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.