“Sphinx” by Anne Garréta [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Joseph Schreiber, who runs the website Rough Ghosts, and is a contributor at Numéro Cinq. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)
What I was feeling for A*** needed its own embodiment; the pleasure I took in A***’s company demanded is own fulfillment. I wanted A***, it was true, and all my other desires, needs, and plans paled in comparison. Suddenly, the obsessive clamor for amorous possession took hold of me.
I was surprised to find myself desiring, painfully. In a sudden rush of vertigo, I was tantalized by the idea of contact with A***’s skin.
What we have here is the impassioned confession of the unnamed narrator of Sphinx by Anne Garréta. A*** is the object of this sudden and intense desire. Neither character is defined by sex or gender. This factor acts as a constraint that places this French novel within the ranks of the works of the OuLiPo group though, written in 1986, it predates the author’s own admission to this famed groupof writers. Yet in the end, Sphinx requires no such designation to work as a powerful literary and darkly existential meditation on memory, attraction, and identity. To finally have it available in English, and at a time in which the public understanding of sex and gender is evolving, serves as an invitation to approach this work as more than either a literary challenge in itself or a polemic of feminist/queer theory. The exquisite timeliness of the translation of this bold and dynamic novel is perhaps the greatest argument in favour of rewarding Sphinx with the Best Translated Book Award.
But, wait a minute. Is it a good story? Can it stand on its own merits? At first blush, the set up sounds, and at points may even feel artificial, but that oddness passes quickly. The narrator is a young student of Catholic theology who is drifting without strong direction and, through a series of unusual, even disturbing, coincidences ends up working as a DJ at an after hours Paris nightclub. This serves as an introduction to a new world, an alternate reality that opens late at night and unwinds into the very early hours of the morning. Our narrator demonstrates a tangible ambivalence toward this radical change of lifestyle.
I acquiesced to whatever presented itself without much arm-twisting, and I neither suffered from nor reveled in it: I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being that was in turn abandoning me and sliding into another that slowly, imperceptibly came to envelop me.
In learning to navigate this world, an identity that may or may not be valid or true is adopted to serve as a barrier, a means of mediating an alien environment. Within this identity a certain boundary, a sober vantage point is maintained until A***, an exotic dancer at a strip club, comes into the narrator’s life. At first their friendship is platonic, existing in a stylish public sphere. The narrator realizes it is not built on strong romantic or intellectual engagement. The attraction is one of opposites—race and personality—until sexual desire arises abruptly, throwing the narrator’s carefully constructed identity into a crisis which is heightened as A*** initially refuses to take their relationship to an intimate level.
When it is ultimately consummated, a highly charged sexual and romantic liaison develops, enduring several years marked by turns of passion, jealousy, and domesticity. As might be anticipated in a union built on obsession rather than common interests, cracks and fissures begin to grow. This is heightened as the narrator seeks to revive abandoned theological pursuits, carving out time to focus on an essay, quite fittingly, on the apophatic tradition—the attempt to describe God only by negation. Later on, after the tragic end of this ill-fated love affair, the narrator will sink into a deeply existential rumination on love and loss. No sexual encounter, romance, intellectual or academic pursuit will fill the void left behind. A restless wandering overtakes our hero, driving a spiral into ever-darker self-exploration. Without the “other” as a frame of reference, it becomes increasingly evident that the self is isolated, disconnected.
Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked 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 for an identity.
At heart this is a novel of obsession, of memory, of mourning. The language is rich and sensual, with an intensity that is visceral and emotionally powerful. For that quality alone, Sphinx is a work worth attention—it reaches beyond the novelty and challenge of its conceit to touch a common ground of human experience.
But what about the matter of sex and gender? I suppose it will come down to how important it is to have a fixed image of the protagonists in your mind as a reader and how fluid your conception of gender is in relation to sex and sexuality. Are they bound together, or three separate aspects of identity? For the majority of people, biological sex conforms to gender identity—they are experienced as one and the same. Sexuality hinges on the sex and gender of the persons to whom one is attracted, and “transgender” is an umbrella term for those for whom sex and gender do not fit exactly. The range of gender expressions, identities and bodies under that umbrella is wide and the intersection with sexuality can further complicate the issue.
Queer theory aside, a novel like Sphinx opens up the potential for a completely open reading experience: one can choose gender, sex and sexuality as desired, play with alternatives in the reading, or re-encounter the work with repeatedly different contexts. Garréta has incorporated enough ambiguity to allow all possibilities. There is, in truth, something here for everyone—the undefined sex and gender of the protagonists offers an exciting challenge to the imagination for those who have rested in relative certainty about their identities; whereas for a queer reader like myself it is a glorious opportunity for self exploration that I would have welcomed in my isolated teenage years.
However, if you are not quite convinced that Sphinx is a most worthy contender for the BTBA, there is Emma Ramadan’s wonderfully lucid translation. As Ramadan describes in her afterward, Garréta was forced to employ a great deal of ingenuity and creativity to avoid revealing the narrator’s gender. In English genderless narrators are not unique, but A*** has to be presented with more care and, consequently, less depth. However, this compromise is not at odds with the narrator’s own lack of understanding of A***. It all falls together beautifully through prose that is meditative, unsettling and, at times, deeply moving.