I first heard about Sphinx, by Anne Garréta, a while back when Jenn Im on Youtube talked about it in her favorites. The premise intrigued me – it was a romance between the narrator and their lover, A***, and the author didn’t use gender markers for either character throughout the book. I was curious how the author accomplished this linguistic feat, so I purchased almost immediately. However, my reading had been slow in the last few months, so it wasn’t until just last week that I finished this book.
(This review will not include spoilers.)
From the first pages of the book, I already felt that it was extremely well written and translated. The narrator’s attitude was also established very early in the book; you can tell from early pages that they are in a state of ennui, aimlessly wandering and seemingly without purpose.
However, as I read on, I felt myself being unimpressed with how the author kept the gender of the protagonists unknown. In the English translation, this linguistic challenge was fixed by using more names than pronouns: often times, you’ll see “A***” multiple times on one page because there wasn’t really any other way around gendered pronouns before singular they became more acceptable in modern English.
As such, I increasingly began to think of this novel as any other beautifully written yet lackluster romance. By halfway through the novel, all I wanted to do was rush through it so I could move onto the next book. When I finally finished, I even felt relieved, since, typically, I don’t like reading romances at all. Before closing the book, I saw the translator’s note at the very end and decided to give it a quick scan. I’m glad I did, because the translator’s note completely changed how I looked at the book.
Emma Ramadan, the translator, does a deep dive into the specifics of the French language that make this book so revolutionary. French is a very gendered language, and the linguistic decisions that Garréta made affected the very characters of the book. For example, she used more passive voice to avoid revealing gender, which in turn helped shape the narrator into an aimless wanderer with no purpose. Essentially, the linguistic restraints that she put on her own writing directly affected the characters, their relationship, and the story as a whole.
I would definitely recommend this book – it’s a short read at only 120 pages, and you get to experience the product of a massive linguistic accomplishment. If you understand French, I would recommend that you get that instead of the English, so that you can experience this book in its full glory.
Have you read this book before? Do you know any other books that accomplish some linguistic feat? Let me know in the comments!