In a 1987 essay in these pages, V.S. Naipaul admitted that an “artificial, self-conscious” feeling seized him every time he began to write, until “some true impulse” finally made itself known to him. “And that is mysterious still,” he continued, “that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one’s soul, one’s heart, one’s memory.”1 That mystery is a hallmark of Anne Garréta’s writing—a generative balance between artificial formal structures and a (sometimes intense) demand for empathetic imagination. In her 1996 essay “In Light of Invisibility,” she argues that writing fiction allows for a kind of dissembling in which imagining other ways of being is an imperative. “The empirical self and the writing (or reading) self are not identical,” she writes. “Fiction is the realm where identities, far from being reinforced, may be displaced.”
Three of her novels have been translated into English, all marvelously rendered by Emma Ramadan: Sphinx, Not One Day, and In Concrete. They are familiar types of stories—love affair, confessional, and family farce, respectively—told in unconventional ways. Sphinx (1986), her first book, was published in France when she was twenty-three, and of those that have been translated it is the one that most resembles a traditional novel, despite the fact that Garréta never identifies the two main characters’ sex or gender. Set amid a Parisian nightclub fantasia of glitter, noise, and heaving bodies, it is narrated in a formal voice by an erstwhile theological student, now DJ:
Passing through the entrance of the club, something of my being was lost or absorbed, an inexplicable and immeasurable stripping away that, once I finally ended up on the dance floor, hadn’t left any of me behind except my carnal covering, spurred on only by the rhythmic pulsing of the music.
In Not One Day (2002), which won the Prix Médicis, the unnamed narrator, writing in the second person, issues herself a set of directives—to write five hours every day for a month, each time about a different unnamed woman she has desired or who has desired her:
Stabbing at your keyboard, you will decimate your memories. And who cares if at the end of your five hours of recollection, nothing will have been consummated? Who cares whether we’ve actually had the women we’ve desired? Writing at the whim of memory twists and turns on uncertainty. Like desire itself, never assured of its end or its object.
What follows are twelve short essays that read as though they are accounts of Garréta’s own affairs—and some may in fact be drawn from her life—but in a “post scriptum,” the narrator undermines the project by admitting to having inserted a fiction among the dozen “true” confessions, a fabricated entry whose identity remains a secret. The potential for any one of the short essays to be the invention spreads like a contagion, and all become fiction.
Garréta’s most recent book, In Concrete (2017), is a very funny novel about two siblings participating in their father’s riotous, unsound building schemes at the family’s country house. The story echoes the narrative’s jerry-rigged structure, digressing within digressions and whirring nonstop with malapropisms, onomatopoeia, puns, and other wordplay—a tumult that suggests the atmosphere of individual consciousness. In place of the cerebral and introspective narrators of Sphinx and Not One Day is a profane youngster, eccentric and unpredictable, whose linguistic slapstick merges the physical world and the ontological one:
When we can’t piss, time doesn’t piss either. When we’ve pissed, time seems to gush. I don’t have any experiential proof, but it seems to me that, from a certain perspective, it’s as if time, real time, is not what you see on watches and clocks. And that real time, in fact, trickles. So, if God exists, he must be a prostatic and incontinent old man, and the universe is his bladder.
Or his chamber pot.
In any case, the end of time will look like a big old chaotic colonic.
Each book is dizzying in its own way, bringing to mind a line from Julio Cortázar’s travelogue Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: “But we already know, if we stay this overwhelmed over the whole course of the journey, it will be a total success.”
Part of the overabundance in Garréta’s work stems from her attempts to push at the limits of how we might understand or describe another person. The clearest example comes in Sphinx. As the nameless narrator recalls their affair with an American performer named A*** a decade or so after its end, the progress of the plot resembles Orpheus’s descent into the underworld. (Ovid’s “Of bodies changed to other forms I tell” could have been the novel’s epigraph.) Tired of their theological studies on the “apophatic tradition”—a practice of stating only what cannot be said of God rather than affirming what God is—the narrator is invited to a dance club called the Apocryphe, a space seemingly apart from reality: “Lights and music of such intensity that space and time were no longer coherent, lacerated and turned upside down in what seemed to be complete chaos.” Persuaded to take over the turntables after the DJ is found dead in the bathroom, the narrator finds nightly oblivion in the job: “To distill music, to set bodies in rhythm, was to be the priest of a harrowing cult.” A cabaret called Eden offers a reprieve, and there the narrator is drawn to its “angelic” dancers, especially A***.
The plot itself is fairly conventional and occasionally melodramatic. In the first half of the novel the narrator struggles intellectually with the situation while their physical desire for A*** swells to unmanageable proportions. The bliss of consummation is short-lived; fresh anxieties, most springing from the characters’ differing interests—museums and opera versus sunbathing and shopping—soon produce fissures in the relationship. A trip to visit A***’s family in Harlem is marred by jealousy and tension. The relationship collapses, the narrator tells us, when “I haphazardly reproached A*** for being cold and uncaring, for being shamefully narcissistic, too.”
I was reproached in turn for never having asked myself what I really wanted our relationship to be, for never allowing it to run smoothly by fault of never having considered, or taken into account, anything other than an image, other than my singular, and therefore false, vision of A***, with which I had been complacent.
Shortly after issuing this verdict, A*** trips onstage and tumbles to their death. The remainder of the novel turns increasingly inward as the narrator reckons with their grief. “I was finally shedding my mask, my pride, through a fall and a superb defeat,” the narrator says, thinking of A***. “Such was my annihilation in those beloved arms.”
The narrator’s baroque academic diction allows Garréta to sidestep some of the problems of gender that the French language presents. Avoiding gender markers in French is quite a feat, since all nouns are either masculine or feminine, and associated pronouns and adjectives take on the gender of the noun. Garréta gets around this with references to body parts, the genders of which are independent from the person they are attached to (the masculine bras, or “arm,” the feminine cette charpente élancée, or “that svelte frame”). The narrator uses such phrases to refer to A*** metonymically, which has the effect of objectifying A***, while the thoroughly overwrought prose holds the narrator apart from the world. A*** senses this, too. In the midst of their accusations, A*** asks the narrator, “How do you see me, anyway?” It’s the question on which the entire narrative hinges.
Garréta has published three other novels that haven’t yet been translated into English. In Ciels liquides (1990), the narrator loses his grasp on language and is unable to recognize it in any form. La décomposition (1999) follows a man as he murders strangers who stand in for characters from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and then deletes the sentences pertaining to those characters from a digital copy of the book. Éros mélancolique (2009), a collaboration with Jacques Roubaud, plays on memory in the digital realm: at Garréta’s urging, Roubaud downloads a PDF of a novel also called Éros mélancolique (which is reproduced later in the book), setting off an intertextual mystery involving several narrators and fake (or possibly real) authors.
As with the Proustian stand-ins of La décomposition, Garréta writes herself into Not One Day in order to write herself out of it. Her use of the second person functions as a conversational aide-mémoire, pulling a version of herself forward through time from the memories she recalls in each chapter. “Rid yourself of your self,” she advises this other Garréta. “Keep at bay a little longer, if you can, who you think you are.” She is all of the narrators and none of them: the rival whose courtship of a woman is corrupted by second-guessing; the person lusting after driving a Pontiac Grand Am across the American landscape; the object of a secret admirer in a self-defense class. The “you” is simultaneously singular and collective (it seems to rope the reader in, too) and gives the affairs a sense of gender neutrality, almost a genderlessness, even though the reader knows all parties are women. The varieties of desire aren’t predicated on which pronouns are in use.
In the story of an older woman she calls K*, Garréta thinks back to when, six years into their friendship, K* gave into a desire for her that she had been resisting through good sense, or so Garréta guesses. Garréta can’t piece together what occurred next:
Fragments of moments superimpose each other, cancel each other out. There are only erasures. In your memory, everything has decomposed and dispersed under the spectrum of what K* became for you. Could you even render a cubist portrait of her, an allusive portrait, a portrait in fragments? No, not even. Indecipherable. What machine, what fiction must you invent or construct to manage to capture what would only be an abstract figure of K*, a figure pierced with ellipses, and the enigma that you become in the space and light of her memory?
The past self she evokes is a conjecture, a person remembered but never fully, never with certainty. There is a suggestion in this, too, that the earlier Garréta’s sense of events was distorted almost immediately by the emotion of the moment. Her recollection of it, even then, would have taken on a fictional cast.
In another entry, Garréta tells the story of D*, a straight Catholic woman who seduces her into an affair that proves more gymnastic than pleasurable and that leaves her physically and mentally spent. It’s a state of exhaustion “that could just as well have been idyllic”—a postcoital satiety—but is instead the opposite. She concludes:
Just as narrative fiction is formally indistinguishable from referential narrative (for they mimic each other to such a point that in these twin mirrors only mirages can be glimpsed), the description of pornographic, solipsistic alienation is indistinguishable from that of the perfect shared erotic passion.
So, what’s the difference?
The difference is that there was none.
A conventionally rendered sentence can’t always capture certain states of being, and the subjectivity that Garréta pursues in each of her books requires an equally uncommon mode of expression. In an interview with Sarah Gerard in 2017, Garréta explained:
With things that are easily taken over by normative structures, the difficulty is not simply in destroying the norms but in getting to understand the work of norms and getting a sense for the possibilities of form—giving new form to the desire that in turn gives new form to the writing.
In In Concrete, the undoing of structures takes the literal form of a family’s construction projects—work so haphazard that it turns the idea of “building” upside down. This metaphor is occasionally made explicit by the young narrator:
I have to do everything in this story: psychology, descriptions, soldering, electricity, concrete. And keep it grounded or else we end up electrified. Pull from this bag of knots the wires that belong to the proper circuits and not bollix the breaker box. Avert the short-circuits, the lack of insulation, the insufficient amperage, and the voltage drops. Not mix up phase and neutral.
The linguistic play in the novel is indivisible from its rambling story, in which characters get lost over and over again, in their lives and in the telling. It seems to take place in the muddy hamlets of postwar France, but mentions of “Gitmo,” Zhang Ziyi, and Neo (from The Matrix) suggest a contemporary setting. At the start of the book, the father is given a concrete mixer, and every subsequent project is an exploit carried out according to his manic attempts to “muddernize.” He crashes through a ceiling, drops a sledgehammer on his little toe, and runs afoul of a bull and a barbed-wire fence in the novel’s antic finale. When he’s blinded by a shovelful of earth, debris, and mouse dung, his children conjure mental images of delicious meals to make themselves salivate so that they can hurl gobs of spit into his eyes.
The first half of the book sets up what becomes the central conceit of the second: a mishap in which the narrator’s younger sister, Poulette, is encased in concrete. Their father runs off for help, disappearing into the countryside as the sun sets, and the narrator, who is nicknamed Fignole, whiles away the night by recalling past misadventures. In French, fignole comes from fignoler, meaning “to put the finishing touches on,” which is the verb Garréta uses to describe the task that occupies Fignole’s mind at night—the refining of their father’s projects. Ramadan translates fignoler as “wax and buff,” which implies succinctly not only the process of perfecting but also the act of applying protection against what may come. Poulette’s given name is Angélique (she gains her nickname when she kidnaps an “eggzeptionally nice” young hen), but neither Fignole’s given name nor their gender is revealed—a nod, perhaps, to the idea that social labels are acquired, not innate.
In one of Fignole’s recollections, the siblings host a jousting tournament on bicycles for the kids of their village, which instantly devolves into an epic fight. Poulette tosses her hen into the air over the horde of advancing child-enemies, half of whom are wounded by the hen’s talons as she scrabbles to stay aloft. A faction of children vow revenge, and guerrilla warfare ensues. To protect their home, Fignole and Poulette launch an all-out offensive: spiders raining from above, a minefield of schnoz-bashing rakes, a barrage of dung bombs and puffball mushrooms, a quiver of hazel sticks loosed like arrows. They win decisively but take no prisoners; freedom is paramount. “To live as a captive,” Fignole explains, “is to teem like a dead rat in the rank moat of time.”
Through the stories of playacting and pretend, Garréta threads a note of darkness. Fignole does not want to grow up and leave behind the imaginative life of childhood. In the prison of school, they seek refuge in fanciful adventure:
Yes, I’m dreaming. Of war and defective conjugations, of destructions, devastations, capitulations. I dig holes in grammar and I concoct escapes, scalings, resurrections, and descents into the sewers.
In Concrete has the feel of a fractured fairy tale, in which time is freewheeling, and a recurring theme is the fearful sense of being adrift in history and in one’s own life:
When all our time is taken up with setbacks, when setbacks are all we have left, when we only hurtle against the current of history, the more we advance, the more we recede…. But it’s not just the fear of time that runs through you, that carries and displaces and leads you astray. The world engulfs you too.
What gets lost in this struggle is self-determination. Playacting lets Fignole and Poulette try on new identities—the Musketeers aboard a rowboat or paratroopers making their descent from the loft of a hay barn—that are just real enough, like their father’s constructions, to bring their stories to life. Fignole’s recitation of adventures with Poulette rescues their lives from being forgotten, too—literally staving off the dark of night with stories.
The novel’s acrobatic, digressive prose contrasts the fixity of the ever-present concrete with bouncing phrases such as “grated Gruyère,” “salvos of saliva,” and “sizable geysers.” Ramadan’s translation is immensely creative, with punny neologisms such as “time toulouse,” “czechlist,” “electrotooted,” and “scour-Kraut.” She nimbly transmutes Garréta’s French wordplay into English equivalents—s’merdonise as “crappify,” for instance, and jaunâtre salopard as “jaundiced jabroni.” Her description in an afterword of the odyssey of rendering In Concrete into English echoes Garréta’s desire to explode norms for the sake of unconstrained expression. “There are always solutions in translation,” Ramadan writes,
there are always ways to bring the spirit, voice, sharpness, and hilarity of the author’s text into a new language. But it requires calling on different methods, breaking different linguistic rules, inventing different comedic patterns, pulling ourselves back from the brink of defeat and finding new ways of peering into our own language to tease out all of its potential.
Garréta is a member of the Oulipo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle. Founded by the chemical engineer François Le Lionnais and the writer Raymond Queneau, the group’s first official meeting was held on November 24, 1960, and its ten original members were all men. Oulipians use formal constraints, based on mathematical or linguistic rules and strategies, to induce creativity. Georges Perec’s novel La disparition (A Void, 1969), one of the most famous books by a member of the group, is lipogrammatic, meaning a certain letter or letters are omitted: it’s a self-referential, madcap murder mystery and parable about absence and grief that never uses the letter e (foreclosing in the original French, as Garréta has pointed out, any possibility of the feminine).2
Today the Oulipo counts forty-one members, six of whom are women. (More than half of the roster are dead, but death doesn’t negate one’s membership.) Garréta was elected in 2000, becoming the first member born after its founding. Her membership is mentioned on her book jackets and is regularly used as a succinct indicator of what a reader should expect from her work. But what do we get by classifying Garréta’s novels as Oulipian? To do so requires various acts of reverse engineering: assigning her work to a group whose formation predated her first novel by twenty-six years (and her birth by two) and categorizing Sphinx as Oulipian though she wrote it fourteen years before she joined.
It’s reasonable to think that the Oulipo of the contemporary era is not the Oulipo of the 1960s or 1970s, when the group was in its heyday. Queneau defined the group’s goal as “the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” Le Lionnais elaborated, arguing that the emotion that might be produced from these forms was of secondary importance. The reverse seems true of Garréta’s fiction, where forms are the means of exploring ideas that are present from the start; her aim is not the discovery of these ideas through play and chance but their elucidation.3 There is the danger of being so fixated on a work’s structural or linguistic conceit that the results of that conceit are overlooked. Reading her strictly under the sign of her Oulipo association—as some have been tempted to do—risks missing what is particular to Garréta herself, and missing the other literary allegiances she has made.
In fact, Garréta appears far more indebted to Monique Wittig than to any of the Oulipo writers. Wittig’s first novel, the 1964 Prix Médicis–winning The Opoponax, follows a girl named Catherine Legrand, her sister Véronique, and a band of other clannish, unsupervised children from childhood into adolescence. Catherine Legrand is introduced on the second page of the novel, and the reader is held at a bit of a distance from her, as she herself assesses the world from a remove:
The first time Catherine Legrand came to school she saw the playground from the road, the grass and the lilacs by the fence. The fence is made of shiny metal wire in the shape of diamonds, when it rains the drops run down and stick in the corners, it is over her head. She holds her mother’s hand and her mother pushes open the door to the school. There are lots of children playing in the playground but not a single grownup except for Catherine Legrand’s mother and it would be better if she did not come again, school is only for children, she’d better tell her, should she tell her?
The Opoponax contains almost no dialogue or interior life, and minimal punctuation and transitions between scenes: only an unmediated recitation of happenings and observations—concerning lessons, outings, schoolyard politics, imaginary play, death. “She is reliving it as if it had happened to somebody else, which in fact is always the case,” Mary McCarthy observed of Catherine Legrand. Often the narration gives the impression of a communal voice:
Marie Démone Denise Causse Anne Gerlier Julienne Pont are trying to remember the facts of the first part of the story. Nicole Marre jumps up beside them on the stone bench gets down again jumps up jumps down again. You see that Anne-Marie Brunet is taller than Valerie Borge. They are walking back and forth side by side. Valerie Borge isn’t talking.
Wittig wrote the novel in the third person, using the indefinite pronoun on; when Helen Weaver translated it into English in 1966, she settled on the second-person “you,” perhaps opting for a less awkward syntax. Wittig herself expressed a preference for the nonspecific “one,” a pronoun, she wrote, that can represent “everybody, we, they, I, you, people, a small or a large number of persons—and still stay singular.”4 The choice of pronoun was essential to her aim in the novel: “to universalize the point of view of a group condemned to being particular, relegated in language to a subhuman category.” So generic and capacious is the voice of the novel as it follows Catherine Legrand and her cohort through the years that the reader feels a diminishing difference between Legrand’s consciousness and the collective’s. She comes to represent both the particular and the universal, in the way that male subjects usually do, with a singular moment of ecstasy toward the end as she runs through a field:
Catherine Legrand runs toward the sun, her heart rocks back and forth through her body, the blood beats at her temples, in front of her eyes, it’s like a fog, the sun begins to beat, you can see the contractions of the blood beaten back, sucked in, passing across the sun, you hear the sun begin to beat harder than your heart on the horizon, back and forth, through Catherine Legrand’s body, you hear it, the noise is so loud it explodes in your head.
In a review of The Opoponax the novelist Claude Simon wrote of this narrative transubstantiation, “I see, I breathe, I chew, I feel through her eyes, her mouth, her hands, her skin…I become childhood.” Wittig chose childhood as the setting for her novel because it is the period in which one learns to be gendered through language and to observe, repeat, and mimic what others do. “Try to find what shaped you long ago in the past as far as you can go back and you will find only words,” she wrote in her notes for an interview in the early 1980s.
Garréta has said that, for her, Wittig is an unambiguously queer French woman writer in a pantheon of one. (Though with the addition of Garréta, that number may have doubled.) Rereading Garréta’s novels with Wittig’s in mind, I found a variety of correspondences, including the representation of memory as conjecture and a desire to dissolve the categories and social identities inscribed in language so that the work’s meaning isn’t taken over by them.
There’s also a clue in In Concrete—a character named Catherine Legrand. She is a Black girl in the foster system whom Poulette and Fignole refer to as “our Lady” and whose full name is only given twice, late in the book. At the jousting tournament, a boy (the “jaundiced jabroni”) insults her—“the first black Lady to ever show up at a bicycle joust held on these grounds”—and it is the siblings’ defense of her that initiates the brawl. Catherine Legrand joins them in many of their exploits, until she is sent to a new home, whereabouts unknown.
Fignole muses, “At night, in my head, I think of her, and I wonder where they placed our Lady and how we’ll ever find her again. If they didn’t lose her, if she didn’t get lost.” Though she occupies a small place in the novel, her departure is deeply felt. Her company gave shape to the siblings’ imaginative energies. Without her, they are adrift. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I wanted to find Catherine Legrand again,” Fignole thinks. “We wanted to relaunch the war in her honor.”
Anne F. Garréta, “Oulipian Moment for the End of Times,” Drunken Boat, No. 8 (2006). ↩
In The Oulipo and Modern Thought (2019), Dennis Duncan wonders if the group suffers from what he terms “the Rolling Stone Paradox”: “where a group that’s been around for nearly sixty years can be globally bigger and more profitable than ever, yet their greatest hits—their relevance—are many years behind them.” ↩
Monique Wittig, “The Mark of Gender,” in The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Beacon, 1992), p. 83. ↩