In Margaret Atwood’s classic, cheeky short story “Happy Endings” she takes a swift jab at the tropes we rely on when we tell stories -- love stories in particular.
“John and Mary meet,” she writes. “What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” She then reveals a myriad of outcomes that can occur between John and Mary’s budding relationship: they grow old together, Mary’s love goes unrequited from a selfish John, Mary uses John for personal gain. Etc., etc.
Though Atwood is demonstrating that a life can’t be reduced to a formula, she’s also suggesting that there are only so many possible arcs that John and Mary’s life can follow -- at least if John and Mary are fictional characters, crafted within a fictional story.
Enter Anne F. Garréta, a French author whose experimental tricks aim to make readers question the strictures we apply to our love stories. In particular, she’s interested in how gender influences how we write about romance, and her newly translated novel, Sphinx, avoids gendered descriptors altogether in its characterization of its two protagonists.
The story begins with a nameless narrator drifting away from a sturdy academic life as a religious studies student (in France, or at least in the world of the book, racking up ample education is not what drifters do, it’s what ambitious people do), and towards a pulsing, sensuous nightclub scene. Disillusioned with the rigidity of school, he or she begins frequenting the Apocryphe, where tragic happenstance turns into a regular DJing gig. The narrator quickly discovers a knack for fluidly mixing tracks, a hobby that serves as a distraction from a newfound love interest: A***, a desired cabaret dancer.
The relationship begins with one-sided lust. The narrator pines after A***, who’s described as having slender, strong legs and a cat-like face (hence the novel’s title, which refers also to a song starring a coy, capricious sphinx). Shallow outward differences are pointed out; one is black, while the other is pale from always holing up inside studying. Beyond that, physical attributes -- or at least those that can be rattled off in straightforward description -- factor little into the pair’s coupling. Although A*** is mostly concerned with kinesthetic pursuits, such as dancing, exercise and sunbathing, the narrator is unconcerned with physical particularities. The sheer fact of A***’s sensual nature is appealing, as it offers a distraction from the tedium of school.
But, as the narrator realizes that their differences make cohabitation a struggle, and A*** realizes that the narrator’s infatuation may be shallow and fleeting, their connection slowly weakens, and each is forced to reconsider what their once-strong bond meant. 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.
Constructing such a story would be laborious enough had it been written originally in English -- crafting a romance, and fully realized characters with fully realized ambitions and desires, is unfortunately difficult to remove from our learned roles as men and women. But in French the job is even harder: many verbs, including "go," are gendered in the past tense. So the words the author opted for to convey the narrator's actions -- wandering, roaming, visiting -- were genderless, and shaped who he or she was as a person.
Emma Ramadan, who translated the book into English, wrote in a note at the end: "Garréta believed that equality could not exist within a language that puts the two genders in opposition to each other." So, the author, and the translator, created their own language, championing love and desire over power and difference.
The bottom line: The author tinkers not only with language, but also with social norms, to reveal that gender isn't essential to how we talk about love.
Who wrote it? Anne F. Garréta is a French author. Sphinx is her first novel to be translated into English. She belongs to the same experimental literary group as Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.
Who will read it? Those interested in feminist or LGBT literature. Those interested in experimental writing or love stories.
Opening lines: "Remembering saddens me still, even years later. How many exactly, I don't know anymore. Ten or maybe thirteen. And why do I always live only in memory?"
Notable passage: "The machine was running on empty, racing, turning out a fortune without producing an iota of delight: no one enjoyed themselves in the least in these clubs, and I started to doubt whether anyone ever had."
Also on HuffPost: