Anne Gar­réta’s Sphinx

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Tyler Curtis

Deep Vel­lum Pub­lish­ing, 2015 Though she wouldn’t join the Oulipo for another four­teen years, Anne Gar­réta’s 1986 novel, Sphinx, is quintessen­tially Oulip­ian. What­ever that “quintessen­tially Oulip­ian” qual­ity may be, at its most ir­re­duc­ible, is sub­ject to de­bate, though the core of the novel res­onates with at least one con­cern shared with the rest of her co­hort: lan­guage (and there­fore our ex­pe­ri­ence of the world) is made pos­si­ble by its so­cially agreed upon con­straints, yet the mal­leabil­ity of such con­straints is in­fi­nite.

There may well be a poet­ics of lib­er­a­tion la­tent in the work­shop’s for­mal ven­tures, though it may be just that: their meth­ods gen­er­ate idio­syn­cratic texts, free­ing literature from a kind of ref­er­en­tial tyranny. In this re­spect Gar­réta’s novel is no dif­fer­ent, though her con­straint car­ries much heav­ier so­cial im­pli­ca­tions than those em­ployed by her peers. Two char­ac­ters, the nar­ra­tor and his or her lover, known only as A***, are never given a gen­der. This is not an en­tirely gen­der­less novel, but words that might be­tray theirs are avoided al­to­gether. One might think that this only lim­its the use of cer­tain pro­nouns and pos­ses­sive ad­jec­tives, but this, as trans­la­tor Emma Ramadan notes, is symp­to­matic of how English iden­ti­fies its sub­jects’ gen­der: syn­tac­ti­cally. To re­duce the rad­i­cal po­ten­tial of Gar­réta’s text to a strate­gic lack of hims and hers ut­terly ne­glects the pro­ject’s metic­u­lous char­ac­ter in its orig­i­nal French. The gram­mat­i­cal na­ture of gen­der in French man­dates a cer­tain lin­guis­tic acu­ity in the con­struc­tion of Sphinx’s prose. All nouns are gen­dered, and con­se­quently the bi­nary per­vades in sub­ject-verb agree­ment, leav­ing Gar­réta’s pro­ject as one de­mand­ing the ut­most care in its pro­duc­tion. Sim­i­larly, Ramadan ex­er­cises this care as she ap­prox­i­mates the sin­gu­lar ca­dence of the novel’s orig­i­nal French, the prod­uct of a te­dious sub­ver­sion of a lan­guage that fun­da­men­tally sit­u­ates gen­der at the very cen­ter of lin­guis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. This is no feat to over­look.

The page, wrote Ge­orges Perec, is like one’s bed, for him “in­di­vid­ual space par ex­cel­lence,” and thus the most ele­men­tary space for the body. As ex­em­pli­fied by the ag­glom­er­a­tion of bed­rooms and abodes housed in Life, A User’s Man­ual’s 11 rue Si­mon- Crubel­lier, per­haps one may lo­cate the co­or­di­nates for liv­ing in writ­ing, which is just an in­stance of lan­guage not en­tirely un­like the rest. A slight change in what may seem as ba­nal as gram­mat­i­cal con­ven­tion can dras­ti­cally al­ter our ex­pe­ri­ence. And herein lies the rev­e­la­tion at the heart of Sphinx, it­self an in­ter­ven­tion in lan­guage’s bod­ily econ­omy. For Gar­réta, it just may be pos­si­ble then that the body oc­cu­pies the space of lan­guage as pow­er­fully as its ca­pac­ity to pro­duce it. —Tyler Curtis is a New York-based writer and an editor for The White Re­view.

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