never recognized enough to articulate: “I concluded that making love without laughing was as bad as gifting a book written in a language the recipient does not know.” Garréta brings these out so that in life they can be appreciated all the more.
The shifting center that Sphinx orbits eccentrically is A***, dancer, singer of the song that lends its name to the book — a person as sphinx. Not only genderless, A***’s identity and personality are ever-shifting, yet not chaotic, somehow stable instead. The narrator is at a loss in describing A***, finds contradiction necessary, not something to be startled by or reluctant to accept. A*** “was infused with a crafty and charming naïveté” and is “both frivolous and serious.” For those who have met, or, influentially, had as a lover, a person who is frivolous and serious, the phrasing turns on itself to reveal a person in motion, who moves from one to the other in swift journeys.
Following such a person can be jolting or calming, or both simultaneously. The other pairing runs deeper; instead of A***’s aspects causing pleasurable tension within A***, it is a quality itself — naïveté — that houses contradiction. “Charming” easily belongs to naïveté, but “crafty” does not, would even seem to deny it. It is against the freedom, the necessary ease of naïveté for it to be crafted, yet, the narrator is not wrong. This is the lure of A***, the ability to be multiple, to be porous to the world and within.
The porous membranes of Sphinx let it be a novel of openness, as if a living being, letting you in and out, affected and changed each time you begin or cease reading. Those membranes are all over, walls put up so they can be phased through. As A*** is a being for whom it is essential be a shape-shifter, and who thrives by embracing it, the narrator struggles with that, though doesn’t fight fighting against it, indeed bravely turns towards it. That move to embrace does not have to always be successful: a native French-speaker, highly educated, heavily influenced by A***’s African-American background, the narrator calls the influence of A***’s English a “stigmata,” so often a mark of disgrace.
The stigmata is also a mark of Christ, and the narrator, a theology student, lucidly uses “passion” in the meaning of suffering, a tradition tied to Christ. The English given by A***, “a monstrous hybrid, mingling Oxford and Harlem, Bryon and gospel” may be a stigmata, but it is one of compassion, a pain to bear with pride. The passion is a protest against those who question the relationship between two lovers who “shared no social, intellectual, or racial community,” who, “Black skin, white skin: our looks were against us.” It is as malleable forms with porous boundaries that the lovers survive. Stigmatic wounds suffered, marks where opposites met and interpenetrated, in the process are marks of courage.
They imagine the other in that clear-eyed manner that lovers must. A*** and the narrator see their inversions in the other, and to accept that, try to become: “I made myself into a demon, and A*** symmetrically put on the mask of the angel I had abandoned.” That this demon who becomes an angel dances at a club called Eden, that this club is where the narrator falls to salvation instead of falls from, furthers these inversions.
That this is not boundarylessness, that boundaries are necessary so that they can be passed through, matches the novel’s constraint, flowing it beyond gender into every nuance. It is a book ever becoming more itself. The narrator first sees A*** at a cabaret, in the midst of “a melancholic, disinterested contemplation of a succession of bodies,” and senses “a body, just one” that “filled the place with a seduction that permeated so deeply.” A***’s effect on the narrator comes from this blending, this potential to be one distinct being and at the same time melded with the mass.
The shape-shifting of people, of language and personalities, lends a sense of the ethereal or ephemeral to Sphinx, and while the latter is the way of existence in the novel, the former is brought to ground by the unrelenting presence of bodies. The narrator watches A***, moves focus from one body part to another: “those hips, narrow and broad at the same time, those legs I never knew how to describe except, mundanely, as slim and long [. . .] my lips against the inner thighs.” Even there, in something so physical, the body is as capable of transformation as language, legs impossibly both narrow and broad. This unexplainable sense of shifting body is built on the visual performance of cabaret — the make-up, the costumes.
The great victory of love in Sphinx is that in all the mentions of body, of body parts, in the descriptions of A***’s physical being, ever detached from gender, leading to “the” leg, “the” arm, nothing is objectifying, even as a body part is observed the way an aesthetically pleasing object might be. The narrator’s love is stronger than that, gentler, more attentive. In removing gender, the male gaze is removed, leaving a gaze that gives itself over, loses itself inside what is gazed on: “Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.”
Sphinx is a novel of dancing — A*** is a dancer, the narrator becomes a DJ — and itself dances the way a boxer does. Garréta lands her smattering of punches, fiercely, precisely, covering the body of the reader: intellectual hooks in philosophy, aesthetic jabs in prose, emotional haymakers in the rises and falls of love. She moves carefully, quickly, tuned to the pace of the dance of the fight. In one of the most gorgeous, devastating scenes, the narrator utters an enigmatic sentence to herself, which many novelists would leave, simply content that it suggests meaning, but Garréta’s narrator admits that though it satisfies, it is utterly enigmatic. The next move, the type that makes Sphinx the tight masterpiece that it is, is when the events that follow blow away the mist that obscures clear sight of the utterance, so it becomes portent. Mysterious and obscure to physical and emotionally wrought is the shift that Sphinx makes again and again to the very end, until the difference is no longer definable, all in the growth and preservation of love, even when that love can only continue in memory.