The Love Object

Adam Mars-Jones

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.

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[*] Daniel Levin Becker’s book was reviewed by Paul Grimstad in the LRB of 6 December 2012.