TagClassics Club

Classics Club: Sphinx by Anne Garréta

SphinxWhen I put together my Classics Club list, I included a few recent translations of books which had appeared in their original languages over 25 years ago. It stretches my timescale guidelines a little bit (or feels as though it does), but it was a way of catching some particular books that I wanted to read.

Published in French in 1986, Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel; Emma Ramadan’s English translation was released by Deep Vellum in 2015. Garréta is a member of the Oulipo (the French literary group that explores writing under particular restrictions); though Sphinx predates her joining, the book still has its own stylistic constraint. It would be nice to keep that a secret here, because you’d get a different experience if you read Sphinx without knowing the stricture. However, I can’t talk about my own reading experience without revealing it; so that’s what I’m going to do.

Sphinx is a love story between two characters: the nameless narrator, a theology student who abruptly becomes the DJ at a Paris club when the previous one is found dead mid-shift; and a dancer known only as A***, with whom the narrator grows infatuated. What’s notable is that neither character’s gender is identified  over teh course of the novel.

It felt a little strange to read Sphinx knowing this, because in English at least, you might hardly notice (I would assume it’s more obvious in French; if anyone has read the original, I’d be interested to know). In her afterword, Ramadan talks about some of the implications that Garréta’s techniques had for the translation: for example, the narrative voice can tend towards pomposity, because that enabled Garréta to use a more formal version of the past tense, one that doesn’t require gender agreement. The narrator’s personality trait persists in English, though it’s not doing the same job of disguising gender.

I’m trying to avoid using pronouns in this post to refer the main characters, because to me the point about Sphinx is not that A*** and the narrator have particular gender identities which happen to remain unrevealed, but that they have no gender identity at all within the novel. I tried to read Sphinx in that way, and found that it’s difficult: when there’s a gap like that in my knowledge of a character’s identity, an assumption is only too ready to fill it – which is, of course, part of what Garréta’s novel is challenging.

One of Garréta’s other techniques in French was to have her narrator describe features and characteristics of A***, rather than describing A*** directly – because then the pronoun agrees with the gender of the feature, not that of the person whose feature it is. This leads to an intense focus on surfaces:

In a sudden rush of vertigo, I was tantalized by the idea of contact with A***’s skin. I wanted to dismiss, destroy all those who were thronging around A***. keeping this presence from me. I wanted to wrest A*** from their company, from the intrusive glances clinging to us there, and hide us both away. With an unknowingly crazed look, I was always watching this irresistible body. But my gaze was narrowing and stiffening under the tension of carnal desire. That night, A*** was wearing a black silk shirt and white pleated leather pants that showed off a firm behind. A***’s hair, shaved not long ago for the show, was beginning to grow back, materializing as a light shadow.

A*** seems to be less a person to the narrator than a body, a collection of attributes. This pays off to brilliant effect as the novel goes on (and that’s where I’m not going to elaborate). But, when it comes down to it, the narrator is also just a voice on the page; and both characters scatter apart before our eyes.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Sphinx (1986) by Anne Garréta, tr. Emma Ramadan (2015), Deep Vellum paperback

Mrs Dalloway: thoughts of a first-time Woolf reader

MrsDalloway2After my rather breathless reaction to the opening of Mrs Dalloway, I’m now in a position to write about the whole thing; and I can start by explaining why I’m reading it now in particular.

I saw last year that the blogger Heavenali was planning a Virginia Woolf readalong for 2016. Woolf is one of those authors who never made it to the top of my reading list without my being able to say why. I’ve had a copy of Orlando on the shelf for a few years, but it was never the right time to pick it up… And, of course, the ‘right time’ never came. So Heavenali’s #Woolfalong was the impetus I needed: read one Virginia Woolf book (more, if I choose) every two months, from a given selection. For Jan/Feb, it’s either Mrs Dalloway (1925) or To the Lighthouse (1927). I just decided to go for the earlier one, and here we are. (This is also why I put Mrs Dalloway on my Classics Club list and made it my first selection.)

It would be a little awkward, after all that, if I were sitting here about to tell you how much I hated the book. Thankfully it’s quite the opposite, and I wish I had read Woolf much sooner. Then again, it’s hard to know whether I would have taken to Mrs Dalloway in the same way, or whether I needed to be the reader I am now. One advantage of reading it now, though, is that I’m free to approach it however I wish; there’s no inner voice telling me (as it once might) that this book is too old, too ‘difficult’, its subject matter of no interest to me.

So: I was plunged headlong into the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, a lady of London society, as she prepares to host a party that evening. I’ve mentioned previously how the rush of Clarissa’s joy at living sidesteps into (brief, but pointed) acknowledgement that life ends, sometimes abruptly. Now I can see that the novel is made of such transitions: Woolf slides from viewpoint to viewpoint, like a tracking shot that follows a succession of people (the cinematic comparison seems a bit anachronistic, but this is what it felt like).

Woolf’s writing turns the city of London into a moving map of consciousness. There’s a scene early on in the novel where a motor car drives through the streets, and people wonder who might be within: the Prime Minister? the Queen? A subconscious ripple spreads out in the car’s wake:

For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way – to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves – should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey? – ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire.

This is a tremor spreading through a psychic landscape, and a small example of how Woolf blurs the boundary between thought and event: the characters’ interior worlds become three-dimensional spaces which can be travelled through and acted upon. Clarissa Dallloway’s social circle revolves around the interior: reputations, or a well-composed letter to the editor (“one letter to the Times,” says one character, “cost her more than to organise an expedition to South Africa”); Woolf’s approach exposes all this to the open air.

There are several characters who disrupt Clarissa’s orderly world in the course of the novel; perhaps the one who does so most fundamentally is Septimus Warren Smith, a damaged soldier returned from the War. He hallucinates a dead comrade, and numbness has replaced sensation:

He put down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed, collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel. In the tea-shop among the tables and the chattering waiters the appalling fear came over him – he could not feel.

Septimus’ hallucinations destabilize the perceptual ‘consensus’ established in the rest of the novel; and, as the quotation above suggests, he can’t delight in the sensations of living as the likes of Clarissa can. His psychological scars lie buried within the clamour of Clarissa’s polite society, and may emerge without warning.

Of course there’s no way I can hope to encompass this novel in one reading, one blog post. I can see myself returning to Mrs Dalloway again and again, finding something new each time. But there’s more Woolf to come before that, and I’m looking forward to it.

[EDIT 23/01/16: It has been suggested in the comments that my cinematic comparison above may not have been so anachronistic after all. On that note, I must also thank Geraldine Harcourt on Twitter for pointing me towards this 1926 essay of Woolf’s on the cinema. It’s fascinating reading, hinting at what it must have been like to experience film as a brand new medium, as Woolf ponders what artistic and expressive possibilities might be open to film-makers. I must make a point of reading more of her essays during my #Woolfalong year.]

Now read on…

There’s so much out there on Mrs Dalloway, where can I start? Perhaps with these three recent blog reviews: Heavenali; Pechorin’s Journal; 1streading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

 

Starting Mrs Dalloway

I’ve just started reading Mrs Dalloway, my introduction to Virginia Woolf, and clearly I left it far too long to start reading her. I will have a review on here in due course; but there’s a time for reflecting, and a time for more immediate reactions. I started reading Mrs Dallloway, and was… well, engulfed by it.

I mean, just listen to this, from the second page:

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment, afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I found the tumble of words electrifying, intoxicating… and then came this:

For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over, thank Heaven – over.

Clarissa Dalloway’s perception envelops you; you’re carried along by the brio of her viewpoint… then comes the sting of lives cut short by the War, the knowledge that there are stories which (presumably) don’t get to be told. This sort of experience is why I read fiction… and the novel has only just begun.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

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