A love story written without assigning either lover a gender (though both are explicitly given different racial identities), it foils the binary classifications we usually apply to who we are and how we love. Reading the novel forces us to confront, and abandon, our need for narrative (and pronominal) definition. Nearly thirty years later, Sphinx is now available in English, thanks to an ingenious translation by Emma Ramadan that preserves the constraint under a totally different set of linguistic demands … To transcend gender, Sphinx has to work against language, trying not to play with it but to remake it. Instead of setting false limits, it must test the very real ones that usually confine us. In that sense, Sphinx is the opposite of an Oulipian text: the linguistic ‘constraint’ is actually a prison break … Just as the novel is genderless, it is also genderfull, as the narrator's and A***’s sexes reconfigure and reform.
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 … 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.
Sphinx, on the surface, is a standard story of love and loss. But that’s about all that’s standard here. You won’t get past the first page without asking questions, and by the time you turn the last one, you’ll be no closer to an answer. The narrator and A*** meet, they become friends, they fall in love, they frequent nightclubs, they dance, they travel, they move in together, they fight—but all the while you’re wondering (as Garréta intends you to): is this a story of boy meets girl? Boy meets boy? Girl meets girl? You never find out … But Sphinx isn’t singular in its genderless focus. It’s also a highly dramatic tale filled with a number of fascinating characters, set in Pigalle (Paris’ red light district); a fleshy, bawdy romp; an exploration of obsession, infatuation, objectification, passion, and jealousy.
To write a genderless narrative is inherently a political act, and Sphinx is born from the experiences of marginalized subjects who are constrained in everyday life by social norms. But Garréta manages to avoid participating in a politics of identity by eliminating gender altogether rather than trying to represent the experience of a specific marginalized subject … Garréta would have written a better book, and a better Oulipian book, if she had not used these binary tropes—opposites attract, symmetrical narrative arcs, black ‘soul’ and white puritanism. Had she tried instead to abandon these patterns and forms, to dissolve these restrictive molds in favor of new or hybrid genres, the book would be more compelling.
As the narrator realizes that their differences make cohabitation a struggle, and A*** realizes that the narrator’s infatuation may be shallow and fleeting, their connection slowly weakens, and each is forced to reconsider what their once-strong bond meant. The set-up is such a classic, relatable tale of falling in — and out — of love that one wonders why gender has always been such a huge factor in how we discuss relationships, in fiction and otherwise. Constructing such a story would be laborious enough had it been written originally in English — crafting a romance, and fully realized characters with fully realized ambitions and desires, is unfortunately difficult to remove from our learned roles as men and women. But in French the job is even harder.
This is the novel’s linguistic meta-conceit: At no point does Garréta give any indication of either lover’s gender … Further, her characters’ actions are motivated, slyly, by her grammatical needs. Or, to put it another way, as Ramadan writes in her translator’s note: ‘the constraint and the writing become one and the same.’ Plot and character traits—even those that might irritate the reader—are used in the service of Garréta’s goal … At times a frustrating read, Sphinx unexpectedly prompts feelings of liberation, too. While je’s description of the first time they have sex—‘Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything’—isn’t lush with details, it also doesn’t rely on gender tropes to move the action forward. It’s easier to focus on emotions as well, without associating them with female or male points of view.
There is something both freeing and unsettling about the prose of Sphinx. Though the sentiments at the heart of the novel are universal–love, passion, and melancholy–the agents of such feelings are strikingly absent, phantom-like forms that refuse to be pinned to the page and examined as specimens … Garréta’s mastery is in never committing to one allusion or formation, like the mythological sphinx. Subsequently, she avoids didacticism, while still hinting at moral and philosophical dilemmas. From the very beginning, the story is framed as a symbolic fall from grace … A modestly thin book, the novel reveals a cavernous depth. This profundity emerges less from the subject matter than from the way it is told, although, as we will see, language ultimately affects its content in surprising ways. The fact is that Sphinx is at its core an extremely ambitious experiment pushing the boundaries of language.
Rather than creating an Oulipian ‘constraint’, Sphinx highlights the already gendered nature of the French language, and of French society: ‘Were there really women who wore these blood-red bodices, purple garter belts, and sheer lace thongs?’ Garréta’s narrator wonders, passing a seedy Pigalle shop. A theology student turned DJ, s/he lives in a world that is utterly gendered, but in which gender is so performative that it can be put on and off easily by either sex. The trick of the text is to see what genders your imagination conjures … Ironically, Garréta’s narrator attempts personal redemption by ‘writing’ the book we’re reading, in which memories are recounted not as order, but as brief, fleshly experiences, answering Garréta’s first-page teaser: ‘Why do I always live only in memory?’