Sphinx by Anne Garreta


To Appease Is Not The Same As To Fulfill

With sexes mixed and genders blurred Anne Garreta’s spectacular debut novel forces us to challenge our most deep-seated beliefs when it comes to dealing with matters of the heart. Though the people that swirl around them are clearly defined as being either male or female, Sphinx’s nameless narrator and their love interest A**** have broken free from this constraint and have elevated both themselves and their relationship to a place where gender markers no longer hold any relevance. With these arguably important identifying traits stripped away, what’s left to behold is a shockingly intimate portrait of the complexities of desire, what it’s like to truly lose yourself in another person, and the hidden costs of finally conquering the object of your ultimate affections.

Given that the author herself was a disc jockey at a nightclub functioning behind closed doors as a secret “disco for women” in the late 1970s, it comes as no surprise that the courtship between the nameless narrator and A**** evolves on the dance floors of the Paris nightlife scene.1 In fact, from the promise of the endlessly throbbing blurred bass beat on a nightclub dance floor to the certainty of the final, sharp, rhythmic electronic pulses of a heart monitor, Sphinx is novel that oscillates passionately between life’s subtlest and harshest tempos. It elegantly captures the tedium, weariness, and boredom of a life spent going through the motions, waiting to be consumed with a reason to live, and the intensity, fervor, and passion generated by pursing that goal to the fullest when it’s finally within reach.

Garreta is a member of the Oulipo2, a famous French collective of writers that counts among its ranks the likes of Georges Perec and Jacques Jouet and it’s by design that her novel was written under the constraint that the genders of its principal subjects should never be revealed to the reader. How odd is it that by adhering to this self-imposed restriction while writing, she actually manages to free her characters from the weight of their physical limitations, to explore them as more than simply men or women, to allow their thoughts and feelings related to one another reign supreme over all else? Well, technically it’s mostly the unnamed narrator’s inner emotions we’re privy to, but again, this is clearly by design as the battle through the throes of longing ultimately belongs to the narrator alone. The way that they see A****, the way they long for this person above all others, colors every word they utter and every interaction they engage in.

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. I wanted to dismiss, destroy all those who were thronging around A***, keeping this presence from me. I wanted to wrest A*** from their company, from the intrusive glances clinging to us there, and hide us both away. With an unknowingly crazed look, I was always watching this irresistible body. But my gaze was narrowing and stiffening under the tension of carnal desire.

As Emma Ramadan explains in her closing notes, translating a novel like Sphinx from the French, a language in which words contain grammatical gender, poses its own set of unique challenges. Writing an entire novel under a single, clearly defined constraint is one thing, but as masterful as the text might be in its original language, how well will that work hold up when it comes time to translate it into others? Thanks to Ramadan’s passion for the piece, her willingness to, and forthrightness about, taking necessary risks for the betterment of the story, and her gorgeous command over language, the answer is, at least in the case of this novel, superbly. Her translation is a tour de force and the delivery of its subject matter retains a sense of immediacy that forces readers out of the safety of their comfort zones and makes them active and engaged participants in a reanalyzation of the importance that we as a society place on gender when it comes to forming intimate relationships with others.

Like the mythical Sphinx referenced in the novel’s title, people cannot be defined by a single physical characteristic. Although on the surface they appear to have very little in common with one another at the outset, the nameless narrator dedicates themselves to solving the riddle that is A****’s very existence. What they’re seeking however isn’t the truth of this person’s being, but rather a glorious, shining vision of who they believe that person should be in relation to them. A**** warns them from the beginning that they must not fall in love, that the results of any coupling will be hellish, that ultimately they will feel let down. Undeterred however, the narrator persists until they get what they want from A****, but perhaps not exactly what they envisioned. The title of the book is also a nod to the Amanda Lear song of the same name and its haunting lyrics play a vital role in defining the trajectory of the pair’s relationship.

Can reading a novel about two sexual beings that have been stripped of identifying gender markers help change our definitions of the words intimacy and identity? As Garreta rallies against these labels she opens our eyes to the possibility that we place too much emphasis on the wrong things, that we waste time expending energy to protest that which we choose not to accept or are unwilling to understand, that at their core all romantic relationships, regardless of the genders of those participating in them, face the same set of complex challenges, and ultimately that being happy, with any one or any thing in this world, takes an extreme amount of effort and has a lasting effect on our souls. We all must burn before we can truly shine.

“The Sphinx” from Never Trust A Pretty Face by Amanda Lear:

1The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968 by Frédéric Martel, p175.

2For the sticklers, Sphinx was written in 1986. Garretta became a member of the Oulipo in 2000, well after the novel’s initial publication.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta / Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan ★★★★★
Sphinx by Anne Garréta
Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
Deep Vellum
(1986) 2015
152 Pages
ISBN 9781941920091

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.