When new indie press Deep Vellum announced their first four titles a while back, the two which caught my eye were by male writers, Sergio Pitol and Mikhail Shishkin (the latter mainly because I’d already tried two of his books, Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark). However, life rarely follows plans to the letter, and it turns out that the books I’ve got to first are the ones by women. Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft has already made quite a splash, and today’s choice may well draw its fair share of admirers too.
And while we’re discussing gender…
Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (translated by Emma Ramadan, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a thought-provoking novella, part philosophical tract, part wistful love story, describing a nameless narrator’s descent into the Parisian night scene. After being introduced to a fashionable club by a priest (no, that’s not a typo), our friend spends the nights discussing theology against a background of hypnotic beats, watching the beautiful people of the French capital move to the music.
When the DJ of the club becomes (permanently) indisposed, the narrator glides seamlessly into the booth, quickly becoming a fixture not just of The Apocryphe, but of all the other clubs and burlesques around, and it’s not long before we are introduced to A*** – at which point a charged, sensual pursuit evolves. A***, a dancer, appeals to the narrator, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) their differing personalities – but how long can such a mismatched relationship survive?
Sphinx is a fairly brief work, clocking in at around 120 pages, but it’s one that you’ll need to read carefully, for a number of reasons. While some sections are light and breezy, pulling us along through the Parisian nights in the wake of our young, charismatic guide, others are more contemplative, with the theology student’s intellectual side coming to the fore. Whatever the tone, though, the writing is rarely simple, forcing the reader to stay on their toes, lest they miss some information holding a key to the novel’s secrets.
The text is written as a memoir of sorts, with the narrator reflecting on the events of youth, a decade or more in the past:
“Remembering saddens me still, even years later. How many exactly, I don’t know anymore. Ten or maybe thirteen. And why do I always live only in memory? 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.”
p.1 (Deep Vellum, 2015)
From the distance of maturity, the events of those heady years develop a different feel, less imbued with a happy, nostalgic air than pronounced in a sombre tone, as if all that happened was experienced by someone else, a person who no longer exists.
The narrator is a theology student, tempted into the darkness by the drabness of the ‘light’. This descent into the Parisian underworld can be seen as a ‘fall’ of sorts (one facilitated by the friendly priest…). Our friend is successful and intelligent, but jaded – there’s a need for something to really live for, and it turns out that this is to found in the clubs:
“The Apocryphe! Dark nights light up with red. Somewhere between brothel and butcher shop, its ambiguous essence was never revealed except to those who knew how to decipher mirrors’ reflections. One had to guess at everything, trying to grasp words on lips, fugitive gestures, events captured in the mirror, while pretending to stare at oneself. A macabre masked ball, people tripping over streamers that snaked down from the ceiling and coiled around the supporting pillars” (pp.9/10)
The distance from doctrine seminars to the hedonism described here is quite a fall for an ambitious young student – one which is complete when A*** comes to dominate the scene.
The second major character of Garréta’s novel is a dancer exuding energy and sexuality. The narrator is unable to resist, setting off on a determined pursuit, despite the warnings of friends and acquaintances who fear that the two are ill-matched. However, it seems, initially at least, that their romance is a case of opposites attracting and complementing each other:
“That night the inversion was complete: I made myself into a demon, and A*** symmetrically put on the mask of the angel I had abandoned.” (p.43)
With the lovers in each other’s arms, the fall is complete, but literature (and life) is rarely that simple – what happens afterwards, once the gloss of the relationship has worn off?
You may have noticed that the word ‘fall’ appears several times above, and that’s no coincidence. The narrator twice mentions Albert Camus’ novel(la) La Chute (The Fall), a book which features a rather one-sided conversation between an anonymous visitor and a chatty fellow whose successful life began to spiral out of control after a tragic event. In Sphinx, we feel ourselves placed in the role of Camus’ patient listener (you’ll have to bring your own drinks, though…), with Garréta’s narrator also using us to unload an emotional burden.
While the narrator of The Fall has a far more sardonic, sarcastic air than the unhappy soul relating the events of Sphinx, there’s definitely a temptation to draw parallels between the two books. Both are seemingly post-religious narratives, with their respective protagonists concerned with the question of how we can find happiness in a life which inevitably moves towards decay and death. The ending of Sphinx, in Amsterdam, is also a nod towards The Fall, with both the location and the canals reminding us of the turning point of Camus’ work.
All in all, Sphinx is an excellent book, one to read quickly and reread at leisure – it’s just amazing that it took this long for it to appear in English. Props to Will Evans at Deep Vellum for getting this one out, and thanks to Emma Ramadan for doing a wonderful job on the translation. What in particular? Well, you see, the real secret of the Sphinx is yet to be revealed…
I feel that I’ve forgotten something here – oh yes… The main feature of Sphinx is that the sex of the two main characters, the narrator and A***, is never revealed (you may have noticed that I attempted to do the same thing in the first part of my review…). Garréta is a member of OuLiPo, a group of writers attempting to create literature while fighting against the constraints of language, and while Sphinx was written well before her admission to the group, the novel certainly fits OuLiPian criteria.
Slowly, details of the lovers are revealed (the narrator is white, young, a theology student; A*** is black, American, a dancer with a sculpted body), but it is left to our imagination to assign gender roles; if we want to, of course. This is a love story where (if you accept a binary view of gender) there are four possible alternatives, and the reader has no idea which the ‘real’ one is. Garréta, amazingly, hides the sex of the two main protagonists throughout the whole book, fighting with all her might against the rigid constraints of a language designed to put people in their place, and keep them there.
Ramadan, while facing different issues, has a similar fight on her hands. While she is freed from the conflict Garréta had with French gender-defining verb endings, a different struggle emerges where the new writer must tackle the way English uses possessive adjectives and pronouns to pin down the protagonists’ gender. Sphinx contains an excellent translator’s afterword which details more of the difficulties Garréta faced in French (constraints which, to some extent, determined how her characters behaved) while also outlining the issues the translator herself had in English. You can check out a slightly different take on the topic in an essay published in Five Dials, in which Ramadan expands on the issues inherent in translating the book, and the methods she adopted to resolve them. I struggled to hide the truth for 700 words or so – 120 pages is some feat 🙂
All in all, then, Sphinx is another wonderful addition to the body of fiction available in English. Please check it out and, if you have the time, why not try some of the other Deep Vellum releases too – on the strength of the first two I’ve read, they’ll definitely be worth your while, whatever your gender…
P.S. Emma Ramadan also pointed me in the direction of an excerpt over at Recommended Reading, one accompanied by another (brief) translator’s thought – even more to tempt you to give the book a go 🙂