Author: Anne Garréta
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Published by: Deep Vellum Publishing
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public library
Content warning: Death (by injury and illness), prejudice against interracial relationships, mugging
“Sphinx is the remarkable debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garréta, one of the few female members of Oulipo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, among others.
A beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and their lover, A***, written without using any gender markers to refer to the main characters, Sphinx is a remarkable linguistic feat and paragon of experimental literature that has never been accomplished before or since in the strictly-gendered French language.
Sphinx is a landmark text in the feminist and LGBT literary canon appearing in English for the first time.” (Source)
I’m generally reluctant to read books translated from French since I tell myself I should actually use my bilingualism and read more books in French but never do. Sphinx is a book that really should be read in both languages if possible because it’s an incredible linguistic force.
This is a love story where the reader doesn’t know the gender of either the narrator or their lover but doesn’t use pronouns to get around that. The use of they as a singular gender neutral pronoun in English has been gaining more prominence recently despite the fact that it’s been used in that capacity since Chaucer. I also used to write genderless love stories as writing exercises back in high school using first and second person pronouns and was really interested in seeing how Ramadan would handle this constraint in English. French is a highly linguistically gendered language where the masculine is default and verbs accord to the subject’s gender, rather than in English where the only way to find out a person gender through text is possessive and third person pronouns.
What ensues is a one-sided love story where A*** is only referred to by name or seen in pieces, the curve of an arm, the scent of perfume, etc. The reduction of A*** to sensual pieces frames the relationship as unbalanced, where the narrator seeks to chase their vision and perception of A*** over the actual person. More interestingly, the characters are aware of this unbalance in their relationship as A*** calls the narrator out on it.
What’s also interesting is that although the reader never learns the gender of the narrator and A***, gender isn’t a concept that’s completely absent from the book. All other characters are gendered, and gendered concepts and roles shape the narrator’s relationship with minor characters. The fact that the reader never learns the gender of the two lovers doesn’t impact the reading experience at all. Rather the character of the narrator is so strongly shaped that nothing feels out of place in how the world is viewed.
Ramadan’s translator’s note at the end of the book is also a really interesting read to understand the process of how she approached translating Sphinx. I’m planning on picking up a French language copy at some point because I’m so curious to see how the story unfolds in the original language. Garréta has written a book that’s an incredible linguistic force in exploring the way gender shapes our relationships and the narrative of love, and Ramadan has done a brilliant translation that does it justice.