As Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover was in the process of breaking the Internet, the Associated Press found itself taken to task by the Twitter bot @she_not_he. Programmed to automatically correct tweets that referred to Jenner as “he,” the bot politely reproached tweeters for not using the transgender woman’s preferred pronoun. Caitlin Dewey, one of the creators of @she_not_he and the Washington Post’s digital culture critic, explained that she did so to counteract the practice of “misgendering,” which, she wrote, boiled down to “a fundamental refusal to afford those people even basic grammatical dignity.”
Readers of Oulipo writer Anne Garréta’s remarkable novel Sphinx might want to employ their own bot, though it would have to be called @not_him_not_her. First published in French in 1986 and now translated for the first time into English by Emma Ramadan, Sphinx tells the simple story of a love affair that has already ended. The lovers in question are both frequenters of the underground party scene in Paris but are otherwise opposites: The narrator is an introspective academic-turned-DJ who falls for a glamorous cabaret dancer named A***.
Initially, that bleeped out name appears to be a quirk and nothing more. But the reader eventually notices that the possessive of A*** is always “A***’s” and never “his” or “her.” Similarly, following the unnamed first-person narrator—whom we might call je, or “I” in French—through a crowd of men seeking late-night amusement, past a gussied-up streetwalker, and into nightclub after nightclub, it dawns on the reader that neither is je ever identified as male or female. This is the novel’s linguistic meta-conceit: At no point does Garréta give any indication of either lover’s gender.
It’s an experimental framework that resonates with Dewey’s plea for “basic grammatical dignity”—at least in the sense that privacy is a form of respect—and it feels timelier than its 1986 publication date would suggest. Written before Garréta officially became a member of the Oulipo, Sphinx nonetheless shows a kinship with constraint-based Oulipian novels such as Georges Perec’s La Disparition (which throughout avoids using the letter “e”). But the book also has a different spiritual cohort. As the queer linguistic theorist Anna Livia writes in Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender, Sphinx falls into the cadre of literary works that “problematize the traditional functioning of the linguistic gender system.”
Livia’s study takes its name from a 1971 kerfuffle at Harvard Divinity School over female students’ protest that the masculine “He” shouldn’t be used to refer to God, or “man” or “mankind” to refer to broader humanity. The condescending response from the chair of Harvard’s linguistics department (and seventeen other colleagues) was as follows: “There is really no need for anxiety or pronoun envy.” Of course, to the extent that it refers to the desire for linguistic gender parity, such envy has long existed, and still does. Garréta’s way of addressing this is to banish such pesky pronouns altogether.
Admittedly, this does make the story a bit tricky to follow, and even enjoy. Surveying the demi-monde wholly through je’s eyes, we are privy to the appeal of A***’s body:
I would spend my nights waiting for A*** to appear on the stage of the Eden, a cabaret on the Left Bank. And who wouldn’t have been enamored of that svelte frame, that musculature seemingly sculpted by Michelangelo . . . ?
Yet even as je confides in us lustfully, we must remind ourselves not to adjudicate the femininity or masculinity of that desire. The text, Garréta has said, is “a trap” that exposes readers’ assumptions about gender roles—even when those roles aren’t supported by conventional gender structures. Indeed, we instinctively want to hypothesize about the sociable A***, who resists je’s advances, wears makeup, has “a firm behind” and “satiny skin,” and is growing out a shaved head; and about the snobbish loner je, who pursues A*** doggedly. Our social constructions of gender and their attendant presumptions—that men do this and women do that—are precisely what Garréta challenges.
Further, her characters’ actions are motivated, slyly, by her grammatical needs. Or, to put it another way, as Ramadan writes in her translator’s note: “the constraint and the writing become one and the same.” Plot and character traits—even those that might irritate the reader—are used in the service of Garréta’s goal. For instance, A*** isn’t described directly (since most adjectives in French must agree with the gender of the person being described) and is instead often referred to as other entities—e.g., a spirit or a beautiful creature—because the adjectives can then agree with the gender of these nouns rather than with A***’s. Such objectification is thus an intentional plot point designed to allow A*** to hide in plain sight.
This isn’t to say that the world of the Eden and the Apocryphe—where je works as a DJ—is completely devoid of such markers. In an otherwise androgynous setting of kinetic body parts, smooth skin, and mirrors—as je calls it, a “topographical enigma” in which objects of desire multiply, shift, and merge—certain characters stand stiffly conventional, with Tiff, a dancer friend of je’s, identifiable by “the shimmer of her rhinestones and sequins,” while a dull male suitor of A***’s is “an Adonis from a centerfold with a stupidly handsome face.” This anonymous and caricatured environment provides a fluid backdrop against which je and A*** can, as they slowly begin a relationship, either stand illuminated or camouflaged. Note, for instance, that in getting dressed to go meet A***, je embraces a kind of bodily invisibility, saying: “I observed my naked form displayed in the mirror; was it really that important how I chose to veil my nudity?”
At times a frustrating read, Sphinx unexpectedly prompts feelings of liberation, too. While je’s description of the first time they have sex—“Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything”—isn’t lush with details, it also doesn’t rely on gender tropes to move the action forward. It’s easier to focus on emotions as well, without associating them with female or male points of view. For example, je’s jealousy for A***’s previously mentioned Adonis—“I was willing to admit that I was not everything for A***, but I refused to accept that what I was . . . could be taken over by someone else”—is more a statement of being (“what I was”) than of gender-specific peacocking.
As a constraint-driven exercise, Garréta’s feat is bound to be most impressive (and subtle) in the original French, riddled as the language is with gender agreements that she had to dodge to avoid giving away the gender of her characters—often without the reader ever noticing. But Ramadan studiously replicates Garréta’s techniques wherever possible and offers up alternatives in English where they aren’t. The key bit, which works in translation, is the effect: readers confronting their assumptions—with or without a scolding bot!—and reconsidering the fluidity of gender.
We might consider, for instance, replacing the masculine-feminine binary with semiotician Patrizia Violi’s suggestion of a four-part schema, in which the contradictory of “masculine” would not be “feminine” but “non-masculine.” In such a reading, je and A*** could alternatively be non-masculine without necessarily being feminine, or non-feminine without necessarily being masculine.
Whatever the reader’s method of engagement, it is bound to have unexpected effects. In her sound installation Love Sounds, the artist Masha Tupitsyn supplants our visual iconography of love—the dominant way we understand romance, let’s agree—with a 24-hour audio collage. “By withholding the image, by seeing sound, we can look at the problem and event of language,” she tells BOMB, describing the freedom that comes of absence: “When we take away the shorthand or vernacular of the iconic, seductive image, we are forced to build a deeper fluency in love.” Centering her tale on the love and lust of a young couple in the Parisian underworld allows Garréta to train our eyes on the physical beauty of youth, the sensuality of anonymous bodies, and our preconceptions regarding both. The bodies of je and A***, left bare of gender markers, create the need for a new, more vigilant kind of reading that involves a constant undoing of assumptions. They cry: Read yourselves, not just us.