Novella a Day in May 2022 No.20

Sphinx – Anne Garréta (2015, trans.Emma Ramadan 2015) 121 pages

Sphinx is a novella which details a young protagonist falling in love with A***. Anne Garréta is a member of the OuLiPo and the particular constraint that she writes to in Sphinx is for both for lover and beloved to be genderless.

The narrator is taken to a club on Place Pigalle where they immediately fall for the charms of the dancer A***. Garréta evokes a seedy and glamorous nightlife that is both enticing and repellent:

“The wheezing of the ceiling fan, the rumble from the nearby stage, the sight of the red velvet sofa covered in holes, burned through buy 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.”

Sphinx is a love story which I felt engages the mind rather than the emotions of the reader. This is because the narrator – although currently working as a DJ – is an academic and seems to approach documenting affairs of the heart in the same way as they would writing a research paper.

“I can’t define A*** as being anything other than both frivolous and serious, residing in the subtle dimension of presence without insistence.”

This includes some overblown, tortured sentences at times:

“Is there anything more vertiginous than gustative reminiscence?”

In her fascinating translators note at the end of the novella, Emma Ramadan explains how the constraints around gender (which is much more demanding for a French writer than an English-language writer) means that this tone needs to be adopted, and then:

“It becomes part of the narrator’s identity – he or she is a rather pretentious bourgeois(e) scholar who does not shy away from praising his or her own intelligence”

So although not overt, there is a thread of humour running through Sphinx, whereby we are not supposed to take the narrator nearly as seriously as they take themselves. And it is a novella that is definitely all about the narrator, not about A***. While limiting the characterisation of A*** serves the constraints around which Sphinx is written, it also succeeds in capturing the self-obsession that can be projected onto a supposed loved one.

“Perhaps I had only ever delighted in my own suffering, which I considered the purification of passions that, deep down I judged as absurd.”

Although Sphinx made me think more than it made me feel, and generally I hope for a reading experience that does both, I did find myself drawn into the narrator’s story, in spite of their distancing voice. I also thought the night-time scene was captured beautifully.

“I was about to turn 23, and for the three years the night crowd had passed before my eyes, I had seen reputations be made and dismantled. I had seen temporary passions transport places and individuals to the apex, and then, burning what they had once adored, those notorious night owls who make up the club scene would abandon them for no apparent reason for other idols destined for glory just as brief.”

9 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2022 No.20

  1. Ah, this is interesting…
    I could be wrong, but I suspect that in some circles in Australia the idea of labelling genderless characters as OuLiPo might be considered a bit insensitive. (I don’t mean you, of course, I mean the author of this book). The LGBTIQ+ community here is very strong, and they’re increasingly represented in the writing community and the media. Their position, if I understand it correctly and am not misrepresenting it, is that not stating a character’s gender is an authorial choice that recognises that gender is not as fixed and specific and important as we used to think it was. In some of these circles, it’s considered a respectful courtesy to ‘name your pronouns’ in communications or in forums or even when being introduced to someone else. (e.g. Hi my name is Lisa Hill and my pronouns are she/her. A different individual might say that their pronouns are they/them).
    So in these circles this normalisation of fluid identities means that writing genderlessness ought not be an intellectual experiment, it’s what they think ought to be change in the way we use pronouns to identify and sort people. And they are very serious about it…

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s such an interesting point Lisa, thanks so much for sharing. I wonder if it’s seen more as a textual constraint in French, where there is more gendering within the language, not only of people? My French is far too basic to say, but the translators note was very interesting in explaining why this was so much more difficult for a French writer than one writing in English. The understanding of gender has changed a lot in seven years since this was written, so maybe it wouldn’t be seen as the experiment it was then? I don’t know, but It would be interesting to know if Garréta sees it the same way now as when it was first written.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, yes, a lot has changed since 2015, and I say that only as someone still learning.
        I imagine it would be more complex with a gendered language, though that’s only part of the story. After all, English didn’t have a title to refer to a woman without denoting her marital status, so we made one, which is Ms. We’ve simply dropped all those diminutives that feminised a word e.g. actor refers to both male and female, and we’ve made new words that are gender inclusive such as firefighters, police officers, and flight attendants. We made these changes because we wanted to. I’m quite sure that if there were a groundswell of support for un-gendering a language it could be done though the transition would take time. The fact that it doesn’t seem to have started is perhaps an indication of attitude?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an interesting post, not least for Lisa’s comments. I don’t feel qualified to add anything to the discussion other than agreeing that things have changed a great deal since 2015. As Lisa says, language is so important particularly when talking to children and young adults.

    Liked by 2 people

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