The fact that Garreta (the first female member of the oulipo reach English translation!) is able make this so elegantly readable, and also so dense and involving despite its being, essentially, a simple love story, is a testament to her command of language and narrative, and to her engagement with the metaphysical beyond (but always informing) the simple terms or relationship arc.
Soul heavy from too much knowing, body tired from feeling pensive and powerless at the same time, so riven by this obsessive ennui that nothing, or almost nothing, can distract it anymore. The constraint of the novel (and it's right there in the book description, but this could be a spoiler if you want to discover it yourself) is that it's an erotic love story without gender. The genderless is even more difficult in French (I remembered something of these further limitations from reading A Void, and the translator's note at the end of this book sheds some light on these further limitations). But the genderless aspect also adds this perceived but undefined otherness to the narrator; they wander indiscriminately through myriad nightclubs, "gay or straight, male or female"; somewhere in this is an implicit otherness (and, conversely, inclusion) but without the gendered signposts (for either the narrator or for A***) the otherness itself is fluid.
This is an Oulipian novel, meaning it is part of a workshop consisting largely of French writers and mathematicians aspiring to create works that operate within certain writing constraints. There were frequent sections, however, where the main speaker would ramble on for paragraphs at a time, deep in contemplation about their happiness and their relationship to others in their life. ***Note: I should mention that the version I read is an English translation, as Sphinx was originally written in French.
It's going to irk some people, including at least one GR friend, that I, like a lot of book blogs this year, won't be treating Sphinx's Oulipian constraint as a spoiler issue. It takes place in a feather-boa festooned queer clubland (queer in the contemporary ambiguous sense, rather than gay male) which I imagined set in French equivalents of Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, or rather whatever this year's version of the place is, and dizzying warehouse parties where the music is at least as intoxicating as anything else. (Although several minor characters in Sphinx are racist, very much unlike the places I was thinking of.) The narrator is a theology PhD candidate who falls into DJing, and for a club dancer I didn't know that this phenomenon of theology students/ grads being eccentric and leftfield - and never quite what those unacquainted with the type would expect was far more universal than a few people around my own age from 3 or 4 different universities. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need It still reigns supreme in my memory; no other night ever achieved such furious intensity. Most blog and media reviews of Sphinx are so very dazzled by the concept of a story of two lovers during which neither party's gender is revealed (although we do know that A*** has been involved with men and women) that they don't say enough about the rest of the book. As per the Leckie review, I continue to be surprised that more like this has not already been written, specifically that a few decent works using the singular they aren't yet in existence, but am very pleased that what is around in terms of gender neutrality in fiction, such as this and Written on the Body has a great deal to recommend it in terms of style and feeling, merits that are obvious to plenty of readers who've never personally been bothered about gender or pronouns. From what I've gleaned about Garréta, it seems that there were some political aims, and personal frustrations with the French language, in creating Sphinx, so I couldn't agree that this is a purely artistic work of thirty years ago that has been adopted for contemporary gender-political ends but the important thing is that it is artistically good enough to be a lot more than its politics, unlike Little Women in space: it has something to offer to people who read for aesthetics and form instead of, or as well as, politics. (There isn't a fixed pattern as such, but the least likely to be 'they'd appear to be relatives or ex-lovers.) I suppose some people might take it as political flagwaving and I am no fan of the made-up neutral terms such as 'zie' which I find forced (this is not the book page on which to be less complimentary about them) but will use them if someone prefers them yet to me this 'they' is natural, in a way that some friends must be familiar with: someone calls it pretentious to use a 'long word', when it was actually just the first thing you thought of to say what you meant. I've often wondered how people deal with heavily gendered languages when they don't feel entirely comfortable with their own, or perhaps simply object on principle to such a strong presence of gender - but had never heard any native speaker's opinion on this before a couple of quotes from Garréta in one or other of the essays that bookend the novella. As I expected when I first heard about Sphinx, I was comfortable in this world where gender was ambiguous or unstated, just as I was frustrated in Leckie's where everyone was 'she' (too reminiscent of school and impatiently waiting to escape.) It was interesting to observe the details that could make a reader lean one way or another about a character's identity, depending on the circles they'd moved in, but with enough memories of boys who liked wearing makeup and girls who didn't, and numerous similar analogues, it floats in an idea-world of both/neither which has become increasingly comfortable over the years. The implication here is that the keys to getting away with it - and you probably wouldn't bother trying if it's not a music-focused/arty sort of club with some special set that's like going to a gig - are a certain amount of aloofness without being entirely asocial, and not being drunk, which I think is spot on. I found the afterword enlightening and interesting, on topics such as the narrator's aloof personality stemming from the use of constraint in French, but I feel that I'd be on shaky ground to praise these things in more detail, until / unless there are several analyses available from bilingual people who've read the entire essay. One could argue there's a heightened mood and melodrama to the whole story which fits its camp environment much like press reviews have said about 2015 hit book A Little Life - and that the 'insta-talent is part of that just as much as the intensity of language in the paragraphs I loved, but because there's plenty of the book that does actually feel like life to me, that sounds like people I've known, this one impossible bit obtruded, and badly. Anyway, something I'd love to know: could be meaningfully translated into a language where gender is unmarked, like Finnish or Estonian? (As far as I know, not actually speaking these languages, it would simply be a matter of not naming the characters.) Would there be any point in a book like that?
sphinx, published when she was only 23, was garréta's first novel - written 14 years before she was invited to join the workshop of potential literature. as emma ramadan reminds the reader in her translator's note, garréta's novel was a remarkable feat in its original, given the constraints of french grammar and gendered language (and speaking of remarkable feats, ramadan's translation is quite the accomplishment). sphinx, while indeed a love story, is also a powerful, unique work of literature that challenges as much as it captivates.
The constraint was spoiled for me, which is a shame, because I think it has much more of a direct effect on the writing than people who are whirled off into identity politics and political points understand. Indeed, I believe this is the point of constrained writing, both for the writer and for the reader: it focuses the attention on the language, on how it is used, how words are actually put down on the page all the way through, a million tiny decisions leading to a book. I am tempted to say, kidstodaygetoffmylawn style, that this is because language as art is devalued in favor of shallow entertainment, and that this is a shame.) On the other hand, being aware of the constraint from the beginning did also affect my reading experience, and the overall effect was to be impressed by how little it changed the actual writing. This sentence avoids breaching the constraint and yet it is, at the same time, exactly how people write descriptions all the time anyway. The reviewer cites the afterward written BY THE TRANSLATOR, claiming: As Ramadan notes in her afterward, the narrator does many things through the streets of Pariss/he wanders, descends, ascends, climbs, strolls, promenades, returns, roams, and so onnot because Garréta is averse to putting things plainly, but because, Ramadan points out, if s/he simply went somewhere, the past tense in French would require agreement and thus allocate a gender to the subject. The book, like so many French literary works, is written in the passé simple, which is not a compound tense and does not give away the gender of the grammatical subject in its construction. Also, and I think this is partly a context of crankiness about other things*, I really, really wish people would just stop talking out of their collective ass, in general, and about France in particular. But, even then, you're looking at reading several versions of a really long ass book in different translations in order to come to the conclusion that one is really better than the other, at which point the effort involved strikes me as a major waste of time, time that you could actually spend stating to learn the actual language. **You know, there's a side issue here too about the difference between breadth and depth of knowledge and experience, and the colossal self-deception involved in thinking that it's a bigger and better accomplishment to read one book from every country than it is to really know a single literary tradition, and to love it deeply, particularly if that tradition is not getting the cultural difference discount, but as I have typed a screed and not yet put forth an opinion of the actual novel, perhaps it's time to draw a bath and go back to reading it.
In all honesty, as I was reading, I was imagining that the lovers were women, and I'm not sure if it was just a stupid knowledge of knowing the author is female, or somehow the nature of the two main characters.
Interesting, although a bit too French for me in the chapters of deepest introspection.
In only disguising the main characters' gender while leaving all supporting characters explicitly gendered, the book misses an opportunity to explore more interesting questions about gender and only successfully highlights how terribly gendered language is. For all the morbid self-consciousness of the narrator, though, ultimately I found Sphinx to be a let down of a novel that couldn't seem to see its own blind spots.
A graduate of Frances prestigious École normale supérieure and lecturer at the University of Rennes II since 1995, Anne F. Her second novel, Ciels liquides (Grasset, 1990), tells the fate of a character losing the use of language.