In April 2015, Deep Vellum Publishing introduced English readers at long last to a female member of L’OuLiPo 1, there aren’t many, earlier this year. Dedicated “To the third,” Anne Garréta’s Sphinx is a novel with an especially ambitious constraint: the protagonist and his/her love interest A*** are genderless. Because adjectives and verbs agree with the gender of the subject in French, this meant that Garréta had to treat her nameless lovers with a grammar that purposely refracts and distances; her protagonists float in a space of imparfait (which needn’t agree with gender) and reflexive verbs are reserved for moments of togetherness when she can employ the “nous” (“we”) form of the verb (also genderless). Her translator Emma Ramadan had a completely different grammatical hoop to jump. Where possessive pronouns in the French agree with the object, the opposite is true in English. There is no way to say, “her hips,” or even “her umbrella” without knowing that these hips and that umbrella belongs to a woman. Studying Ramadan’s translation is particularly interesting linguistically, for it illustrates the inherent constraints of the English language: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey, and not what they may convey” (Jakobson 129). It also challenges a false perception that many have of English as a gender-neutral space, at least grammatically, the assumption being that its germanic roots is in complete contrast to a romance language that has masculine and feminine nouns. The englished Sphinx reminds us that, where gender is not so obviously regulated in English, it is nevertheless regulated in more subtle and unconscious ways. “These [experiments in linguistic gender] emphasize that, despite the absence of a strict version of grammatical gender, gender distinctions continue to operate massively through the English language” (Simon 19). The context was no less innocent than the syntax: Ramadan had to contend with cultural connotations of gender, embedded in the protagonist’s choice of study (theology), the society A*** frequents in Munich (gay), and even whether a female writer could write a male character.
Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel. She was 23 years old at the time of its publication in 1986. She wouldn’t be inducted into OuLiPo until 2000, after her fourth novel La Décomposition, in which a serial killer systematically murders the principal characters in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Reading Sphinx is strange experience; despite knowing the constraint, because the mind still seeks clues, the reader’s imagination demands to see the protagonist (and though we know the protagonist is skinny, white, early 20s and A*** is tall, black, early thirties, there’s a cloud of uncertainty hovering over their faces). Our mental visualization of the characters will shift incessantly between the two gender binaries, in one instance giving A*** a small nose, in another a square jaw. “The experiment takes shape as you read the text. What’s interesting about the test’s (which is essentially a Turing test) conclusions is that, initially no one notices the gender is missing. They systematically projected one or the other, as if, in order to read a story, they needed to attribute a sexual identity to the characters.” (Eva Domeneghini interviews Anne Garréta Oct. 13 2000 for Écrits-vains. http://cosmogonie.free.fr/interview.html. My translation.) The protagonist’s vocations (student of theology and DJ) are stereotypically male-centric, but the reader can by no means assume the protagonist to be male, for feminine attributes are equally present, and instead, the reader finds in him/her a mirror, “I was a shadow of a body that ignored me; I was also the source of light that produced that shadow. All that came back to me was a projection of myself” (Ramadan 80).
In the same way that the reader is invited to see themselves in the narrator, they are invited to see in A*** what they desire: “Ce que j’avais fini par aimer entre tout : ces hanches étroites et larges à la fois, articulées sur des jambes dont je n’ai jamais rien su dire si ce n’est, banalité, qu’elles étaient fines et longues” (Garréta 1150). This “banalité articulée” gives the reader just enough to finish A***’s portrait while also speaking to a certain aesthetic of beauty, “fines et longues”. Ramadan’s translation, since she must avoid the gendering of possessive pronouns, gives the reader “In the end what I loved above all else: those hips, narrow and broad at the same time, those legs that I never knew how to describe except, mundanely, as slim and long” (84) dissociates A***’s body from the person of A***; “those hips… those legs”, narrowing in on the particular body part, leaving the reader at a trailhead where they will go on to fill in what isn’t said; what we see when we desire.
Ramadan makes note in her translation that the grammatical choices Garréta made, or was constrained to make, meant that the narrator was always medias res the action at hand, “Never does the narrator simply go anywhere.” Relying on the imparfait, and sparingly, the passé simple, imposes a nightmarish ongoingness, for to be at the moment in the past, French catches the subject as being either a man or a woman. (Ex.: “Je suis sorti” vs. “Je suis sortie”.) This ongoingness2 characterizes the narrator’s ambiguity, so even though Ramadan isn’t constrained, according to the constraint, to write in English, “In my suitcase I was always lugging around an essay I had been working on for three years” (98) instead of “In my suitcase I lugged around an essay…” she often keeps close to the French grammar to add an element of discomfort in this incessant shifting.
We see Ramadan moving away from a literal translation in other places where, for example, a word in French is not conceptually gender-bound, but is much more so in English. (Again, revealing English to be infused with a sexed psychology, even if it doesn’t exist in the formal, grammatical way that characterizes French verbs and adjectives.) As the narrator is in the initial stages of what will become a possessive passion of A***, Garréta writes, “L’œil hagard sans que je m’en rendisse compte, je contemplais encore et toujours ce corps adorable.” “Adorable” poses something of a problem, as “adorable” in English might cast a shade of feminine that wasn’t there in the French. Ramadan opts for “irresistible” instead.
But here I must ask whether or not even Garréta was able to maintain this androgyny in her own mind as she was writing. Despite the constraint, Garréta incorporates attributes, and a certain violence and possessiveness to the narrator’s love, which may or may not be male, but is certainly inspired by Marcel in Proust’s Le Prisonnier and Albertine disparue. Like Marcel, the narrator of Sphinx first sees A*** in a confusion of light, in “a succession of bodies,” or “la procession des jeunes filles sur la plage.” The relationship will thereafter follow course of Marcel’s unhappy relationship with Albertine, one in which the narrator is tortured by A***’s infidelity. A*** then dies in an unhappy accident onstage, and the rest of the novel narrates the torture of remembering and the uncertainty of remembering correctly. Certain details of the protagonist’s social situation places him/her more or less in a milieu that Marcel enjoyed, as an heir to his grandmother’s fortune, as an intellectual, as someone repeatedly frustrated by the experience of the present, admitting that, “[there was a] strange sensation of never being able to grasp or embrace A*** except in the painting I was reconstructing from those idealized fragments of real life.” (Ramadan 80) Resurrecting Marcel as theology student/DJ (why not) in love with someone (“beneath my station”) who, much like Albertine, is vain, popular and polyamorous, demands that we reevaluate his love and his loss, and perhaps what resides behind the name “Albertine,” for there too resides a gender-shift: Albertine was based on Proust’s secretary Alfred Agostinelli.
You could say that another genius of Sphinx is its layers of reference, where major figures of French literature and thought make an appearance (though the references are refracted and ghostly) in unflattering lights. Proust for one, is recast as the narrator’s vacuous mind, the madeleine scene becomes a “gustative” recollection of soul food. The night that the narrator confesses to A*** that he/she wants to sleep with he/she, there’s a good two paragraphs dedicated to the narrator’s aversion to Café de Flore, a place popular in the 1950s and 60s amongst the French intelligentsia. Which, must say, is a sentiment that feels too self-conscious on the part of the narrator, whose critique is so bombastic, whose voice is so removed from “common speech”, that he/she is easily aligned with the “posturing” intellectual under fire.
Garréta’s caricature of Marcel is heavy with Antoine Roquentin’s nausea (perhaps with the intent to argue for existentialism, whose truth Sphinx’s narrator will never reach), but it’s also heavy in language, academic obscurity, and Ramadan’s translation drowns in it, matching the lavishness of the vocabulary, it’s uncanny pacing, and by resisting any domestication of the grammar that would take the reader away from the narrator’s despondency. Reading the English against the French, and as a translator myself, I sympathize with the close translation. Where many a workshop has suggested that I use words that aren’t so precious, Ramadan takes advantage of this eccentric character to incorporate a vocabulary rarely read and rarely heard. Yet. A close translation nulls and voids the voice’s potential to seduce, which is an undeniable element of the narrator’s paradox. The narrator claims “modesty” and “reserve” yet the French prose is wrapped in a cadence that says otherwise. And where an English reader may miss the references to In Search of Lost Time, Nausea, and The Second Sex, they likely would have recognized Humbert Humbert or Henry Miller3 (certainly Garréta is aware of language’s power to seduce) had the syntax been more naturally fitted.
I was drawn to the novel because of the constraint. I wanted to see the third. But it is the story that will ultimately stay with me in its suit of noir: a theology student meeting his/her professor at a nightclub, the two of them helping the owner hide the body of the DJ who overdosed on heroin in the septic tank, the student taking over the dead man’s post in the DJ booth, seeing A***, who may or may not represent Josephine Baker, who may or may not represent Albertine, who may or may not represent Anne herself, their coming together and their coming apart, leaving the student and later professor forever haunted by A***’s distance and death. Garréta describes Paris at night as if was intimately hers, the clubs, the scene, the waxy face of nocturnal living. I also am surprised by who I saw in the narrator (admittedly I settled on Shane from The L Word) and who I saw in A***, knowing that it was me who colored in the lines, and that ultimately Sphinx reveals something about the reader that they may not have recognized prior; a constraint to which all literature should aspire.
Works Cited and Consulted
Garréta, Anne. Sphinx. Grasset, Paris, 1986.
Lewis, Philip E. “The Measure of Translation Effects.” Difference in Translation. Cornell University Press. New York, 1985.
Ramadan, Emma. Sphinx (Anne Garréta). Deep Vellum Publishing. Dallas, TX, 2015.
Santaemilia, José. “Feministes Translating: On Women, Theory and Practice.” Translating Gender. Ed. Eleonora Federici. Peter Lang, AG. Bern, Switzerland, 2011.
Simon, Sherry. Gender in Translation. Routledge. New York, 1996.
- The most famous works to be considered OuLiPoian, that is, whereby a linguistic or mathematical constraint has been imposed on the piece, include Exercices de style (Raymond Queneau) and La Disparition (Georges Perec). The group has inducted but five female members (in a roster of 38), whose work is both quantifiably and quantitatively overshadowed by their male counterparts. The New Inquiry’s review of The End of Oulipo? (Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito) addresses this divide of the sexes more thoroughly: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/an-attempt-at-exhausting-a-movement/ ↩
- Shameless plug for Sarah Manguso’s Ongoiningness, which much like Sphinx, addresses memory and the existentialist fear of never being fully present. ↩
- At least, the way he is self-cast in Tropic of Cancer. ↩
Last weekend I was in Lyon for Les Assises Internationales du Roman. It was a marathon of rencontre après rencontre: a discussion between Austrian authors about fraught national identity; the use of family in novels that work with taboos; by what magic an emotion (and not just the description of an emotion) is transferred from author to reader; the relevance and problematics of describing authors as “francophone”; and then, on Sunday morning, How Do You Learn How to Write.
The basis for this conversation quickly turned to MFA programs – an equivalent diplôme doesn’t exist in France – and to the american author present, who’d experienced MFA vicariously through her friends. Can you teach creativity? Can you teach someone how to write in a medium that inherently demands introspection? To some extent, and Céline Curiol said this, the authors we need are those whose voices haven’t been institutionalized, who subvert and change the current dialogue. Problem being, of course, how can you be “subversive” in a classroom setting?
This rencontre didn’t risk the depth that the subject matter deserved and I felt the parties present uncomfortably sensitive to diplomacy. The american author spent the entire heure et demi on umbrella statements, pronounced at the speed of a snail, and never got past “For me… the classroom is a place of obedience and grades.” What truly is involved in the creative process was something no one seemed to be able to touch, and the grossier-MFA hung about like a specter that no one dare stab.
Enter Flannery O’Conner, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Finding myself in such a class as what’s under fire (Creative Writing), we were given this essay, which appears in a collection of her essays Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. She starts the essay saying that you’re in the wrong place if you think there’s a way to write, that there’s any steps to follow, if you think, by virtue of having read the essay completely, you can then extract the author’s blueprint and write something worth reading:
My own problem in thinking what I should say to you tonight has been how to interpret such a title as “How the Writer Writes.” In the first place, there is no such thing as THE Writer, and I think that if you don’t know that now, you should by the time such a course as this is over.
And this best frames the profoundly troubling premise of an MFA. Soit, you enter the program hoping that you are a creative person with a unique vision and that a professor will recognize this in you and coax it into shape, soit, you enter the program having yet to consider the creative requisites and expect that creative technique will make you creative, soit, you go in with no pretensions of cultivating a voice, knowing that a voice is cultivated outside the psychologically-conformist space of a classroom setting, and just expect to meet people that can get you into the literary circuit. It’s kind of a year-long cocktail party.
In any event, it’s diluting the real work that is involved in poetic writing. It’s fostering ideas about the writer as craftsman, and worse, that it’s something everyone can do, it’s just a matter of having the right teacher. [….] To clarify, (because I can already sense the bristling at these words) I don’t see it is a matter of having a “gift,” which is a term that O’Connor uses later in the essay and I don’t quite agree with, I think it’s a desire to communicate in this form, that is unable to be satiated by any other way of expression. In a deep, perhaps troubling, psychological way, a deep-seated desire to write, whether or not money or contracts are involved, must be present. There’s a relationship to words in their materiality that must be present. And these two things, this desire and this relationship to words, forcibly means that not everyone is a poet.
That said, everyone can learn how to write, just as you learned how to speak. But the art of a novel doesn’t lay there. I’m going to refer back to one of the rencontres on Saturday, Au cour des émotions, because Céline Curiol said something that aligns the stars north. She was asked whether or not she saw writing as a form of therapy, and she said (paraphrasing) “C’est l’opposé.” Her book Un quinze août à Paris is a récit of a summer of profond depression after the death of her father. Like Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, the novel shows us a sombre madness lacerated with the pain of lost love and the irretrievable loss of self au travers cet amour perdu. Curiol insisted that writing this in a way that depression could be felt by someone reading it meant, essentially, she had to relive it. And the work didn’t lay in “character plot” or “narrative arch” or “sequencing” – but in understanding what she was feeling, in losing herself to the catastrophe, and breaking into a vault that her psyche had constructed to spare her pain. (O’Connor: “I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and its very shocking to the system.”)
O’Connor goes on to explain that the tools of an artist (and writer, though she will use art and artful writing interchangeably throughout the essay) is perception. There’s, in the first moments, a sensibility to the events around you, in the second moments, an attention to the most symbolically loaded details:
The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is called anagogical vision, and that is a kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.
As Proust’s Marcel, at a dinner party, wouldn’t stop at the delicate details of whatever the guests were wearing, but “les radiographie.”
Of paramount importance to O’Connor: the materiality of the words, resisting abstraction, fiction’s balance between the canny and uncanny… “It follows from all this that there is no technique that can be discovered and applied to make it possible for one to write.” And if this is the case, by what logic do MFA programs exist?
They exist because we live in a capitalistic society where everything that can be sold will. And the promotional material for these programs don’t speak to the artist, but to superficial fantasies of living a life such as what would accompany a celebrated author. Aside from a handful of universities and collages that waive or offer stipends, and I’ll refer you to Why Writers Love to Hate the MFA that appeared in The New York Times for more on that, the grand majority of MFA programs imply a five – six-figure debt. They exist thanks to a warped expectation of “art” as something synonymous with “bestsellers.” They mark a generalized degradation of what is being taught alongside an increasingly inflated expectation of a professor’s power over your professional life.
This is one of the rare instances where I feel a little more Machiavellian than usual. I’m hard pressed to find the positive in a program that offers the impossible. I’ll offer by way of conclusion, what has actually helped my poetry: reading poetry. talking about poetry. exploring other forms of expression. linguistics. learning another language.
In Xandu I found you, dear poetry: there’s nothing like literature to remind us that our minds are more powerful than we know, and saw myself running my fingers along the edge of BFK Rives paper (paper, it must be said, that is something of a legend… each letter sinks in its fibers like sleeping bodies and pulls even the rove of your eyes to a more leisurely pace across its landscape) where would sit (in ink of course) my rendition of what had been d’origin français. I translate and curate a space that publishes multilingual literature; because I am drawn to polyglot environments (the city, the train, soccer games) and understand at last that it’s imperative that we cultivate an international perspective, that we continue to read, mouthing new words aloud, seeing ourselves in what used to be foreign.
…my face through the glass looking to the snowy north where the footprints are iced over and hard to follow. At first the harsh language hurts my throat. The days, too much sun or not enough, and I ask what morbidity keeps pulling my mind in that direction. Snow White/Schneewittchen/ Blanche-Neige.
…or the hairs on my arm coated with silt, as if god had rolled me in silver leaf, but unable to breath because he’d said that the Gobi was a column of airless wind. He pointed me to some tracks, made by wheels, lined with salt-statue maidens. I see your peak: it’s blue. It’s impossible to get to.
…or my fingers pale taking one of Caroline’s cigarettes. Il fait trop long… je sais… telle longueur injuste. Our hair is damp still from this afternoons rain, when it rains everyday, as if a thunderhead has been caught in the orbit of the Pyrenees. Between us sits a dish painted delicately over with roses. A find in Lourdes. At a weekly Bazaar. My copy of Contes de Grimm, with the old lithograph illustrations, one where the little mermaid is standing in the middle of a ballroom surrounded by sleeping shadows, poised over her prince with a dagger in her hand.
(When we say “like a fairytale” I don’t think we mean what we think we mean.)
Her flashing eyes, her floating hair. Crossed, uncrossed, re-written. From where I start, re-writing, but really, writing, because the same thing cannot be written/read the same way ever again.
I am working
That is to say that
Everything is in place because my skin
Still detaches layer by layer to let
Music whip around my pores in little breaths
And my stomach still clenches when
I miss a step
mid-air not intending
But landing because I am working
Et puis mes doigts trouvent la rampe
Only to let it quickly go again —
Everything is meant to be read
And yes I said I let it go again —
J’ai retrouvé la marche
Chèr corps marchant
Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage” has been translated several times over, perhaps because it so tenaciously resists it, given that the sum of its nuances reveals something disconcerting about its romance, and given the words which teeter just slightly off course from their english translations: “Les mirrors profonds” (for example) has been translated “The limpid mirrors” (William Aggeler) “Mirrors deep as thought” (Edna St. Vincent Millay) and, quite simply, “deep mirrors” (Keith Waldrop) and yet… still…
I’ve mine, in part because as I was cleaning my desk yesterday and found it semi-translated. This morning I agonized over it, considering its evasive subsurface movement, trying to keep from transposing it (though, I have to say that my favorite translation of “L’invitation au voyage” is a very liberal one by Roy Campbell). Anyway.
Invitation to Travel
by Charles Baudelaire
My sister, my child
Imagine this sweetmeat, of leaving
and living yonder together!
To indolently love
To love and to die
In a land made in your likeness.
The stormy suns
Its feverish skies
Which for me is so mysteriously
Your treacherous eyes
Shining behind their tears.
Here there is nothing but beauty and harmony
Luxury, peace, sensuality.
Polished years over
Might accent our chamber
The rarest flowers
Their scent mingling
With the perfum’d waves of amber.
The splendor of the Orient.
All of which speaks
In her soft mother tongue
To the soul in secret.
Here there is nothing but beauty and harmony
Luxury, peace, sensuality.
Look at the canals for
A fleet of sleeping ships
Of a vagabond’s temperament.
They would sail to the world’s end
Your every desire
— The setting suns
Cover the fields,
The canals, the entire town,
In gold and hyacinth
All of us then sleep
In a warm, glowing, twi
Here there is nothing but beauty and harmony,
Luxury, peace, sensuality.
(My poem “All I Have is Your Head” is one of those finalists!) In collaboration with Swoon, Awkword Paper Cut hosted a writing contest whose submissions were to complement his short film. Check out the poetry!
[Or a seriously revised version of the first]
She means to say what matters
Most not least of which treads out
To new water these are not easy
To extend yet you float so serene
your minute hand riding the soft
Circular the cool shadow of secret as if
the trees rose to hid this this to say
I do not want a warm womb I cannot go back there
I want this steel-brushed tide the rails
Their ties and the cool of quickly-moving air
Weaving and wavering steel braiding
My hair wound and bound in your fist
And your lips marking the vein’s path
Down the side of my neck this to
Say again this is new, this is deep, I don’t
Know how deep this goes though the words come
Though I fall through every shade of blue
This one this one this one.