How do you see me, anyway? Sphinx by Anne Garréta

“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 are 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 of authors (though,written in 1986, it predates the author’s admission to this famed group). Yet in the end, Sphinx requires no such designation to work as a powerful literary, darkly existential meditation on memory, attraction and identity.

sphinxThe more I heard about this book, a new release from Deep Vellum Publishing, the more conflicted I felt about whether or not it was something I wanted to read. My reasons for that uncertainty are deep seated and will be discussed below, but let’s get one thing out of the way first… Sphinx is one stunning, dynamic and important novel. To finally have it available in English, and in a world 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.

Oh, wait a minute. Is it a good story? One that stands 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, to unwind in 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 alone, Sphinx is a work worth attention.

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. 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 free 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 open up all possibilities. The decadence of club life is contrasted with the sober pursuits of the serious intellectual and blended with domestic engagement and the dynamics of extended family.

For a queer reader like myself it is a glorious opportunity, one I would have loved to encounter back in my isolated teenage years. Even into my 20’s and 30’s as I sought to make sense of a physically gendered space that felt fragile and ungrounded at its core, distorted and confused by my ostensible sexual orientation. Now in my 50’s, 15 years after transitioning, Sphinx speaks to me on yet another level. I can and have easily existed in the world as a gay transgender man without outing myself on either count unless I chose to (like I am at the moment). I am invisible not only online but in the real world. Yet the challenge arises in the building of close and honest relationships with others. I cannot talk about my past, my marriage, my subsequent affairs without resorting to a vagueness, to the construction of a gender neutral self-imposed witness protection program. If I am sexually attracted to someone an entirely different level of discussion is required. Coming out is a constant and continual process. Sometimes it is easier to retreat. And while English does not create as much difficulty for the moments in literature or life when genderlessness is preferred as French, a recent conversation with a young gay man from Mexico who is not out brought home to me the more profound challenges of a Spanish speaker who cannot even talk about a “partner” or “friend” without indicating gender!

I do not believe that the loneliness and ennui that seep into the narrator’s very marrow as Sphinx progresses are unique to queer experience. We all long for human contact and when you find yourself single when you had not expected to be alone, it becomes easy to imagine yourself undesirable, to berate yourself for not making the most of moments or opportunities that may be past, or seek fleeting satisfaction in meaningless encounters or distractions. However, the arrival of this novel at a moment when discussions and awareness of identity and sexuality have progressed well beyond where they were almost 30 years ago, is especially timely and exciting.

The anxiety with which I approached Sphinx was admittedly specific to my personal life history. I have been routinely disheartened by the way matters of sex and gender are presented in literature. I suspect that the author’s theoretical grounding would diverge from mine, but there is not, as I had feared, a perceivable political agenda that interfered in any way with my full enjoyment of this book. Thanks to a fellow blogger (Tony Malone) who challenged me in what was, in my time zone, a late night twitter conversation to give Sphinx a read – believe it or not it was his nod to Camus that sold me – I have become an enthusiastic supporter. I am writing this before I see his review but I am certain he will cover other angles.

Thank you to Deep Vellum for bringing this important work to an English language audience. Emma Ramadan’s translation is most wonderful. As she 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. A*** has to be presented with more care and less depth. But that is in keeping with the narrator’s own lack of understanding of A***. It all falls together beautifully with an intensity which is meditative, unsettling and, at times, deeply moving.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

22 thoughts on “How do you see me, anyway? Sphinx by Anne Garréta”

    1. Thank you. I think I resisted reading this in part because my assessment would necessarily be filtered through my personal experience. My history is something I have touched on my blog but rarely in the context of a book review.

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    1. Oh yes, and I loved it but it is quite different in that it is only the gender of the narrator that is unknown. In this book the narrator and the object of affection are undeclared. Sphinx is darker, more spare it seems. I have it on my e-reader so you can read it when I visit. It will take you no time to read and I would love to have your queer reading of it. More fuel for those long conversations on your stoep!

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  1. Great review 🙂 Yes, for me, the gender issues don’t hit quite so close to home, which meant that mine was a less personal and more language-based look at the story. I think the beauty of this book is that each reader will have a slightly different slant on the story, and the lovers – definitely a book which will bear up to rereading.

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    1. Thanks Tony. I love that it is really more of a philosophical meditation whereas I had feared it might be more of a polemic. I also love a book that I can read in a few hours!

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  2. Tremendous review. We do seem to be in a period where awareness of transgender issues is becoming more widespread (emphasis on the more rather than the widespread I admit, I don’t think there’s that much awareness yet). That would make this book potentially more timely now.

    It’s curious, and faintly depressing, that the removal of gender from a book can still make it subversive, challenging. Then again, for most gender is merely a polite word for sex and we live at a time when gender determinacy is particularly strong as an idea, more so in some ways than in the ’90s I’d argue. The very idea that the narrator’s experiences, emotions, might be independent of gender challenges how we market goods on an increasingly gender-regimented basis, a marketing technique which has somehow colonised public thought.

    On a related note, I saw a couple of years back some US evolutionary psychologists arguing for why in their view women were genetically predisposed to prefer pink, and men not. They seemed unaware that in the 19th Century pink was seen as a masculine colour, baby blue as feminine. Unless our genes changed radically during the early 20th Century that fact alone would seem to preclude a gender-determinist solution.

    Beyond all that though it has to work as a book, so good to hear that it does. It sounds excellent.

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    1. Thanks Max. I knew that reading (and reviewing) this book would be close to home. What makes it work is this it really comes down to is a short existential meditation on obsession, identity and loss that leaves room for the reader to form their own image of the characters. Unique and worth reading.

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  3. It’s been great to be able to read your review alongside Tony’s – this novel sounds fascinating. Your personal reflection, though, deserves to be read on its own at times – it transcends the review!

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    1. Thanks Grant, I have written about some of this in earlier non-book review posts but it is harder to write about myself without feeling exposed. I think this is probably the longest and most frank review I have ever written!

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  4. Nice review! Very insightful and articulate. I think the fact that your take on the book is “filtered” through your own personal experience adds immensely.Thanks.

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  5. Wow! This sounds fantastic! You are the second person I’ve come across today who has mentioned Deep Vellum and I had never heard of them before. I will definitely be adding this book to my reading list and I will also be looking through Deep Vellum’s catalog.

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    1. Deep Vellum is a relatively new publisher from Texas. I have been impressed by the number of interesting independent American publishers I been uncovering as I focus on more translated works.

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      1. I haven’t read Sphinx yet, but your review here – which was fantastic, thank you – led me to Deep Vellum, so a second thank you is due there. I’m reading their first release, Texas, now, and plan to try Sphinx next. It sounds like a fascinating book to engage with on multiple levels.

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      2. Thanks Audrey. I seem to finding many independent publishers I didn’t know existed. As a reader I feel like I have a closer relationship with the publishers, sometimes even with authors or translators as well, than with big companies. It’s wonderful!

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  6. A beautifully written review, Roughghosts. Thank you for sharing your experiences – personal and in relationship to Sphinx. Your perspective on the narrator’s situation/state of mind, particularly your comment regarding loneliness and ennui, made me re-examine my own interpretations of the character. You’re insights are much appreciated.

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    1. Thank you so much. I was so anxious about reading this book knowing that I could not write about it without being personal. But I loved it on so many levels. It is a work that in its fluidity invites fascinating discussions. I believe that a reader could return many times and discover something new each time.

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