Sphinx – Anne Garréta (translated by Emma Ramadan) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Whilst the “Introduction” (by Daniel Levin Becker) to Anne Garréta’s “Sphinx” urges the reader to “do everything in your power to stay ignorant” of the Oulipian constraint in this work, every interaction I have had, via social media, brings up the structure of this work, and therefore it would probably be hard to find a new reader who had no knowledge of the constraint. Simply having a reference to it in the “Introduction” makes it a hard constraint to ignore, however if you’d like to read this work without knowing what rules have been applied, then this is not a review for you (plus you should avoid twitter and Facebook reference, not read the back cover, not read the introduction!!).
Oulipian fiction (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Potential Literature Workshop OuLiPo) was launched by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960. It is based on the concept that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language, therefore instead of attempting to avoid constraints the writing is performed with acknowledgement of their presence and they “embrace them proactively”. As I pointed out in my review of Paul Fournel’s “Dear Reader” (translated by David Bellos) earlier this year the constraints can be playful, that work contains 36 chapters, the first six all containing exactly 7,500 characters, including spaces, and each ending with the words, read, cream, publisher, mistake, self and evening. The next six chapters contain 6,500 characters (including spaces) ending with the same words, and so on down to the sixth set which consists of 2,500 characters (including spaces). Making the entire composition a “poem of 180,000 signs (including spaces)”.
Anne Garréta’s “Sphinx” was published in France in 1986, and it was not until 2000 that she received admittance into the Oulipo literary collective. This work marks the first full-length work by a female member of the Oulipo to ever be published in English. So what’s the constraint? If you don’t want to know, look away now….it is a love story that is genderless. This has seen a number of references to the work being LGBT literature, I would argue that just by not being overtly heterosexual it is also not overtly homosexual, nor bisexual, nor transsexual. This thought alone did cause a bit of a twitter frenzy over the weekend, however my point is that each reader will bring their own preconceptions, own conditioning and bias to their experience and this will become blatantly obvious to you as a reader the further into the work you go.
A timeless love story, our work begins with a nameless narrator denying theology, living a life of endless night clubbing and includes corpses floating in shit – a living hell. The journey from night club to night club featuring strippers and excessive music, the language in baroque in style, I was thinking Dante for a while, would our narrator move through purgatory and ascend to paradise?
I spent the night drifting from port to port. While waiting for Tiff, I wallowed in seedy dressing rooms which were in reality mere landings between two flights of stairs, blocked off with battered chairs and cardboard boxes surrounded by bottles of fizzled-out sparkling wine under the gray of a flaking ceiling. I observed the hellish comings and goings of strippers dashing around, dressing, undressing, touching up their makeup, fixing their outfits, and spraying perfume; I gazed at myself distractedly in a mirror imprinted with lipstick and etched with clumsy letters, The wheezing of the ceiling fan, the rumble from the nearby stage, the sight of the red velvet sofa covered in holes, burned through by cigarettes, and the feeling of exile between blue walls defiled with the imprints of dirty hands brought me all the closer to that single, splenetic feeling so difficult to define: melancholia. I relished it to the point of drunkenness. In this refuge, a haven of ennui, I could give myself up freely to a vision of bodies shiny with sweat, stranded and exposed under the blind eye of the spotlight, infected by the dampness and stuffy stench of a mob crouching in the shadows of the stage. And here I found what I had come looking for: before my eyes, a sweltering, vitrified clash of light and flesh in the swaying red darkness.
 Our narrator accidentally becomes the DJ at a nightclub the Apocryphe and then becomes friends with A***, a dark skinned dancer, from New York:
Soon we became rather close; we would call each other almost every day when we woke up and we would eat dinner together at least once a week, just the two of us, after which I would allow myself to escort A*** to the Eden. We would meet again at the Apocryphe, and would often go loiter somewhere else after closing. This strange intimacy didn’t stem from any common social or intellectual interests; it wasn’t the sign or effect of a close friendship or romantic relationship. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the originality of A***’s views, or by a similarity in our tastes; we neither combated nor conversed. Our time together and our conversation were simply a pleasure, like the contemplation of A***’s body or A***’s dance, an aesthetic pleasure that I could attribute only to a lightness of being that never dipped into inanity. I can’t define A*** as being anything other than both frivolous and serious, residing in the subtle dimension of presence without insistence.
Of course the friendship deepens and love ensues, with travelling together, living together and the monotony of everyday existence taking over. With the clubs they work at being called “Eden” and “Apocryphe” (named after the apocryhus?) and our narrator taking on apophatic tradition studies (analysing the metaphysical), there are hidden meanings throughout. Is this work itself not approved for public consumption? Is it our writer’s secret? So may avenues you can pursue!
This work is a fine balance between the musings on the creation of an identity as well as remaining (gender) anonymous. The concept of “what am I?” is floated, “I” is nothing.
The strange sensation of always feeling as if I were at the dreadful edge of some imminent break…This sentiment is the very foundation of all that is intractable in me: a sort of inebriation, bitter from drawn-out solitude, the inevitable tendency toward a final disenchantment with all idylls. And I can’t explain why, or how. I’ve never expected much from those I love. I would have given all, conceded all, pardoned all the wandering of anyone who accorded me the space and time for my discreet tenderness. So much did I fear smothering those I cherished that I never made a fuss, which was doubtless the reason for my repeated falls and defeats. I carry my silence – this constant withdrawal into a suffering that I thought of perhaps mistakenly as immoderate and obscene – as a cross that has never promised any redemption, a calvary without deliverance, an involuntary sacrifice made in vain.
Without giving away the plot of our narrator’s and A***’s relationship and the events that follow, this work highlights our preconceived notions, our bias, the path we naturally take when there is no clearly defined path. Whilst reading you are jarred into shaking off the shackles of your bias, your own identity of “self”. A work defined as “impossible to neatly classify as essay, novel, or allegorical memoir”, the “Translator’s Note” to close the publication highlights the following:
By omitting the supposedly ever-present phenomenon of gender, Garréta both reveals and undermines sex-based oppression, demonstrating that gender difference is not an important or necessary determinant of our amorous relationships or our identities but is rather something constructed purely in the realm of the social.
A wonderful work to include as part of Women In Translation Month, a landmark of modern literature, a work which can raise numerous debates and discussions, and that alone is a worthwhile enterprise. In my humble opinion, a certain contender for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Thanks to Deep Vellum Publishing for bringing this book to the English reading public. One you need to invest in.

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