Translated from French by Emma Ramadan. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015. 152 pages. $14.95.
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Alan Turing’s artificial intelligence test stems from a lesser-known imitation game involving three players: a man, a woman, and an interrogator of either gender. In this seemingly innocuous party distraction, the interrogator probes the identity of the hidden players while they both try to come across as women.
French novelist Anne Garréta has defined the Turing constraint as the absence of any linguistic gender marker characterizing the narrator, enunciator, or protagonist. This constraint is the founding principle of her debut novel Sphinx, which recounts the love between two genderless characters: the narrator, a white theology student of bourgeois upbringing, and A***, an African-American cabaret dancer from Harlem. Garréta wrote the novel while she was still a student at the École Normale Supérieure and published it in 1986 at the age of twenty-four. April 2015 saw an English version of Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and introduced by Daniel Levin Becker. The Turing constraint is now listed as one of the official constraints of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo), of which Garréta became a member in 2000. The Oulipo was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais with the ambition of contributing to literary creativity by suggesting procedures and structures as “props for inspiration” (Oulipo, Littérature). On the Oulipo website, the Turing appears between the Pascal constraint, in which relationships between protagonists are dictated by the positions of dots in a geometrical figure, and the prisoner’s constraint, which forbids the use of letters that extend above or below the line—k, j, l, etc.
In Garréta’s version of the Turing constraint, the gender identity of the protagonists remains undefined. Unsurprisingly, the novel has been frequently treated by critics as a riddle to be solved, as if one of the four readings possible in a binary gender conception were the correct version. But Sphinx’s enigma is more vertiginous, and to fill in the gender categories that have been so carefully left out misses the point. Sphinx challenges automatisms, identification mechanisms, and the urgent need for gender categorization. The absence of linguistic gender acts as a mirror reflecting back the reader’s projections. In a climactic argument that also serves as a direct address to the reader, A*** asks in a rage, “How do you see me anyway?,” to which the narrator replies, “I see you in a mirror.” Garréta’s intention, as she stated in a 1986 TV round table before a disconcerted audience of male writers, was to trouble the reader (Apostrophes). Interestingly, she used the French word “troubler,” which possesses the double meaning of “confuse” and “stir,” four years before Judith Butler published Gender Trouble. Sphinx, Garréta added in a later interview, allows the reader to experience empirically not only the contingency of gender, but also its inanity and insignificance as a category (Garréta 2000). In this respect, it has the same power that Butler recognized in a body that defies gender categorization: it reveals “the taken-for-granted world of sexual categorization as a constructed one, indeed, as one that might be constructed differently” (110).
It is only if one steps out of a binary gender categorization and agrees to consider gender as a polarized field including a spectrum of possibilities that Sphinx takes on its true Oulipian nature—as kaleidoscopic as Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Million Poems, offering an infinity of permutations. In Garréta’s writing, the either/or obligation, either feminine or masculine, dissolves. The characters could as well be neither masculine nor feminine, or both masculine and feminine.
The virtuosic skill with which Garréta circumvents gender marking calls to mind Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic novel A Void, which acrobatically proceeds without using the letter e. Gender is omnipresent in French, but Garréta uncovers and utilizes all grammatical loopholes available in a way that is crafty enough to go unnoticed. Becker, in his introduction to the English edition, writes that the first time he read Sphinx, he knew it was Oulipian, but forty pages passed before he could puzzle out how. Among other techniques, first-person narration and the obsessive repetition of the loved one’s half-obscured name allow Garréta to avoid gendered personal pronouns. A***’s description occurs through synecdoche: face, body, hand, tendencies, desires, and tastes replace “she/he” as sentence subjects. This casts A*** as a physical and voiceless presence, an object of love whose subjectivity is inaccessible, except through the narrator’s mediation. Another of Garréta’s strategies is to use adjectives that do not suggest gender, or whose suggestions of gender conflict—A*** is both “frivolous” and “serious,” A***’s hips are “muscular” and A***’s body “lovely.” Interestingly, the two main characters’ genderlessness seems unproblematic both for them and for the other, gendered characters—it is a fictional device aimed at the reader, but of which A*** and the narrator remain apparently unaware.
Sphinx does not merely rely on the central subversion of its protagonists’ genderlessness—it is a critical novel, not a roman à thèse. Novels, Garréta has said, allow for a specific mode of thought, a thought that is embodied (Garréta 2000). And so the constraint she chooses for Sphinx is embedded in a baroque style that melds classical and postmodernist language. When reproached for being overly literary and archaic, Garréta has responded that her style in Sphinx was a portrait of the narrator’s voice, the voice of a well-born young Catholic drawing from a decidedly classical culture, with strong undercurrents of Jansenist moralism, French post-romantic poetry, and theological thought. The narrator’s insufferable bouts of Baudelairean melancholy and irritating bourgeois fascination for the demimonde (both worn out topoi) collide with the mutinous novelty of gender ambiguity. Pastiches of the Bildungsroman (the narrator starts off a relatively innocent stray theology student with questionable acquaintances) and of noir fiction (a drug-addict DJ, a shady priest, and a dubious nightclub owner are the faces of Garréta’s hyperbolic sordidness) are built into the novel, making Sphinx’s literary genre, or “gender,” as uncertain as that of its protagonists.
Sphinx is as ornate and multi-layered in its themes as in its style. A fascination for the human body in states of abandon—in nightclubs, sex, and death—runs through the text. As the narrator descends into the inferno of 1980s Parisian nightlife, the obsession with incarnation intensifies. Garréta’s baroque style is counterpointed by the motif of ornamentation, “parure” in French (the strippers are constantly applying makeup, arranging costumes) and the vanitas-like depictions of nightlife frenzy. Mirrors are everywhere: a necessary prop in dancers’ dressing rooms, a Proustian evocation of the solipsistic nature of a love obscuring the image of the loved one, and a reminder of our own well-ingrained mechanisms of projection onto the characters.
Sphinx’s superficially unexceptional intrigue—a lover, a turbulent affair—is deepened by meta- and inter-textual allusions, which are sometimes lost in English. In French, “genre” means both “type” and “gender,” and so when Garréta writes, “On me prévint charitablement que je n’étais pas son ‘genre’” (“They charitably forewarned me that I was not A***’s ‘type’”), she is pointing not only at her own constraint, but at a paragon of anguished passion, Swann’s love for Odette, “who was not in his style.” Garréta’s novel is one of code and reference, steeped in the evocative semantic depths of its title. Possible etymologies for “sphinx” inform the text: the Sanskrit sthag, “hidden,” evokes Garréta’s choice of constraint, and the ancient Egyptian shesepankh, living statue, A***’s description as a hieratic, stylized figure. A mythical creature with a human head and a leonine body, the Sphinx is male in ancient Egyptian art, and female in Greek tradition, its gender shifting with the variations in ornamentation.
Translator Emma Ramadan works carefully to transpose Garréta’s text into a language harboring a different set of gender markings, as she explains in her afterword: “I broke Garréta’s code by creating a new one.” The difficulty lies primarily in possessive adjectives, which in English agree with the subject (“his/her face” immediately reveals gender), whereas in French they agree with the object (in “son visage,” “son” is masculine because “visage” is a masculine noun, and the gender of the face being described is not revealed). Ramadan overcomes grammatical obstacles skillfully with the use of demonstrative adjectives or indefinite articles (“this presence” for “sa presence,” “a firm behind” for “le modelé musculeux de ses hanches”) and the repetition of A***’s initial in the place of possessive adjectives.
Ramadan also succeeds in her project of “crafting a high-registered voice in American English” (Ramadan 37), and Garréta’s intricate classicism, which in French is named “le style” (meaning seventeenth- and eighteenth-century syntax and vocabulary) is fairly represented. This liminal description, for example, renders the aloofness of the narration elegantly: “Languid nights at the whim of syncopated rhythms, fleeting pulsations. The road to hell was lit with pale lanterns; the bottom of the abyss drew closer indefinitely; I moved through the smooth insides of a whirlwind and gazed at the deformed images of ecstatic bodies in the slow, hoarse death rattle of tortured flesh.”
Given the translation’s quality, it is surprising that some inaccuracies, missing words, or mistranslations were not avoided. “Elle détailla les éléments de ma mise, soulignant avec une sorte d’avidité possessive combien une coupe classique pouvait mettre en valeur les traits de mon visage,” for example, is translated as “She commented on my appearance, highlighting with a sort of possessive avidity how nicely a classic haircut would accentuate my facial features.” Here “coupe classique” probably refer to the tailoring of a suit, not to a haircut, and in doubt the ambiguity could have been transferred to English. These small defects do not, however, take away from the general strength of the text.
It could even be said that Garréta’s text acquires in Ramadan’s translation an unfamiliarity that suits it well. Some references, perhaps too jaded or recognizable in the original, seem livelier when pulled from French literary tradition. To an American reader, the Baudelairean undertones of the first pages, with the narrator spinning out ennui in a variation on Mallarmé’s “Sea breeze”—“La chair est triste hélas/Et j’ai lu tous les livres” (“The flesh is sad, alas! And all the books are read,” in Arthur Symons’s translation)—are perhaps not as obvious.
While Ramadan’s translation is remarkably true to the gender ambiguity of the original text, her handling of racial allusions tends to be tactfully euphemistic. Garréta’s emphasis on race is at best clumsy. The narrator is white, a highly cultured scholar, possessing great self-restraint. A*** is black, but also a cabaret dancer, pleasure-seeking, naïve, and unintellectual, with a face described as “having retained nothing of A***’s African origins, except for a barely perceptible, sensual heaviness of the mouth.” Such associations, as well as the narrator’s grim and formulaic description of Harlem, are baffling. Ramadan softens certain words and expressions that are too evidently contestable, perhaps because she attributes them to a different cultural referential, or out of mercy for a text published in 1985: the “Nord-Africains,” literally, “North African men” crowding a Place Pigalle bar, an “anxious sampling of humanity,” simply become “working-class men”; “origine nègre” is translated as “African origins” and “interjections nègres” as “African American utterances.” The narrator’s exoticizing fascination for the underclass, however, is too pervasive to be obliterated. Of course, it could be said that this is only an unpleasant aspect of the “narrator’s voice”—but one is disappointed not to have access to other voices, and that Garréta’s radical erasure of gender is accompanied by the exacerbation of racial and social categorization.
Apart from this, Ramadan’s translation renders all the intricacies of the unusual literary object that is Sphinx—a baroque object to be sure, complex and precious, though not devoid of its cracks and crevices.
Apostrophes. Hosted by Bernard Pivot. Antenne 2, Paris. March 7, 1986. Television.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Oulipo. La littérature potentielle. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.
Garréta, Anne. Interview with Eva Domeneghini. 2000.
Ramadan, Emma. Five Dials 33 (2014): 36–38.