Anne Garréta and William Burroughs [BTBA 2016]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
“Comparisons are odorous”
—Dogberry, Much Ado about Nothing
So it’s my turn. I’m not judging this year’s BTBA (my role at New Directions disqualifies me), but I’m helping with the process, doing my best to herd the cats and keep the trains running on time. (And mix metaphors, apparently.) But this doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on certain books, so I’m taking the opportunity to express one such opinion on one of this year’s eligible titles: Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and published earlier this year by Deep Vellum. Other opinions about this mesmerizing book, should you care to read them, can be found, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Among many other places. And an excerpt can be found on the Believer’s blog.
Booksellers are constantly being asked, by customers, for recommendations, and the default follow-up, if a customer offers no starting point of their own, is to ask what else they liked recently. This encourages, of course, comparisons, even if they aren’t made overtly. On our podcast I’ve repeated a quote one of the former publishers of New Directions (Griselda Ohannessian) was fond of repeating, presumably in response to our distributor’s request for “comp titles” to help them sell the books into stores: “Comparisons are odious.” I do, in theory at least, agree with this sentiment, if only because I subscribe to the belief that each work of art should stand on its own, should succeed or fail of its own accord, not on its “similarities” to anything else. But it’s impossible not to do it. It’s humans’ way of making sense of new experiences. Which brings me to Sphinx, and the book I’ve shelved it next to in my mind (not in reality; I believe I speak for the vast majority of booksellers when I say that books belong in alphabetical order, in clearly identified sections).
When discussing a book like Sphinx, for booksellers and others in the literary world, there’s a sort of compare-by-numbers process that invariably sets in. It’s inevitable (and often encouraged, by sales reps and customers alike), and I don’t exclude myself from this tendency. Garréta is French; she’s a Feminist; and she’s a member of Oulipo, so we all feel compelled to put her in the company of Monique Wittig, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Perec, maybe even Virginie Despentes or Violette Leduc. And chances are that if you like books by those writers, you will enjoy Sphinx. But after reading the book in a crazed frenzy (pick it up—you’ll see what I mean), the first book that came to my mind was not by a French author, feminist, or member of Oulipo.
It was Queer, by William S. Burroughs. Written sometime in the early ’50s but put aside by the author himself (because he was bored with it) and his publisher (because of its content and the stricter obscenity laws of the times) until finally being published in 1985, it’s a story of pursuit. Whereas its companion novel—Junky—was about the pursuit of heroin and that kind of high, Queer is about the pursuit of carnal bliss, a very different but equally addictive kind of high. In Queer, we follow Lee, a stand-in for Burroughs, whose thoughts we see via third-person narration, to Mexico, where he meets and becomes increasingly obsessed with Allerton. The majority of the book revolves around Lee’s largely unrequited fixation on Allerton. Lee is often disparaging and morose, but his dogged pursuit grants him a few precious, if fleeting, moments of joy, even hope. Evocative of the argot of drug addiction, the style draws the reader into an enveloping cloud of apprehension and despair, offsetting it with instances of striking, haunting clarity.
Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence.
Take, for example, these passages, in a short chapter devoted to the narrator’s description of A*** on stage in a night club, the Apocryphe:
Never until then had I longed to see A*** dance on stage. When A*** danced in the Apocryphe, I didn’t have to share the pleasure I took in watching: I was allowed to imagine that the dance was dedicated entirely to me, without the crowd being there to prove me wrong. Watching this body moving uninhibited, this body that wasn’t mine in any way, I reveled in the uniqueness and the exclusivity of my gaze.
[. . .]
When I entered the dressing room, I found A*** immobile as if in prayer or confession, legs bent, forearms fixed on a high barstool supporting A***’s entire body weight. Hands dangling, wrists slack, gaze abandoned and lost in the emptiness, then focusing on me as I entered and following me to where I sat down opposite. It was like the disdainful pose of the sphinx (or the image I had of it then), the same sharp aesthetic. I thought this to myself and, laughing, affectionately let slip, “my sphinx”—as if I had said “my love.” We remained face-to-face, our bodies as if petrified. A terror silted up in my throat; the desire I had felt welling up in me at the sight of those distant movements on the stage had been suspended. I could do nothing but adore. Those eyes, so black, fixed on me, subjected me to an unbearable torture.
This is raw, unfiltered adoration and lust, expressed in a style that is both poetic and quotidian, and as a result this is as affecting an account of a basic human experience as you’re going to find. The narrator’s interpretations and impressions of the world are both personal and universal, timeless and ephemeral. The composite insights, and their relationship to the affair and its presentaion, threaten to upend the reader’s entire concept of desire and love. This is why we read, right? Right.
Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”