Discussed or quoted in this review: Sphinx by Anne Garréta and translated by Emma Ramadan Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015 and A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes and translated by Richard Howard Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978
to be engulfed:
Engulfment is a moment of hypnosis. A suggestion functions, which commands me to swoon without killing myself.
Therefore, on those occasions when I am engulfed, it is because there is no longer any place for me anywhere, not even in death. The image of the other—to which I was glued, on which I lived— not longer exists; sometimes this is a (futile) catastrophe which seems to remove the image forever, sometimes it is an excessive happiness which enables me to unite with the image; in any case severed or united, dissolved or discrete, I am nowhere gathered together; opposite, neither you nor me, nor death, nor anything else to talk to.
I staggered as A*** moved to kiss me; I didn’t know what to do except let it happen. The temporal order of events, even the simple spatial points of reference, all disappeared without my realizing it; everything is blurred in my memory. I have in my mouth, still, the taste of skin, of the sweat on that skin; against my hands, the tactile impression of skin and the shape of that flesh. In a sprawling obscurity— either I close my eyes or my gaze was struck with a temporary blindness— some vaguely outlined visions, and, in my ear, the echo of soft rustlings, of words barely articulated.
I don’t know how to recount precisely what happened, or how to describe or even attest to what I did, what was done to me. And the effect of the alcohol has nothing to do with this eradication; it’s impossible to recapture the feeling of abandon through words. Crotches crossed and seexs mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.
In order to show you where your desire is, it is enough to forbid it to you a little (if it is true that there is no desire without prohibition).
—it was something else, always something else, this indefinable something else where desire hides itself.
the Other’s body:
Despite never revealing gender the lovers in this novel do “scrutinize” one another as Barthes describes.
The ghost of A***’s presence against mine; a hand poised for a moment on my face, our thighs pressed together in a cramped space. I had the sensation in my flesh of contact with those limbs, no longer there; the effect lingered long after its source had disappeared, retaining the same intensity. A hallucinatory sensation, as if my body had suffered an amputation.
I was amazed at the time it took for a body always to appear smooth, hairless, supple, and flawless: in a word, angelic. I learned that black skin like A***’s demands makeup of a completely different hue and variety than white skin. I learned how fragile the body is, how much care is required to maintain the suppleness of limbs and joints.
There is not only need for tenderness, there is also need to be tender for the other: we shut ourselves up in a mutual kindness, we mother each other reciprocally; we return to the root of all relations, where need and desire join. The tender gesture says: ask me anything that can put your body to sleep, but also do not forget that I desire you-a little, lightly, without trying to seize anything right away.
For an entire year we had only endeavored to reach a very crude form of ecstasy. After the subtle sensuality we had just shared, all the other times seemed like a laborious picadillo. I concluded that making love without laughing was as bad as gifting a book in a language the recipient does not know.
The narrator sees A***’s faults. The narrator often blames her and the relationship is real because of it. They do not come from the same world. Class differences tire the narrator.
A*** followed me begrudgingly into the museum in Italy, preferring to enjoy the sea and to tan through long—and in my opinion, inhumane sessions.
Alone maybe this isn’t a fault. But they seem to view one another’s class and social hang ups as faults as much as they do points of attraction. The lovers blame each other.
Words absent from this text.
A‘s responses to the declaration I proved incapable of making was, however, perfectly clear. Its essence could be summarized with a single verdict: ‘You must not love me’— an attempt to claim A was unworthy of my passion and that would damage our friendship.
I experience alternately two nights: one good and one bad.
The key events in this text happen at night, when the city comes alive, when the narrator djs and A*** dances. But night offers a cloak as much as the lack of gendered characters does. Night allows the light to heighten its focus. Night also allows us, the reader, to make choices in our seeing process.
The strangeness beneath the surface of something that could only last so long.
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. In fact she engages in what Agamben discusses in The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics— a world where reality can be formed, perhaps bettered, through language.