Sphinx by Anne Garréta (trans. Emma Ramadan). $14.95, 152 pp. Deep Vellum Publishing.
“Can you see my feet in the mirror?”
“Do you think they’re pretty?”
“And my ankles? Do you like them?”
“Do you like my knees as well?”
“Yes, I really like your knees.”
“And my thighs?”
“Can you see my backside in the mirror?”
“Do you think my buttocks are pretty?”
With this, Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot) dissects herself for her husband Paul (Michel Piccoli)’s pleasure in the opening scene of Godard’s 1963 classic Le Mépris (Contempt). Where does Godard get the nerve to carve this woman up into so many cuts of meat and present her a bite at a time to his viewers? Well, as the story goes, Godard’s producer, upon seeing late cuts of the film, came storming into Godard’s office and said something along the lines of, “Look! We paid (enter astronomical sum here) francs to get Brigitte Bardot for this role, with the expectation that she would put some bums in some seats. For that to work, you’re going to need to put her ass in the movie!” Godard acquiesced, not yet in the position of authority he would later enjoy, and shot this scene after the rest, inserting it at the beginning. But he did so in his own fashion, and made this stereotypical necessity work for him. You want me to treat her like a piece of meat? OK, here you go. Chew on this.
Jean-Luc Godard was under pressure by the production system to maintain the gender status quo and to participate in what he felt were outdated stereotypes of female objectification. And yet, some feel that language has been infected by outmoded gender divisions for so long that it’s more or less unnavoidable. This holds true even more in certain languages, especially ones that insist on gender, like French. French author Anne Garréta addressed this particularity head-on in her 1986 literary debut, Sphinx. How can a writer force a reader to question all of the unconscious stereotypes that have been programmed into our minds throughout our lives? Easy! Remove gender from the novel. And I say “easy” with a smug grin, because if you know any French, this seems like an insane suggestion. Of course, she doesn’t remove all gender, because gender abounds in these pages, there to remind us at every turn of the information we are without.
Sphinx is a typical love story only in the way that it’s the tale of two people who have fallen in love, and things don’t go smoothly. Beyond that, there is something drastically different going on here. I’m afraid I’ll have to let the cat out of the bag: as reader, you have no idea of the gender of either half of this romantic equation. This information is artfully withheld by the author (and again in English by the translator, Emma Ramadan). While explaining the constraint at play is necessary to us for the purposes of this review, I’ll refrain from a full-out spoiler by not unveiling the final solution to the enigma. In Sphinx, which is told in the first-person, there are two principal characters. I, the genderless “me” of the narrator, and the object of this person’s desire, A***. It can take a little while to notice; as in some literary works, this sort of descriptive information is released gradually, over time, but eventually it becomes clear that we are missing a detail that we are not used to going without. Eventually the Oulipian constraint becomes not only evident but demandingly so. Is the narrator a man or a woman? What about A***? Is this a gay couple? Straight? Unconsciously mimicking the division of which the reader is beginning to become hyper-aware, the act of reading is also split in two. Or, if you read like me, in three. First, the love story goes on. Beautifully, musically, and tragically. Second, the hunt for hints or clues that will solve this riddle becomes equally important. And third, curiosity and wonderment at the craftsmanship involved in concealing such a simple detail.
This withholding is exacerbated by the fact that Anne Garréta taunts the reader throughout the novel. Garréta does this from behind the pages, but also her narrator taunts us, giving us little jabs and pokes: “What am I,” the narrator asks him-or-her-self, “other than what you do not know how to say about me?” As the narration of this love and these lives continues, phrases take on double meanings, as they address both the relationship between I and A*** and the enigma playing itself out. Content comments on form, and form on content: “It was an impossible task to set the boundaries of what I was, up to the edge where I blurred into the other—the indescribable other—so much did the meanings escape me, the words that others before me had uttered deep within an analogous attrition.” The Sphinx of the title rears up on those long-frozen haunches—not only representing the enigma or riddle at play but also echoing the gendered constraint itself. For the Sphinx, as history shows, was a little ambiguous too: like a diachronic version of that love child of Hermes and Aphrodite, the Borghese Hermaphroditus, the Sphinx was represented as male by the Egyptians, and as female by the Ancient Greeks. Eventually we come to the point that Garréta seems to be driving at: Who cares? So what? What difference does it make? Does the gender of the actors in any way change the story? The hints and clues don’t just lead us to a clear answer, they make us question the hints and the clues themselves. Ahh, the narrator is a DJ and A*** is a dancer. So? What’s your point? Ahh, A*** is putting on make-up while the narrator watches. And? Why do these facts and roles need to be parceled off into two columns? As Sphinx progressed, I found myself reacting to these clues with a force I hadn’t expected, and then in turn reacting to my reactions.
Garréta doesn’t simply restrict this to the level of the narrative. She makes use of the language itself, letting the system at her disposal call attention to its own restrictions and impositions, and thus she toys with the reader even more. As Garréta’s Oulipian colleague Daniel Levin Becker writes in his introduction, “Like the best of the workshop’s productions, [Sphinx] is animated by a drive to use language to question language, to manipulate and master and subvert the mechanics of everyday expression.” Because of the grammatical gender rules of French, Garréta has to very nimbly sidestep anything that would be telling. For there is a key difference between English and French that comes into play here: in French, every noun has a gender, and pronouns, adjectives, and certain verb tenses must agree with that gender. They are marked, in their flexion, for number and gender. And not only does Garréta find ways around this, she finds ways to exploit this, to gently poke fun at the reader who is searching for an answer to her riddle. Allow me to offer a few examples.
One of Garréta’s principal tools in avoiding gender stems from a feature of French: while anything qualifying the subject (like an adjective) is marked for gender, and thus would be telling, the direct object in French has its own gender. This direct object in turn affects any complement it might have, and so is safe for her to qualify. As Emma Ramadan points out in her translator’s note, “in French, gender agrees with the object, meaning that in the phrase son bras [his or her arm, in English], son is in the masculine because bras is a masculine noun, not because the person the arm belongs to is a man.” And if that arm happened to be slender, well, the adjective would be fin (masc.) instead of fine (fem.), and would indicate the gender of bras, not that of the arm’s owner. So, to avoid using a tell-tale adjective to qualify the subject, Garréta continually attributes to that subject an object, which she then qualifies instead. What we end up with in lieu of a description of A*** is a description of the many parts of A***. Like Bardot’s self-dissection, the narrator is forced to carve A*** up into as many bits and pieces. And while she does so, Garréta plays with the gender markings that are still out of necessity a part of the text.
First, take a look at the following passage in English, and then let me explain what we readers of English can’t see. “I observed the circular and twitchy movement of the head corrected in an effort of forced rigidity, straightened and then languid, surrendering to its own weight, straining the neck to the point of making me, watching, uneasy.” Nothing to deduce here, right? But in the French, she is rubbing our nose in the fact that we don’t know. As I have mentioned, each noun in the French sentence has its own gender, and anything modifying or qualifying that noun takes flexion in agreement. In this remarkable example of form describing content, Garréta describes the indecision of the reader, for here she maintains a strict alternation between masculine and feminine nouns. It’s hidden in the English, but in a way, it is still there (more on that later!). Movement in the French text is mouvement, which is masculine. Head is feminine (tête), effort masculine (effort), rigidity feminine (raideur), weight masculine (poids), neck feminine (cervicales, afeminine adjective implying vertèbres). MFMFMF. Garréta is toying with us now. She knows, this far into the book, that we’re looking for every potential clue, reading way too much into everything she gives us.
Garréta does something similar but even more pronounced in the preceding paragraph. Another description of A***, sleeping, another commentary by Garréta on the nature of language. In this paragraph, A*** is referred to as “a being,” (être, in French) which takes the masculine form in French. But the enumeration of deconstructed body parts that make up the description are craftily all feminine nouns. The body is male, the parts, when gazed upon in isolation, are all female. The head (la tête), the breathing of an inferred chest (la poitrine), hair—which is masculine by itself, cheveux, but is here cleverly clumped into une masse de cheveux, a mass of hair, and it’s the mass that counts—the neck (la nuque), then the hair once again, but this time in the form of a feminine noun that refers to the entire head of hair, chevelure) and so on. Garréta’s mastery of this constraint is quite remarkable, and she refuses to allow it to limit her writing, instead turning it against itself in vibrant and inciteful auto-commentary.
As I describe these operations that occur in the French text, operations that the Anglophone reader can’t see, the following question has likely becomes apparent: so just what is it that I’ve got my hands on? What am I about to read in English? What Emma Ramadan has offered us here fits all of those emblematic criteria you usually find in a review of literature in translation. Yes, it is readable, it is lucid, it is a smooth and fluid translation. But, since those qualifiers are usually the result of completely ignoring the fact that the object being reviewed is translation, whether that is out of monolingual necessity or indifference, they usually indicate to me that the book is being judged solely on its merits in English. Meaning, without consideration for the source novel, and without consideration for either the act of translation or for what that means to the work resulting from it. I won’t even get into phrases like a faithful rendering or a seamless translation, which are both loaded statements and would require far more comparison, analysis and reflection than any short review would permit.
The translation of constraint-based literature can have a number of effects on a text, and has to be approached in a number of different ways. Generally speaking, the nature of the constraint itself dictates what these will be. Take, for example, the constraint known as the S+7, (or Lescurian translation, named after its inventor, Oulipian Jean Lescure). This constraint involves looking up each noun (or sometimes adjective, etc.) in a chosen dictionary, and replacing it with the noun that comes seven entries later in that same dictionary. To translate an S+7, a translator has two choices, although realistically only one of them is valid: translating the results of this process, or reversing the process in the original text, translating that, and then effecting the process again in his translation. The latter is usually the method chosen, because the former would offer up a text where the modified nouns would be for all intents and purposes intraceable to the reader. This is problematic, because an S+7 is meant to be enjoyed on two levels: the reader gets both the resulting, modified text, but can also unearth the original that hides beneath it. Accordingly, in this case, as with a good number of other constraints, the effects of the constraint on the original text are removed, and the constraint is re-applied to the translated text. This brings about the unavoidable question of whether or not it is still the same text after it has undergone this process, which Levin Becker once referred to as “the well-of-course-this-changes-everything implications of it being my writing.”
However, that is not the case with Sphinx. Well, not entirely. Or rather, not exclusively. Emma Ramadan has, of course, meticulously applied the constraint to the text in English in the ways our English linguistic system permits; she very nicely breaks down the four principal methods she uses to avoid gender in her Translator’s Note. And yet, the results of translating Sphinx differ in a very interesting way from those I’ve described for the S+7. Levin Becker, again in his introduction, lauds Ramadan’s translation with a turn of phrase that I find particularly pertinent. “If Garréta’s composition of Sphinx was a high-wire act,” he writes, “then Emma Ramadan’s task in carrying it over into a language with at least one crucially important constitutional difference is, near as I can figure it, akin to one tightrope walker mimicking the high-wire act of a second walker on a steeply diverging tightrope, while also doing a handstand.” The turn of phrase that catches my eye here is “a steeply diverging tightrope,” because this is all about divergence. Ramadan is not simply walking along underneath Garréta’s tightrope, looking up, and parroting her every movement. This is not a separate, unconnected tightrope—the two of them are intimately and inextricably connected.
The reason for this is part of the beauty of this work, and why it is not simply a good translation of a rewarding literary work, but a rewarding literary work in its own right. Where this interconnectedness comes into play is in the fact that Garréta’s constraint has profoundly marked her French-language Sphinx in such a way that it can’t be undone. Sure, the physical constraint, the gender markings et al. have been lost in the act of translation, because they cannot be a part of the English language system. But the constraint has wreaked havoc on the text itself in a way that nothing can remove—not only in terms of syntax, lexicon and style, but in terms of content. For Garréta’s constraint dictated both how she wrote her text and what she wrote. The very way the gaze of the narrator dissects A***’s body is proof, or, as Ramadan points out with great insight, so is the way the narrator moves about. “Never does the narrator simply go anywhere,” Ramadan tells us; instead, the narrator is dragged along, is led places, follows, meets people, takes paths, gets diverted, and so on. Garréta has no choice in this matter; because of her constraint, she has to avoid the verb aller (to go), which, in a completed-action French past tense, would require the gender-marking agreement. Garréta’s characters and the narrative itself are driven by the constraint in a way that is very particular to the constraint’s nature. Consequently, both the language used to tell the tale and the tale itself are physically transformed. And that is one of the ultimate goals of the Oulipo, which from its inception has been more about creating methods of producing new texts that wouldn’t otherwise be produced. It is about far more than literary acrobatics, although their funambulist’s feats are often astonishing and inhumanly agile. It’s about the writer unleashing the potential of writing in a way that might otherwise be overlooked or ignored.
And so, on the one hand, we have the constraint itself, which cannot function in English in the same way as it does in French. Fortunately, Emma Ramadan has adeptly applied the equivalent constraint for our reading pleasure, in the manner in which it can function in English (as well as compensating for other stylistic effects which don’t have equivalents in English). On the other, we have the physical and semantic effects the constraint has brought about on Garréta’s French text, a great number of which Ramadan was able to bring across for us. Or rather, a great number of which Ramadan couldn’t avoid bringing across for us, because they impacted the original text in such a physical and conceptual manner that they had to come along. In this way, the reader is able to delight in a double pleasure; the visible silhouette of Garréta on the top rope, and, closer to our viewing point, Ramadan’s own acrobatics on her divergent cable. As Hervé Le Tellier (a member of the Oulipo since 1992) wrote, “All translations of Oulipian works are feats and Oulipian works themselves.” Often in the act of translating under constraint, the translator is pulled from out of the shadows, away from the classic “translator’s invisibility,” and instead he or she must perform for the reader while wearing a mask. In Emma Ramadan’s English translation of Sphinx, however, Garréta dances above her, in plain sight, which is an added luxury, a surprise guest appearance, an unexpected double-bill.
Chris Clarke is a freelance translator and a Ph.D. student in French at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. His translations include work by Raymond Queneau (New Directions), Pierre Mac Orlan (Brooklyn Rail), Olivier Salon (Words Without Borders) and Patrick Modiano (NYRB Classics, forthcoming). He is currently at work on a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan for Wakefield Press. He grew up in western Canada, but for the moment, he calls Brooklyn home.
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