Sphinx by Anne Garréta

Posted May 4, 2019 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

Sphinx by Anne GarrétaTitle: Sphinx (Goodreads)
Author: Anne Garréta
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing, April 21, 2015
Pages: 152
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I may have read Sphinx by Anne Garréta back in November last year but there has not been a day go by where I have not thought about this amazing book. I had always planned on writing a review for this novel but kept putting it off in favour of reading other books; this feels like the story of my writing habits. Since the details are still burned into my brain, I have no problem talking about this masterpiece.

Anne Garréta joined the Oulipo in 2000, which is an experimental literary group of French speaking writers who like to put constraints to their writing. The idea is to force the writer to create new structures and patterns in their own writing. The Oulipo was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Notable members include Italo Calvino and Georges Perec who wrote the most notable Oulipian novel La Disparition (English title: A Void), which was written without using the letter e. When translating these books, many translators chose to keep the same constraints, in the case of A Void, translator Gilbert Adair kept the same constraint of not using the letter e. The Spanish translation did not use the letter a (since e is used too frequently), Russian contains no о and Japanese does not use  (i).

In the introduction of Sphinx, Daniel Levin Becker talks about the Oulipian constraint found in this book and he is of the opinion that is best not to spoil it for others, allowing them to discover it organically. If you feel it is better not to know, then stop reading here.

I want to discuss the Oulipian constraint because it is what made me want to read Sphinx. I think it is the biggest draw for the novel, I do not know who is interested reading A Void unless they want to see how Georges Perec managed to pull off a whole book without using the letter e. In Sphinx, Anne Garréta decided not to reveal the gender of the narrator or the love interest, instead choosing to use I and A***. Having tried to learn French, I can only imagine just how hard it would be to write a French novel without gender. Translator Emma Ramadan skilfully brought this book to English readers.

What I loved about Sphinx is that not revealing the genders of the main characters forced me to challenge my own mindset. It is amazing how our minds are quick to assign a gender to a person, even if we do not actually know for sure. There were so many moments when I was sure the narrator was a man because they studied Theology with Jesuits, or because of their attitude towards their lover. I constantly had to remind myself that I did not actually know either of their genders. The lover was a dancer, and I hate that my mind automatically went to female.

I think this is an important book to read, you could even call Sphinx a non-binary love story. If that is not enough to convince you to read this novel, the elegant prose of Anne Garréta should do it. It was such a joy to read this novel, it is the type of book that makes you fall in love with literature all over again. I will never forget this book, I have not stopped thinking about it, and I just want to keep reading Sphinx over and over again. Emma Ramadan has also translated Anne Garréta’s Not One Day.

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