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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Anne Garréta

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To purchase Sphinx

Title: Sphinx
Author: Anne Garréta
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 131 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Sphinx - US
Sphinx - UK
Sphinx - Canada
Sphinx - Canada (French)
Sphinx - India
Sphinx - France
Sphinx - Deutschland
Sfinge - Italia
Esfinge - España
  • French title: Sphinx
  • Translated and with an afterword by Emma Ramadan
  • With an Introduction by Daniel Levin Becker

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Our Assessment:

A- : very well done, on several levels

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 23/4/2015 Joanna Walsh
TLS . 16/10/2015 Catherine Humble

  From the Reviews:
  • "Rather than creating an Oulipian "constraint", Sphinx highlights the already gendered nature of the French language, and of French society (.....) Garréta’s narrator is down on boundaries, not only of gender, but also of class." - Joanna Walsh, The National

  • "Less a story than a surge of ruminations -- about desire, melancholy, ennui, death -- the novel's high seriousness can be grating and at worst reduces complex issues, including class and race, to solipism." - Catherine Humble, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In outline Sphinx is a conventional sort of novel: from a point a decade or so after its beginnings, a narrator reflects on an early passion and its aftermath. When barely twenty, the unnamed narrator fell for A***; for several years they were together, in a somewhat tumultuous relationship which then came to an abrupt end -- and continued to reverberate for the narrator. It's a deeply introspective text, the first-person voice tracing the path that leads to the release-through-writing that this essentially confessional text finally, after so many years, affords.
       Embarked on: "what could have been an honest intellectual career", the narrator was studying theology, but it wasn't completely satisfying. An unlikely alternative offered itself in Paris night-life, at an exclusive club called Apocryphe, where a situation leads to the narrator standing-in as DJ -- and taking to the job: so starts: "a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering". Encountering and being completely taken by A***, a dancer at another club, the Eden, adds another twist: they become close and, despite their differences: "Our time together and our conversation were simply a pleasure".
       The narrator is drawn to A***'s "irresistible body", but:

A*** thought it wise to disavow the idea of amorous possession, which could do nothing but exacerbate my confusion and forbid us from returning thereafter to that honest friendship, that guarantee of stability, to which we would better off confining ourselves.
       From entirely different milieus -- A*** comes from America, and is black, with family in Harlem; the narrator a well-heeled white Parisian intellectual -- they are an oddly matched pair, with very different interests. What connection there is is on a very basic level -- though undeniably very powerful. Nevertheless, imagining a life together: "We were presenting each other with illusions", and at least on the part of the narrator seduction becomes an act much like creative writing itself:
The game of "and if" wore down A***'s reluctance; every day, we already belonged to each other in our imaginations. My desire was gaining power through a trick, was gaining life through a fiction.
       They do become lovers, and a real couple; they travel together, including visiting A***'s family in New York. There are tensions in the unlikely relationship, and the abrupt end to it is devastating to the narrator, who can only begin to get over it some seven years later, in reconnecting with part of A*** and their shared past. Catharsis then allows for this text to finally flood free.
       Stylized and largely avoiding emotion -- the narrator-as-subject isn't entirely specimen for the narrator-as-writer, but there's a sense of restraint to the language throughout -- Sphinx is nevertheless (or, of course, in part also because of that) a powerfully moving love-story.
       There's more to it too, of course: anyone who has heard of the book before picking it up is likely aware, and both jacket-copy and Daniel Levin Becker's Introduction point it out as well: Garréta is a member of the Oulipo, famous for writing under constraints, and this novel operates under one. Becker doesn't reveal it -- and urges the reader: "to do everything in your power to stay ignorant for a while longer" -- but it is impossible to discuss the book, and its success (and that of this translation), without addressing it.
       What's so unusual and remarkable about how Garréta has written the book is that her narrator (and A***) are never identified (or identifiable) by gender. The book isn't without gender -- many characters are clearly identified as male or female -- but the narrative is genderless. Especially in French, this is much harder to do than one might imagine -- Emma Ramadan's fascinating afterword explains some of this -- but it's also difficult to render that in English. Ramadan has managed this very impressively: comparing the French original and the translation, it's truly remarkable how she strikes the same tone so consistently throughout. Even as the constraint does not operate identically in English (as Ramadan notes: "French contains grammatical gender, meaning nouns are assigned either masculine or feminine gender, and pronouns and adjectives then take on agreement" -- which makes it very difficult to avoid tipping one's gendered hand ...), this is a(n all the more) remarkably true translation.
       One consequence of the genderless narration is in shifting physicality, the relationship necessarily considered more cerebrally and analytically than wallowed in physically -- even as physical desire figured significantly in it at the time. With the narrator's gaze: "narrowing and stiffening under the tension of carnal desire" at the time, the (genderless) narration, a decade on. allows for a pulling back, a more considered gaze.
       Intimacy does build to sex between the narrator and A***; appropriately the narrator reports:
Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. Dans la confusion nous nous endormions.

Crotches crosses and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.
       The narrative is, of course, technically 'liberating' -- if language can not be entirely freed of gender (deep-rooted as it is, especially in French), Sphinx shows that at least our stories can be told without it. As such, Sphinx is an unusual universal love-story, adaptable by readers in a way most traditional stories, with their male and/or female leads, can't be.
       Readers will presumably react differently to the text (in part also depending upon how much information about it they bring to it -- those who have read this review surely approaching it differently than those unaware of what Garréta has done). Many -- more attuned to the physical, or with pre-conceived romantic ideals and expectations -- will perhaps be unable to keep themselves from generating or imposing a sex on the narrator and/or A***. (Garréta's two central characters are not blank slates, not even physically: aside from their skin color she does describe some purely physical attributes; whether or not these are leading would seem to depend on the reader.) Yet what's perhaps most remarkable is that it really doesn't matter: regardless of what you make of the characters, or not, Sphinx functions equally well. Arguably, the genders of the narrator and A*** are open questions -- yet they aren't really questions at all: they do not matter. Yes, the story would shift, depending on what sexes are assigned to each of the two -- but it is not necessary (indeed, seems superfluous) to assign any sex: the story, as is, is complete.
       Sphinx is also successful in bringing its fundamental question to the fore: what is of interest is not the genders of the narrator and A*** but how gendered language, and our use of it, is, and how that situates characters (or us). Garréta puts this on the table, but doesn't force it down the readers throat; in the guise of its story of love and loss, Sphinx never comes across as polemic or programmatic (even as, in its Oulipian way, it literally is).
       Stylized -- which is only partially a consequence of Garréta's imposed constraint -- but not contrived, Sphinx is a very fine piece of writing in and of itself; it works on all of its many levels.
       Quite remarkable, and a rewarding piece of experimental -- in the best senses of the word -- fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 May 2015

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Sphinx: Reviews: Anne Garréta: Other books by Anne Garréta under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Anne Garréta was born in 1962. She is a member of the Oulipo.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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