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Sphinx Paperback – April 21, 2015
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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"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. . . . So, the author, and the translator, created their own language, championing love and desire over power and difference." Maddie Crum, Huffington Post
"The strength of [Sphinx] lies in its philosophical eloquence . . . Take away gender and race from the book, and what’s left? Love, viewed as a nihilistic transcendence . . . considerably more than a language game.” Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books
"In this sense, just as the novel is genderless, it is also genderfull . . . Garréta finds endless shades of in between and out of bounds, her characters taking shapes no other text beforeor sincehas imagined." Lauren Elkin, Bookforum
"Garréta’s aim was to overthrow gender binaries carried by language, and in light of recent demands by transgender groups to use gender neutral pronouns, Sphinx seems curiously prescient." Catherine Humble, The Times Literary Supplement (TLS)
"[Garreta's] been called influential and groundbreaking, and with this, her first translation into English, it is easy to see why. Sphinx is an important contribution to queer literaturefascinating, intelligent, and very welcome." Lambda Literary
Sphinx challenges automatisms, identification mechanisms, and the urgent need for gender categorization. The absence of linguistic gender acts as a mirror reflecting back the reader’s projections.” Gaëlle Cogan, Kenyon Review
"Sphinx is an almost effortlessly readable, atmospheric love story, like a Marguerite Duras novel starring a pair of genderless paramours who haunt the after-hours clubs and cabarets of Paris. The conceit is so simple and so potent that it’s impossible to get too far without pondering big questions about the role gender plays in the way we think about love in literature and in life." Flavorwire Staff Pick by editor-in-chief Judy Berman
"For Garréta, it just may be possible then that the body occupies the space of language as powerfully as its capacity to produce it." Tyler Curtis, BOMB Magazine
"Sphinx is a novel of passion and loss that transcends gender and speaks to the universality of desire and loss, morality, spiritual crisis and the need to connect and belong. It’s also a novel that captivates and propels the reader to question the boundaries of desire and memoryand which one ultimately holds us captive." Monica Carter, Three Percent
"A unique novel, Sphinx succeeds in telling a love story without names or genders, allowing the reader to interpret the novel however they wish. Set in Paris and calling to mind the work of James Baldwin, this both feminist and LGBT book is deeply evocative in its word usage as it celebrates love without the constraints of gender." World Literature Today
"I must start by saying that I simply devoured this book. Its romp through seamy Paris nightclubs; its exacting portrait of a passionate affair; and its exploration of both mileus with a deft mixture of immediacy and intellectual detachment had me absolutely obsessed with it I just had to know what was happening next."? Miriam Bridenne, Albertine Books, "4 French Women Writers To Discover This Summer!"
"A powerfully compelling narrative." Tobias Carroll, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, "A Year of Favorites"
"Centering her tale on the love and lust of a young couple in the Parisian underworld allows Garréta to train our eyes on the physical beauty of youth, the sensuality of anonymous bodies, and our preconceptions regarding both. The bodies of je and A***, left bare of gender markers, create the need for a new, more vigilant kind of reading that involves a constant undoing of assumptions. They cry: Read yourselves, not just us." Jane Yong Kim, Words Without Borders
One of the most engaging Oulipian novels to date. It’s a remarkable genderless love story complex and mesmerizing.” Derek Pell, Zoom Street
""However, the fragments that do surface from this unconscious reservoir are vividly and eloquently incarnated. This is particularly true of the prose around lights, music, and bodiesthe primary elements that compose nightclubs. They are rendered in rapturous tones . . . I could go onexquisite fragments like these are packaged in nearly every page." John Taylor, The Rumpus
"Garréta’s removal of gendered grammar is less an indictment of genderor sign-bearing bodiesand more of a narrative challenge, a queering of language. This is also to say Sphinx is less of a queer romance novel than it is a poetic queering of love itself." Meghan Lamb, The Collagist
One of the Dallas Observer's "13 Books to Read this Summer"
The Paris Review Staff Pick by Charlotte Groult
Featured in Off The Shelf's "12 Innovative books to get you out of your reading rut"
"The body may be divine, but it can only be seen in such close focus that individual limbs can hardly be distinguished: we are left with flesh and bone, plus a few spinning hormones." Joanna Walsh, The National
"I must start by saying that I simply devoured this book. Its romp through seamy Paris nightclubs; its exacting portrait of a passionate affair; and its exploration of both mileus with a deft mixture of immediacy and intellectual detachment had me absolutely obsessed with it I just had to know what was happening next." Tom Roberge, Albertine Books Staff Pick
"Spectacular." Aaron Westerman, Typographical Era (5-star review)
"Quite remarkable, and a rewarding piece of experimentalin the best senses of the wordfiction." Michael Orthofer, Complete Review
"We search for signs from our lovers. We search for signs from those of us who we would like to be our lovers. The media, the market all of those things they tell us which signs belong with whom. Sphinx subverts all of this, offering the reader signs that can be aligned to anyone of any gender. But the book does something beyond this game of language and gender. Garréta is asking her readers to change their perception of a tale of lovers. This is no small task and elevates her Oulipo trickery beyond linguistic change and into the realm social change as well." Allison Grimaldi-Donahue, Queen Mob's Teahouse
"Masterful...an extremely ambitious experiment pushing the boundaries of language." Sarah Coolidge, Zyzzyva
"Garréta’s stylistic experiment has been carried out at once boldly and discreetly it is difficult not to be lured into the story . . . [Emma Ramadan] has skillfully brought this thought-provoking novel to the English-reading world, where it has long been overdue." John Taylor, The Arts Fuse
"Untethered from the genre you’ve unconsciously assigned it, the story expands. Love, like the universe has a way of doing that. And yet you sense a helplessness in the narrator to try, like you were, to pin something down." Leah Dieterich, The Art Book Review
"The reader is both forced and free to provide what the author has pointedly left out of the text. Even if a reader is aware of the book's constraint, moving his or her or their eyes across the page at a sufficient speed, the reader begins to add the pronouns Ramadan was so careful to exorcise. Which ones in particular will vary: the book is a Rorschach test for each reader's assumptions about gender and the writing of gender. These assumptions are as likely to be conditioned by clues within the text as by the knowledge of paratextual facts about it." Ryan Ruby, 3 Quarks Daily
About the Author
Emma Ramadan is a graduate of Brown University, and received her Master's in Literary Translation from the American University of Paris. Her translation of Anne Parian's Monospace is forthcoming from La Presse. She is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship for literary translation in Morocco.
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Top customer reviews
Also, this book is not a full novel. I brought it on a flight hoping to read through it all on the trip there, and finished in an hour. I ended up playing a cellphone game.
But Sphinx is definitely worth reading. There is a twist in the middle - it is disappointing in some ways - mainly because of how it hews to an overall convention in society in general, one I can't directly name if I want to avoid spoilers (and do I!) - but while I was reading it, I was spellbound.
I don't know if I would say the characters are 100% developed, but I don't think that's the point. This novel made me feel things I definitely didn't expect, and the sentences are beautiful - I imagine that they don't translate over perfectly from the french but they give what I would imagine is the same feeling, a sort of weighted stasis and ennui that permeates the covers like a wave. It isn't even, really, the sentences, but it's how the sentences and their languid ... stuffed-ness? ... complements the book as a whole, where everything within it feels like it's set to burst.
I really liked this book. I do wish it was what I had expected when I picked it up, but what I got in its place was fantastic anyways, so I can't complain too much. :)
In general, if you'd like to read a moody, philosophical exploration of youth and relationships, you may enjoy this book. But if you're looking for an Oulipian experiment, you'll be disappointed.
“Languid nights at the whim of syncopated rhythms and fleeting pulses; the road to hell was lit with pale lanterns; the bottom of the abyss drew closer indefinitely; I moved through the smooth insides of a whirlwind and gazed at deformed images of ecstatic bodies in the slow, hoarse death rattle of tortured flesh.”
Told through the prism of faded memory, we are drawn into the world of a nameless narrator; at the beginning of the story a student of theology, ostracized by the dogmatic opinions of the other students and attracted to the rhythms of the Parisian underworld; to nightclubs and cabarets and a life that takes place entirely at night. In this world our narrator meets and falls in love with A***, an exotic dancer, and the novel unfolds as the story of their unlikely but passionate and troubled romance.
Before encountering this novel I had never heard of OuLiPo, a French group of writers who write within self-imposed constraints. Anne Garétta was not a member of the group at the time of this (her first) novel’s first publication in 1986, but she is now, and as I understand it this one would have met the standards. As Daniel Becker says in his introduction, if you don’t know what the constraint she imposed is, then do everything in your power to keep it that way until you have a chance to read the book, and see how long it takes you to work it out. By that I mean close this window right now and do not finish reading my review; nor should you go on to read the excellent reviews on roughghosts, Tony’s Reading List, or Mookse and Gripes. Read them afterwards, before you revisit the book (because you will).
I couldn’t convince you? Or you’ve already read it. Well, if you haven’t, it’s on you.
The defining feature of Garétta’s brilliant novel (and the translator’s note at the end makes it clear just how much of the substance and form or the book it impacts) is this: our two main characters, the lovers, remain genderless throughout. Their sexuality is fluid, undefined, there for you to project your own assumptions onto, and then to return and question those assumptions, amend them, attempt to look past them. In this way ultimately the novel turns on you, becoming a mirror for your understanding of the world. You can read it as you see fit and my understanding certainly shifted throughout. I was amazed at just how difficult it truly was not to decide on fixed gender identities; how I needed to categorise the characters in order to imagine them.
“Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything.”
Did I say it was the defining feature? It is, but in a subtler way than might be imagined. Writing without gender has of necessity shaped the language Garétta has used, and the miracle of the book is how that is woven back into the story, building the necessarily high-faluting language (she was forced to use the passé simple, a written-only tense which has no equivalent in English but which would normally suggest a level of literary pretension) into the character of the narrator. A*** is described largely as an object of beauty; a mirror rather than a well-rounded person, and while this grows again from linguistic constraints, it becomes an integral part of their relationship.
“I was the shadow of a body that ignored me; I was also the source of the light that produced that shadow. All that came back to me was a projection of myself. A*** was merely a parasite interposed between my consciousness and my unfailing tendency to diffract the real.”
From the very beginning A***, wary of the budding relationship, is concerned about being viewed as a cipher or a mirror, reflecting back beauty without ever being truly known. And in many ways this comes to pass, although whose fault it is would be hard to identify. The relationship is a highly physical one, as our narrator has renounced the world of the intellect for one of physical gratification, maintaining a distance from the world.
The emotional remove from events; the first person narration; and the filter of memory overlaid on the story at first reminded me of that other narrator of Paris, Patrick Modiano, but the book quickly grew beyond that. The sense of ennui experienced here by the narrator and the level of introspection are entirely Garétta’s own.
I loved the book; it was a fully immersive reading experience. There were things about it which I didn’t always love; the distancing from events which at first was part of the appeal became wearying by the end, and the narrator’s outlook on life was increasingly frustrating. How could anyone not feel frustrated with a narrator who tells us:
‘”My aptitude for suffering astonished me in that moment. I was suffering as no one suffers anymore in this century; my sensibility was outmoded in the extreme. Had I ever been capable of loving without suffering?”
What became apparent while I was reading the translator’s note (and Emma Ramadan deserves a shout out here for an amazing translation) was that all of these elements were a requirements of the constraint; that Garétta had had to shape her character and plot around this missing identity. It is a remarkable achievement and more remarkable for being a straight up great book at the same time.
More reviews available at www.goodbyetoallthis.com