In Lord Dunsany’s 1936 novel, Rory and Bran, a fantasia on Irish folk themes, Rory’s parents worry about whether he can be trusted to take the cattle to market on his own. They decide that Bran should escort him, and feel confident that their rather dreamy boy will be well looked after. And so the pair set off. An English reviewer at the time remarked that Bran was rather taciturn for an Irishman, and it’s true that Bran isn’t explicitly identified as a dog. You don’t have to be a dog to chase rabbits, and such specialised activities as barking are hinted at in paraphrase – Bran is said not to like a stranger, for instance.
Dunsany didn’t discuss his formal choices. He posed as a dabbler, trying to soothe the tension between his creative urge and his social position as Ireland’s premier baron. Sometimes he would claim that he never revised his work, since an inspired poet’s first thoughts were necessarily the truest, closest to the wellspring. Perhaps Dunsany noticed, after writing the passage introducing Bran, that he hadn’t introduced a species descriptor and decided to carry on without one, enjoying the subtle strangeness that comes from portraying a socialised animal in terms of its activities rather than its status.
It’s only on the last pages that the issue is broached, with an amiable shrug: ‘And now, so late in my tale, it suddenly strikes me that I have never described the appearance of Bran. He had auburn hair, with one of those patches of white that do not always signify age; and he had brown eyes. But it is too late to describe him. The reader has his own picture of Bran by now. I ought to have done it earlier.’ The final piece of dialogue in the book more or less spells things out: ‘Bran has fleas.’ ‘Of course he has fleas! Haven’t they all?’
A comparable withholding of cues, carried through with much more ambition and method, is central to Anne Garréta’s short novel Sphinx, in which neither the narrator nor the love object is assigned a gender. They both earn a living at night, the narrator a DJ at Apocryphe, A*** a dancer at the Eden. Two opposites are attracted, and – after an emotional intimacy that seems the limit of what is possible – they become lovers. Detail is parsimoniously meted out, a striking exception being the lovers’ discrepant preferences in bedclothes, with A*** favouring ‘the classic pairing of sheets and covers’ while the narrator opts for the ‘more rational’ duvet. Sexual organs can hardly fail to be gender cues, pronouns incarnate, so it would be odd to expect any great specificity in love scenes. The closest thing to a sensual detail is unsectarian, a reminiscence of obsessive touch: ‘When we made love, I couldn’t stop caressing [A***’s legs], my lips against the inner thighs.’ Those legs are described as long and slim, the hips they are attached to as ‘narrow and broad at the same time’. Almost every page amounts to tightrope-walking, whether nonchalant or fraught, but the most obvious consequence of the gender-withholding principle is that A***’s name must be constantly repeated, never allowed to soften into a betraying pronoun. Those recurring rows of asterisks give the book’s pages a slightly scratchy visual quality.
The abstention from gender signals has an odd rhetorical force. Banishing from the centre of the text information we are used to thinking of as crucial leaves not an absence but a charged blur. When a possible rival for A***’s affections is described baldly as male, it’s his flat gender identity, as much as the fact of his being a ‘lugubrious cretin’, that makes lasting success unlikely. How could so unmysterious a creature have real appeal? Sphinx isn’t set in an ungendered world but is a partially ungendered representation of a gendered one, though this distinction is hard to maintain while reading the book. One of the many paradoxes of the project is that ambiguity is central to the reader’s experience but plays no part in what the characters perceive.
Sphinx was published in France in 1986 but has only now been translated into English. Part of the reason must be the problems facing a translator – the different obstacles to fluent indeterminacy offered by French and English. As Emma Ramadan, its translator, points out, these formal choices affect and even determine the development of the narrative. If the text must avoid a tense like the passé composé that is unable, with forms such as je suis allé(e), to keep gender questions open, and so defaults to the unincriminating passé simple (j’allai), which is essentially literary, then the story it tells is nudged towards an educated, even pedantic narrator. A***, who is presented as anything but intellectual, wouldn’t plausibly use the passé simple, which may be why A***’s comments are generally presented in paraphrase. Ramadan doesn’t mention another determinant of the mise-en-scène, the choice of the demi-monde as a setting, a nocturnal clubland where none of the possible combinations (two women, two men, one of each) would create a scandal or even much interest. An artificial equality operates in such a subculture, abetting the suspension of the normal rules that police gender identity.
The deftest passages in Sphinx are the ones in which the narrator is rapidly installed behind the turntables of Apocryphe, despite having nothing in the way of experience. The narrator, then a theology student, was disenchanted with study but attended lectures on the Incarnation given by a Spanish Jesuit. Clearly the padre didn’t believe in the necessity of shunning temptation, and the two of them, disillusioned student and wayward teacher, ended up dining together regularly, and even going on to a nightclub. One night Michel, the DJ of Apocryphe, was found dying in the club toilets, having fractured his skull in a fall after an overdose, and the only way to hush things up was to dispose of the body in the septic tank and find a stand-in for the dead man. The crucial thing was for someone to be visible in the booth, even if the soundtrack was prerecorded rather than mixed live, and the narrator at least had the advantage of not wearing a cassock. In the event, given free range to explore Michel’s stockpile of 12-inch singles, the narrator was able to make a competent selection – an outsider’s perspective and an analytical intelligence were advantages.
By the end of the night a new star has been acclaimed by the dancers at Apocryphe. During the short period before boredom sets in, the narrator develops a perverse cosmology of the dance floor, a Messiah complex tinged with resentment, feeling
the fear of God when He realises, without having foreseen it, that His first act has now made Him a slave of continuous Creation. God cursing when he realises that without His knowledge, He has been made the driving engine of the morbid embraces crossing this panicked body born of Him, of His sweat, of His strained efforts and His unarticulated cries.
The DJ hasn’t been such a consequential figure since gay fiction of the Dancer from the Dance era, a little less than a decade before Sphinx.
Possessive adjectives are particularly tricky in English. A translator must turn a sentence like ‘il y avait de la chaleur dans son ton’ into ‘there was a warmth between us,’ since following the template of the original sentence more closely would infringe the rules. Ramadan remarks that ‘my text has been inexorably infected by the strategies Garréta employed in hers.’ The narrator’s formality of register is a given, and Ramadan’s task is to make it work. Her choices, often clinging too closely to the vocabulary of the original, can be abstruse to the point of unworkability (‘revindication’, or ‘congeners’ to mean merely ‘colleagues’ or ‘fellows’). ‘Cloacum’ isn’t a word. Her version is only occasionally elegant, rarely idiomatic and sometimes not accurate. ‘A haute voix’ and ‘volubly’ mean different things, and the gap is even wider in the case of ‘pour comble de’ and ‘make up for’. This is a shame both because the translation is supported by French institutions and because Ramadan clearly cares about the book, managing the tricky elements (the gender indeterminacy) better than the basics.
She has strong ideas about what Garréta was attempting thirty years ago. ‘Taking inspiration from other authors working to overthrow the destructive construction of gender in Western society, such as Monique Wittig and Roland Barthes,’ Ramadan writes, ‘Garréta set about subverting the way gender works in the French language in order to combat its sexist nature.’ This doesn’t seem quite right, since subverting something normally means more than avoiding its disagreeable features. If the French language encodes sexism in a specific way, then English with its different patterns of grammar doesn’t seem to warrant subversion even of this modest sort. The concentration on language brings with it a substantial blind spot in terms of the world depicted, so that Garréta is seen as ‘demonstrating that gender difference is not an important or necessary determinant of our amorous relationships or our identities but is rather something constructed purely in the realm of the social’. The realm of the social, where for most of its history the novel has pitched its tent.
Removing the social world from Sphinx is a more ambivalent withholding on Garréta’s part than the abstention from gender. Fair enough to have the narrator work in a nocturnal no man’s land and live in a large apartment inherited from a grandmother, with no mention of parents to complicate the picture. Jeanne, the patronne of an old-fashioned restaurant in Montmartre, stands in for family in a single scene, impressed by the narrator’s smart turn-out but worried about the unrespectability of a DJ’s job and bestowing a farewell kiss on the forehead. But there are still roles to be played in Nighttown, perhaps especially there. One night at Apocryphe, before the central relationship is sexually expressed, A*** signals a significant shift by wanting to dance with the narrator. ‘People didn’t dance as a couple anymore in those days except during retro sequences when the DJ would revive old dance forms such as the bop, tango or waltz. And that was absolutely what A*** desired: a waltz, nothing less. I was enticed by this extravagance’ (‘charmed by this caprice’ would be less awkward). The narrator breaks the musical continuity by switching abruptly from funk to Viennoiserie, and leaves the booth to dance with the love object.
There’s no one else on the dance floor – ‘no doubt our perfect execution of the steps had intimidated all the amateurs.’ Would it be fatal to Garréta’s project to let us know who led? A waltz can’t be danced any other way than with a leader and a follower, roles that usually correspond to male and female but can fail to do so without drastic repercussions. It’s as if any asymmetry is seen as suspect, though symmetry is often boring. The two about-to-be-lovers dance a string of waltzes – they could have taken turns, for heaven’s sake, and no ideological harm done.
Translators don’t usually double as spokespersons for their authors, though Ramadan thanks Garréta among others for ‘encouraging me to think and rethink these questions over the past year’, suggesting personal contact without claiming it explicitly. Her tone suggests a certain amount of authority: ‘Garréta believed that equality could not exist within a language that puts the two genders in opposition to each other, and so created a language and a world in which amorous relationships are not determined by a binary of distinction.’ Yet there is a certain ‘binary of distinction’ at work in the relationship, since A*** is black. The fact is mentioned in passing early on (‘I learned that black skin like A***’s demands makeup of a completely different hue and variety than white skin’) and a little later is given a definite exoticising overtone, the face having retained ‘nothing of A***’s African origins, except for a barely perceptible, sensual heaviness of the mouth’. As a cultural trope, the sensuality of African inheritance seems as retro as any Viennese waltz. The information that A*** is a New Yorker whose father was white arrives later, not so much completing the picture as leaving it in separate pieces. The strength of the book lies in its philosophical eloquence, its weakness in its lack of interest in novelistic mechanics as such. A writer preoccupied with the abstract architecture of intimacy can choose to dispense with narrative – Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, for instance, compiles a little compendium of rhetorical patterns and emotional knots, memes of the heart – but storytelling has its obligations.
If, on the other hand, you’re interested in rethinking gender why be content with questioning language? Life on earth looks very different when you set aside preconceptions, the assumption for instance that animals behave according to a Noah’s Ark model. Among the unknowing rebels against our rules are intersexual wild bears, which account for up to 20 per cent of some populations: ‘The reproductive canal in some intersexual bears extends through the phallus rather than forming a vagina, so that the female actually mates and gives birth through the tip of her “penis”,’ according to Bruce Bagemihl in Biological Exuberance. The people of the planet Gethen in Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, haven’t read about Noah’s Ark either. They are sequentially hermaphroditic, spending 22 days in every lunar cycle in ‘somer’, a sort of latency. During the other four days an individual can be triggered by the interest of another to form a gendered couple, without that gender becoming permanent, and with no typecasting of reproductive role. ‘With the cessation of lactation the female re-enters somer and becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more.’ As a thought experiment, LeGuin’s book makes Garréta’s seem limited.
Sphinx arrives with a strange pair of endorsements, claimed on the cover as both ‘the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo in English’ and as a modern classic of LGBT/queer literature. (Garréta has since published fiction in which women desire women.) It’s hard to see how the book can satisfy both tendencies, since one disregards subject matter and the other prizes it, and there’s every reason to think that it lines up awkwardly with either. The introduction is by Daniel Levin Becker, whose 2012 book, Many Subtle Channels, sought to take some of the alienating egghead shine off the long-standing French experimental grouping – Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, founded in 1960 – that had made him a member in 2009. In that book he includes Sphinx by implication in a list of literary works (novels without certain vowels, love stories without gender, poems without words) produced by what he calls ‘oulipian inquiry’, a more accurate account than the one on the cover of Sphinx, since Garréta wasn’t at the time of writing a member of the group.
In her translator’s note Ramadan refers to the novel’s procedure as a ‘constraint’, an Oulipo code word but not a fair description. A constraint is an arbitrary formal choice, a real solution to an imaginary problem – such as Régine Detambel’s decision, in La Modéliste (1990), to exclude all nouns that have a masculine gender in French. A non-arbitrary constraint, such as Garréta’s here, is something much less arcane. A literary device, no more, no less.
In the longer history of gay writing, pronoun suppression smells more of the closet than the experimental workshop. A poem in the second person (such as Auden’s ‘Lullaby’, better known as ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’) might have a stronger resonance for readers attuned to its in-group overtones, but would not shock or exclude those expecting variations on standard themes of tenderness, universal love and hope. Taboo material was protected by a rudimentary code. The way Proust’s novel obsessively returns to themes of same-sex desire while locating them at a safe distance from the narrator has cost him surprisingly little in the eyes of later generations of readers – Proust’s translator Scott Moncrieff published more sexually compromising material than Proust ever did, and that was in a school magazine (it got him expelled). Since then, authenticity has become a central issue, and the specificity of bodies, races and orientations is hard to consider separately from truth to experience.
Identity politics doesn’t get much of a welcome in France, less because it’s exotic than because it’s vexingly familiar, not a real import but the return of an adulterated domestic product, relabelled long after its expiry date. What it resembles is a dilute existentialism, topped up with a sense of grievance. Making the journey in the other direction, Sphinx is likely to fall foul of the cultural equivalent of the US Customs Service, which doesn’t take kindly to the clichés of race. On a Christmas visit to A***’s relatives in New York, the narrator feels thoroughly at home, ‘so much did they make me feel like a part of their family, effortlessly forgetting our differences in race, colour, culture, class – everything that one might cite as possible traits of alterity’. This is no more than unreal, and consistent with the book’s thinning of social texture, a required though unsatisfying corollary of the removal of gender cues. There’s actually one trait of alterity not mentioned on the list, that the narrator is a decade or so younger than A***. If these relatives forget without effort that A*** is dating a posh, rich, erudite theology-student-turned-DJ who is also a toy person of some description, then what exactly are they noticing?
When the narrator expresses a desire to visit Harlem, A*** is strongly repelled by the idea, but the narrator understands this to be part of a general pattern: ‘Like all who have left Harlem, it repulsed A*** to be back, even temporarily, so disconcerting was the spectacle of abandon and misery plastered on the fronts of buildings.’ Or because it’s creepy for your lover to associate you with some wellspring of dereliction and neglect. There seems no necessary trade-off in a novel between hypersensitivity over gender issues and crude projection about racial ones, so that abstraction in one department fosters caricature in another, but that’s the way it works here. The creepiness only intensifies when the narrator makes a direct personal identification with this landscape of racially charged ruin: ‘Harlem’s devastation now resides in me, my body haunted by the soul of this spectral city … And Harlem retains something of me, too … it doesn’t want to leave me … absorbing me into itself, turning my body into that city, that abandonment, that devastation.’ Garréta has held university posts in the States, and would presumably not now be comfortable presenting a character in terms like these: ‘An old blues song came back to me, but I remained unable to sing; my soul probably wasn’t yet sufficiently black.’ There’s no possibility, given the mechanics of the novel, of a critique of social attitudes. Even at the time of writing this would have been a questionable performance.
Take away gender and race from the book, and what’s left? Love, viewed as a nihilistic transcendence: ‘I exist in a morbid state, my body riddled by consumption, not knowing from where to vomit up the soul it has created.’ Loss becomes the keynote, though it’s also implied that loss was somehow the goal all along, and the love object no more than a pretext:
I would contort with pain on the rug; I loved more than I was loved, desired more than I was desired. My pride forbade me from admitting this suffering to A***. Or, more likely, my silence was the effect of a profound indifference. Perhaps I had only ever delighted in my own suffering, which I considered the purification of passions that, deep down, I judged as absurd.
The religious overtones have been there from the start, with the names of the two clubs, Eden and Apocryphe, bookending the Bible. The narrator eventually abandons nightlife and becomes known in academic circles as a specialist in apophatic theology. While cataphatic theology seeks to characterise God positively, its apophatic counterpart chooses the via negativa, approaching knowledge of God by understanding what God is not. This is certainly a way of describing Sphinx’s presentation of gender, but as the book goes on the idea acquires an extra dimension, and it becomes love that is being understood by way of an inventory listing everything it is not. This isn’t groundbreaking – didn’t Proust take the negative route in his portrayal of love? – but it helps make Sphinx considerably more than a language game.
The packaging of this very French book by an American publisher, under the rainbow flag of LGBT and the conceptual banner of Oulipo, though they’re stirred by incompatible breezes, also provides an opportunity to spy on the two cultures, as they contemplate each other with a certain amount of bafflement. American appropriations of Oulipo, Levin Becker’s above all, with his perky choice of register (‘badass’, ‘nerd’, ‘croak’ used to mean ‘die’), seek to put a democratising spin on the elite caperings of a group of mavericks with mathematical as well as verbal obsessions. The risk is of turning Oulipo’s speculative philosophy, the refusal to acknowledge the difference between a technical exercise and an aesthetic project, into a Zumba class for limbering up the writerly brain.
Oulipo’s philosophy could be described as apophatic in its own right, using a via negativa to reimagine the making of literature by proposing that none of the supposed essentials – urgency of subject matter, inspiration, form, personal style – is necessary for success on the page. Garréta was invited to join Oulipo in 2000 (there’s no application procedure, or rather any attempt to apply guarantees permanent exclusion), yet she remains something of a misfit in the misfit academy, seeming to resist the empowering negativity of the group with some negativity all her own. The narrator of La Décomposition (1999), published before her co-optation, sets out to murder strangers designated, by an arbitrary logic, to stand in for characters in Proust, with a view to eliminating them magically from the text by a ‘thanatographic pact’.
The novel contains various deformations of Proust’s famous opening sentence – such as ‘longtemps je me suis consumé de bonheur au récits de duels, de massacres, de tueries’ – but they seem to be straightforward desecrations, rather than mechanical transformations in the approved Oulipo mode. One of Georges Perec’s best-known jeux d’esprit is a set of variations on the same sentence, including the anagram ‘Hé, Jules, ce môme chenu de Proust songe bien!’ – word-crunching rather than appropriation laced with sabotage. Pas un jour (2002), so far the only novel of Garréta’s to appear since she was elected, shows no sign of a change of course. The impossible necessity or necessary impossibility of having both a subjectivity and a subject matter still seems to weigh on her, and she feels a responsibility, however rancorous, to her audience. (Worrying about audience is not part of the Oulipo worldview.) Here the narrator, a novelist, decides to break her pattern of writing by choosing a project that doesn’t follow her tastes. As readers never seem to understand that fiction expresses nothing, she will at least pretend to follow the tendency that is thought natural these days, and write an intimate manuscript. She will try, to the best of her feeble ability, to emulate her contemporaries, who turn out piss-poor confessional hackwork, but take it seriously. Inspired by a suggestion of Stendhal’s, she will write down her memories of love affairs with various women, sitting in front of her computer for five hours a day, not redrafting or polishing, and then presenting the results in alphabetical order. This may qualify as a piece of self-disciplined formal choosing (ascèse is the word used), but it isn’t a constraint in the Oulipo sense, lacking (as does Sphinx) the necessary element of arbitrariness. It’s true that Oulipo is supportive rather than prescriptive, but if it amounts to a metaphysical 12-step programme, designed to wean writers off their addiction to subjectivity, and the destructive alternation of inspiration benders and writer’s-block DTs, then Anne Garréta’s recovery must still be in doubt.