by Ryan Ruby
Taking its cue from French politics, French experimental writing has always been a clubby affair. Unlike in Britain or America, where economic and political liberalism have encouraged writers to view themselves as individual talents engaged in private agons with tradition, in France, with a few notable exceptions, avant-garde writers have presented themselves as members of an organization, complete with founding documents, by-laws, regular meetings, and a leadership structure, in short, as citoyens of a mini-republic.
Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature, known by its acronym, Oulipo, is the longest-lasting experimental writing group in history. Oulipians marry two strange bedfellows, literature and mathematics, adopting and inventing rigorous formal constraints—most famously, the lipogram, in which the use of a certain letter is proscribed, and the n+7 rule, in which every noun is replaced by the noun that follows it seven entries later in a dictionary—to generate poems, novels, essays, memoirs and “texts that defy all classification.” From its ten original members, all but one of whom are now dead, the group has nearly tripled in size, “co-opting” (to use the group's official term) writers from Italy, Germany, the UK, and America. Although it has by no means achieved anything close to gender parity, five of its new co-optees have been women.
The Oulipo owes its longevity, in part, to its refusal as a collective to entertain any kind of political line, despite the avowed leftism of many of its members. In so doing, it managed to avoid the power struggles, excommunications, and splintering characteristic of the avant-garde movements that were fatally drawn into the orbit of French Marxism and Maoism. But its survival can also be attributed to the fruitfulness of constrained writing itself. The widespread availability of constrained writing techniques has enabled Oulipians to identify those who are working along parallel lines and co-opt them.
In 2012, American critics Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito wrote The End of the Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement, which makes a convincing case that the Oulipo's days are numbered, pointing to ways that careerism and complacency have lead to stasis and mainstreaming. The same year, Daniel Levin Becker (Oulipo's newest and youngest co-optee) published Many Subtle Channels, a history of the movement.
After five decades, perhaps the worst you could say about the Oulipo is that it has become what no avant-garde group can afford to be: an institution. Along the way, Oulipians have produced a few genuine masterpieces, a handful of minor classics, and the usual number of forgettable books that do not transcend the interest of their generating constraint and prove better to read about than to actually read.
Because constrained writing is inextricably tied to its original language, books by Oulipians are notoriously difficult to translate. When you add to that the publishing industry's resistance experimental writing, this means that, whatever the state of the movement, the vast majority of Oulipian writing has yet to reach an Anglophone readership. And so we receive them one book at a time, like radio messages from a far away galaxy, which were broadcast years ago, but have only just begun to be picked up by our antennae.
Anne Garréta's Sphinx is the most overdue. A professor at the University of Rennes and at Duke, Garréta won the prestigious Prix Medicis in 2002, awarded to authors whose “fame does not yet match their talent.” Published in 1986, when the author was twenty-three years old, Sphinx is her first novel. It is also the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo to appear in English, in a translation by Emma Ramadan, for Deep Vellum Press.
On the face of it, Sphinx tells an entirely conventional love story. Garétta traces the relationship of an unnamed narrator, “I”, a young Parisian who drops out of seminary school to become a DJ at a posh nightclub, for A***, an older cabaret dancer from Harlem, through all of the classic phases: friendship, courtship, obsession, consummation, contentment, jealousy, estrangement, death, and mourning. What distinguishes Sphinx is its constraint. At no point is the gender of “I” or A*** ever revealed.
This represents a substantial technical achievement in a language like French, which has grammatical gender. In French, all nouns are designated as either masculine or feminine and adjectives take on agreement. Subjects are gendered this way as well; adjectives modifying them also take on agreement as do the endings for certain common verb tenses. As Ramadan observes in her Translator's Note, the narrator of Sphinx never says, “I went” anywhere. To write this simple sentence, Garréta's “narrator would have to use the passé composé (the most common French tense used to describe actions already completed) and would have to say either ‘je suis allé' or ‘je suis allée” which would reveal his or her gender.” Nor can the narrator describe A*** directly. To say “A*** is beautiful” would require Garréta to write “A*** est beau” or “A*** est belle,” with the same result.
To get around these rules, Garréta digs deep into the French language. Instead of the passé composé she uses the literary form of the past tense, the passé simple, which does not employ participles that require agreement, and relies heavily on the imparfait, which describes continuously-occurring past actions. Sometimes Garréta uses sentence fragments to avoid the verb altogether. She describes A***'s body indirectly, taking advantage of the fact that, in French, an arm (un bras) is masculine even if it belongs to a female and a leg (une jambe) is feminine even when it belongs to a male. No primary or secondary sex characteristics are ever mentioned, of course: in the sex scenes thighs and crotches end up doing the erotic and narrative heavy lifting. And in one important instance a genderless English noun stands in for its gendered French equivalent.
To what end this departure from everyday language? In the chapter devoted to Sphinx in her study Pronoun Envy, the Irish novelist and feminist theorist Anna Livia writes, “Clearly, Garréta considers the gender system [of language] at best a nuisance and at worst a kind of tyranny.” Ramadan agrees: “By omitting the supposedly ever-present phenomenon of gender, Garréta both reveals and undermines sex-based oppression.” The constraint of Sphinx promises something more than a novel without the letter “e”: experimental fiction on a mission, a fusion of avant-garde art with avant-garde gender politics.
But the political reach of a book like Sphinx is easily overstated. Garréta has certainly tampered with a binary that holds for every other work of French literature, but it is not clear why this is a political achievement rather than an aesthetic one. Intellectuals, whose power is usually exercised over a purely linguistic domain, often succumb to a kind of magical thinking, whereby they believe it is enough to solve problems at the level of representation to see them disappear in reality. This is especially the case among poststructuralists, whose influence was at its height when Garréta was writing Sphinx and who continue to influence the ways we talk about gender politics. (Irigaray: “No sexual liberation can come about without a change in the linguistic laws relating to gender.”) To demonstrate that a given set of beliefs, practices, or identities is socially constructed may be a victory for truth, but it is not necessarily a victory for justice: it changes little about their reality or the social forces that maintain them.
Gender reforms of language are not without value—the neutralization of job titles and the increasing usage of the gender-neutral pronoun “they” are two examples of the ways we've aligned our linguistic practices with our political beliefs—but it would be wrong to claim, as Ramadan does, that languages that have grammatical gender are inherently sexist. Doing so not only creates a false analogy between gender in language and the gender of persons, it also reinstates precisely what was supposed to have been deconstructed out of existence: the naturalness of a putatively conventional social practice.
To infer from the fact that a language has gender that it is itself gendered is a philosophical error of the most basic kind. Even the pronouns “he” and “she” are as gendered as tables, apples, and genitalia (here I mean both the things and their referents), which is to say: not at all. Language may be used in a sexist way, granted, but this it is a result of the forms of life that regulate linguistic meaning and govern the deployment and reception of writing and speech within a linguistic community. Sexism occurs among the users of French, which has grammatical gender, just as surely as it does among users of Farsi, which does not. Francophones who identify neither as male or female may wish to modify the rules governing agreement in their writing and speech, but the simple convention of assigning genders to nouns, adjectives, and past participles is irrelevant to the achievement of political equality, which, by and large, does not take place in language.
Sphinx's political “selling point” may thus have the effect of drawing a reader's attention away from what is in fact most interesting about it. Technically, Sphinx is not at all a “genderless love story,” as the jacket copy says. It is a gender-indeterminate love story, one that, because the writer has refused to assign a gender to its two protagonists, is compatible with every possible assignment by the reader, including the most vanilla: boy meets girl.
In a novel like Orlando, a suspension of temporal laws enables a definitive contradiction of the binary logic of gender. But Sphinx belongs to a recognizable, if baroquely-rendered and theologically-inflected world where either/or is a possibility that cannot be discounted. The club where the narrator DJs may be called The Apocryphe and the cabaret where A*** dances may be called The Eden, but the Paris and New York where the love story between them unfolds are by no means free from earthly social norms. The differences between their class-backgrounds, races, ages, religions, and nationalities—and the opinions expressed about them by the chorus of gender-identified minor characters—all play crucial roles in the trajectory of their romance. At the level of the book itself, Gender plays the role that God plays in the apophantic Catholicism of the narrator, an absent presence that can only be defined negatively, the black hole at the center of a fallen universe.
In What We See When We Read, book jacket designer Peter Mendulsund observes that no matter how vividly a character is described in a novel, readers tend to regard these details as mere suggestions and come up with images of their own when casting the actors for the adaptation that plays in the privacy of their mental cinema.
With Sphinx this is necessarily the case. In part, this is because Garréta can only describe A*** in fragments, leaving the reader to stitch together a composite mental image of A*** from the characteristics the narrator attributes to the parts of A***'s body (we are told that A*** is bald, mixed-race, and moves like a cat when dancing). But it is also because it is impossible to imagine a genderless human body. Genderlessness, as a form of subjective self-recognition, certainly occurs, but even taking intersexuality into account, all humans are imbedded in social interpretations of biological sexual difference and the history of gender-based differentiation and oppression. When we say that sexism and gender-based oppression are structural, it is because we believe sex and gender are too. When we talk about transgender identity, gender mismatch, or gender dysphoria, we are implicitly acknowledging the conceptual primacy—though not necessarily the exclusivity—of masculinity and femininity. Unless it comes about as the result of a total rupture with historical memory, a politically egalitarian society will not be one where there is no gender, but simply one in which gender doesn't matter politically.
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.
Here are a few possibilities. Because A*** objects to the way the narrator falls in love with an abstract image rather than a real person, a reader might plausibly conclude, given the history of this complaint, that she is female and the narrator male. Or, a reader might identify with the experiences of one of the characters and attribute his or her own gender to “I” or A***. Or, the reader might notice that the narrator is the same age and from the same social milieu as Garréta, and identify her with the author. Or, a reader who was aware of the book's reputation as a groundbreaking work of LGBTQ literature, might picture the two characters as belonging to the same gender or being otherwise gender nonconforming.
Whichever rationale we choose will ultimately say more about us as readers than about the book itself. This rationale will be something we have learned through our experiences of a gendered world, a world that includes novels whose characters' genders are definitively assigned by the author. None of these novels comes to us in a vacuum, stripped of its press kit, its cover art, its market position, its critical reception, its literary precedents, or the reputation of its author. And gender plays a role in determining each of these factors and our perceptions of them.
What does it really mean when we say, of a male novelist, that he writes women well or poorly? Or of a female novelist, that she felicitously crosses the gender line? Either: the character conforms more or less entirely to an individual reader's understanding of the gender norms and aspirations of the society in which the character is placed. Or: the author's successful self-presentation in the literary market has received from the reader the authority to write, with the appearance of authenticity, from beyond their own gendered personal experience.
In the final analysis what makes this illusion possible is that characters, unlike real people, do not have bodies at all, because they are made out of language alone. When we talk about these things we are not actually talking about what we thought we were, namely the “gender performances” of the characters themselves, which as Sphinx shows us, are readerly projections that are, moreover, besides the point.