Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and patterns on their own writing. Anne Garréta’s visionary debut novel Sphinx, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, was the first to be writer born after the group’s founding year to be inducted into the Oulipo, although not until 2000. Sphinx, originally published in 1986 in France, it is just now, almost thirty years later, being introduced to American readers by the impressive new publisher Deep Vellum.
In the past, most Oulipian works have dealt with self-imposed literary constraints such as lipograms or the strictly mathematically structured Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Garréta has upped the proverbial literary stakes and not merely played with the textuality or form of the work, but she has taken gender out of the language and put the constraint only on the imaginative limits of the reader. Sphinx is innovative in the way it is written—without assigning gender to the narrator and the narrator’s love obsession, making it a cutting-edge work for queer and feminist theory and an avant-garde novel that is more effective with the Oulipian constraint than without. Considering the grammatical calisthenics performed by Emma Ramadan’s translation, these points wouldn’t have been evident as Daniel Levin Becker aptly states in his introduction (via clever footnote):
If Garréta’s composition of Sphinx was a high-wire act, then Emma Ramadan’s task in carrying it over into a language with at least one crucially important constitutional difference, is, near as I can figure it, akin to one tightrope walker mimicking the high-wire act of a second walker on a steeply diverging tightrope, while also doing a handstand.
It’s not simply Garréta’s genderless constraint or Ramadan’s dazzling translation, but it’s the power of the novel itself: sensual, provocative, a hypnotic mix of nightclub noir and midnight morality that plays out in the dance clubs of 1980s Pigalle. Thematically, Garréta explores the power of obsessive love to control our identity, the consequences of completely surrendering to carnal desire as a means of spiritual fulfillment and how memory can haunt and fail us.
From the very first pages, the narrator’s obsession with A✭✭✭, an American dancer ten years the narrator’s senior, is unmistakable:
So I must have first spotted A✭✭✭ during a melancholic, disinterested contemplation of a succession of bodies I wasn’t trying hard to distinguish, on the stage of a cabaret where some obliging alcoholic had decided to drag me, coming from a club where we’d mingled our disappointments. Asking myself afterward what had made the place so appealing, I couldn’t describe it. In that blur, something must have struck me: something started operating underground, a digging, a tunneling in my mind following the blinding impact of a fragment on y retina. A body, just one, that I hadn’t identified, surreptitiously had filled the place with a seduction that permeated so deeply I couldn’t discover the cause, I couldn’t uncover the root of it.
The narrator is cursed with ennui, an incessant melancholy that is not being soothed by following theological studies and, in fact, becomes so disgusted with the teachings of a particular theologian from Freiburg, decides to abandon university study in favor of finishing a thesis at home and under the tutelage of Padre✭✭✭.
Padre✭✭✭ is an important character because he ushers in the extended metaphor that compares the narrator’s obsessive love with A✭✭✭ and the late-night life they live at cabarets and dance clubs to religious experiences. Padre✭✭✭ introduces the narrator to a nightclub he frequents, The Apocryphe (possibly an allusion to the non-canonical biblical works), which had an “illuminated entrance sheltered from the rain by a white canopy . . .” as if it were a heavenly gate to the demimonde. When the DJ at the Apocryphe dies unexpectedly one night, the narrator is lead by the owner of the club and Padre✭✭✭’s longtime friend, George, to the “DJ booth, a sort of podium that loomed over the dance floor. This glass-enclosed den was attached to one of the walls of the club, which was organized around it in concentric levels, making it the focal point . . .” as if it were a lectern. Then again:
It was settled that until I found another job I would remain the resident DJ. The Padre couldn’t help acting as sort of a moral guide—he had decided to view this adventure as an ablution, as a necessary submersion in the world of terrestrial passions. It was a type of trial, a confrontation with the excesses of evil designed to steel my character.
Garréta makes clear from the beginning that when the narrator and A✭✭✭ are introduced to each other at the club where A✭✭✭ dances, ironically named the Eden, “den of inequity,” the there will be a fanatical element, an obsessive devotion on the part of the narrator. After continually trying to convince A✭✭✭ that they should consummate their relationship, the narrator finally confesses one night that “the inversion was complete: I made myself into a demon, and A✭✭✭ symmetrically put on the mask of the angel that I had abandoned.”
The narrator and A✭✭✭ spend more time together, visiting each other’s clubs, hanging out in a group, and traveling through the early morning hours among flashing lights, pulsing music and the mirrored walls of dance clubs. When they part, desire amplifies the memory of A✭✭✭’s presence, but cannot recreate it:
A hallucinatory sensation, as if my body had suffered an amputation. This sensation that, even after the split, the separation of our two bodies kept scalding me, kept me awake. I oscillated the entire morning between the rage of embracing only a void, and the memory, the bliss of an instant, of the past night that I was trying so hard to mentally recompose.
Sphinx is an inquest of memory, of why it can remind us of what once was but not reproduce it. Memory becomes the torturer, the unreliable witness and the keeper of people lost, love lost; Garréta creates the narrator’s desire and loss through remembrances of ephemeral sensations—the sight of A★★★’s hips, the feel of A★★★’s skin, and the smell of A★★★’s t-shirt. Then there is the narrator’s memory of being introduced to America so that the narrator can meet A★★★’s family and walk around the Harlem neighborhood where A★★★ grew up:
An anxiety wells up and distills in me, the feeling of having lost, of having let this setting swallow up, a fragment of my substance that I can’t place or describe, but whose absence makes itself felt throughout my body, invading and voiding it insidiously. A bitter cold, an abyss full of wind cuts through me, the same wind that cut through me as I walked through the streets of Harlem all those years ago. Harlem’s devastation now resides in me, my body haunted by the soul of this spectral city.
Garréta’s prose throughout this five-part narrative is expressive, fluid and intense. There is also the language of violence used to describe desire, the scourge of obsession, and the torment of memory; terms comparative to the destruction left behind after war. This choice she makes and one that Ramadan creatively remains loyal to, enhances the primal, nearly destructive elements of abandon, desire, loss, those emotions which we cannot succinctly express:
Why give voice to the unarticulated? Because the inexpressible doesn’t articulate itself in the least; it shatters into pieces before even taking form. I felt distinctly that something was breaking under a kind of assault; an obscure combat was taking place, syncopating my breath with its blows.
Sphinx is a novel of passion and loss that transcends gender and speaks to the universality of desire and loss, morality, spiritual crisis and the need to connect and belong. It’s also a novel that captivates and propels the reader to question the boundaries of desire and memory—and which one ultimately holds us captive. This was a powerhouse pick for Deep Vellum to publish. In addition, the editorial choice of Daniel Levin Becker’s Introduction and Emma Ramadan’s mini-translation course in the Translator’s Note are both a delight to read and only strengthen the caliber of the work. Sphinx is a work that should be read because the narrator is genderless, A★★★ is genderless, and isn’t it about time we let go of “he said, she said?”