:: Article

Sphinx by Anne Garréta – An Excerpt

Sphinx - Anne Garreta

Anne Garréta, Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan, Deep Vellum (April, 2015)

Remembering saddens me still, even years later. How many exactly, I don’t know anymore. Ten or maybe thirteen. And why do I always live only in memory? Soul heavy from too much knowing, body tired from feeling pensive and powerless at the same time, so riven by this obsessive ennui that nothing, or almost nothing, can distract it anymore. Back then, if I recall correctly, I used to describe the world as a theater where processions of corpses danced in a macabre ball of drives and desires. My contempt and ennui did not, however, keep me from observing how this dance dissolved into an amorous waltz. Languid nights at the whim of syncopated rhythms and fleeting pulses; the road to hell was lit with pale lanterns; the bottom of the abyss drew closer indefinitely; I moved through the smooth insides of a whirlwind and gazed at deformed images of ecstatic bodies in the slow, hoarse death rattle of tortured flesh.

But I was slipping and could only keep falling; I couldn’t cut myself off or break from my destiny with a mesmerized flight. Is it blasphemy to insist that my lucid crossing to hell was a direct road to redemption? “You would not look for me if you had not found me; you would not long for me if you had not once held me in your arms.”

Those arms, the intense sweetness, a series of scenes that still ignites a carnal flame in my memory. A*** was a dancer. 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, that satiny skin far superior to anything I had ever known?

In those years I was the resident DJ at the Apocryphe, a fashionable nightclub at the time.

I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to remember the first visions I had of A***. Without a calling, I drift through the world with no control over my explosions of delirious happiness or my collapses into despair. I am easily distracted, ready for the most random deviations. So I must have first spotted A*** during a melancholic, disinterested contemplation of a succession of bodies I wasn’t trying hard to distinguish, on the stage of a cabaret where some obliging alcoholic had decided to drag me, coming from a club where we’d mingled our disappointments. Asking myself afterward what had made the place so appealing, I couldn’t describe it. In that blur, something must have struck me: something started operating underground, a digging, a tunneling in my mind following the blinding impact of a fragment on my retina. A body, just one, that I hadn’t identified, surreptitiously had filled the place with a seduction that permeated so deeply I couldn’t discover the cause, I couldn’t uncover the root of it.

* * *

Not long after that first outing at the Eden, Tiff, one of my friends of the time who had recently become an exotic dancer after her stint as an acrobat, dragged me along on her usual tour of cabarets. I was finally being granted what I had been after for a long time: the chance to be the shadow of a body whose own is stolen by the spotlight. She had agreed to meet me around ten one night, in one of the big cafés on the Place Pigalle. It was autumn. On my way there, I was walking against the current in a flood of hurried men, watchful men with a careful step—where were they going to in such a rush? A streetwalker crossed my path, harnessed in garters and leather straps. Her joints, limbs, and torso were bound in black leather fastened with metallic buckles. On the edge of the sidewalk she began her firefly ballet. She looked like a gladiator, or some kind of beast of burden. All along the boulevard these stores—half sex shop, half erotic lingerie shop—offered the elements of such ensembles. A little farther along, I stopped in front of one of the half-curtained storefronts. Were there really women who wore these blood-red bodices, purple garter belts, and sheer lace thongs? I was continuing on my way when, passing through the halo of light projected onto the pavement from the entrance of a cabaret, I suddenly recalled the spotlight cast on that body dancing the finale on the stage of the Eden. The desire to go back pulsed through me—the fleeting feeling that I had left something behind there.

I sped up until I reached the cafe on the northwest corner of the Place Pigalle. Some working-class men in tired suits were packed tightly together along the bar. The neon dripped a muggy light on this anxious sampling of humanity. Tiff was standing near the cash register talking to one of the servers. I recognized her thanks to the shimmer of her rhinestones and sequins shining dimly through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. Tiff would always start yelling out to me as soon as she saw me. Her shortsightedness, which she refused to correct out of vanity, thankfully limited the range of her shouts—a hello accompanied by so many affectionate names that it had made me blush at the beginning of our friendship. In this café filled with the lingering stench of anxiety and brutality, hearing myself called “my love” and “my pet” sent shivers of nervousness and dread down my spine. In the clash of Arabic sounds and the servers’ shouts, I thought such an outburst would make the world stop spinning. But no one seemed to have noticed—to have heard—what was worrying me so much. It was as if I was acting as a sound box, involuntarily amplifying all the words and noises swirling around me. It was painful listening to the inane music of the pinball machine, the sound of people banging on it, as if each strike were a blow against my skull. In a flash of magnesium, Tiff’s voice bore into my brain. A distant shock continued to spread inside of me, the tremors inciting fear of a potential fragility. A pang at the thought of the Eden, still haunting me, led to the first rip: a tear in the veil that was suffocating my thoughts, completely laying them bare to the surrounding sharpness.

She ordered us both a brandy and a coffee and announced our nocturnal itinerary: a dozen cabarets from Pigalle to Opéra, dives and spectacles of fake luxury where the same strippers strutted every fifteen minutes, turning tirelessly from stage to stage. She was describing hell to me with the frivolity of the damned. Due to the combined effect of a very hot coffee and a very dry cognac I felt a sharp burn in my throat; the perfumed haze radiating down my sinuses blurred my eyes with tears. She noticed: “My child, when you are barely weaned from your mother’s milk, don’t go venturing into places this cheap to drink liquor this strong.” “My love,” “my child”—we made each other burst out laughing.

This tour of cabarets was only a pretext to pursue a major passion of mine: the contemplation of bodies. Passion—arbitrary, blind, and indifferent—needs only to feed off of its own intensity to achieve the paroxysm of its pleasure: its object is of no consequence, chosen arbitrarily and without discrimination. I did the rounds of the professional ballets and the cabarets without distinguishing between the two; the prima ballerina was worth the same to me as the stripper. What could pass for vice or for bad taste was merely the result of a haughty ignorance of relative values. Beauty is just as vapid as its distinctions. I was running after the sublime, where everything is good. I was chasing after an image of ruffled sails that raise themselves like a phantom ship on a sea of oil, drifting, coming together, breaking free at the command of imperceptible trade winds, trailing around an infinite sorrow to the four corners of the stage. And whether the ship was a galley, a schooner, a merchant ship, or a privateer vessel didn’t matter. What did I care whether it put up its sails or slowly stripped itself bare? Its wandering was what moved me.

I spent the night drifting from port to port. While waiting for Tiff, I wallowed in seedy dressing rooms which were in reality mere landings between two flights of stairs, blocked off with battered chairs and cardboard boxes surrounded by bottles of fizzled out sparkling wine under the gray of a flaking ceiling. I observed the hellish comings and goings of strippers dashing around, dressing, undressing, touching up their makeup, fixing their outfits, and spraying perfume; I gazed at myself distractedly in a mirror imprinted with lipstick and etched with clumsy letters. The wheezing of the ceiling fan, the rumble from the nearby stage, the sight of the red velvet sofa covered in holes, burned through by cigarettes, and the feeling of exile between blue walls defiled with the imprints of dirty hands brought me all the closer to that single, splenetic feeling so difficult to define: melancholia. I relished it to the point of drunkenness. In this refuge, a haven of ennui, I could give myself up freely to a vision of bodies shiny with sweat, stranded and exposed under the blind eye of the spotlight, infected by the dampness and stuffy stench of a mob crouching in the shadows of the stage. And here I found what I had come looking for: before my eyes, a sweltering, vitrified clash of light and flesh in the swaying red darkness.

The Black-Jack and the Tahiti had closed two days before after a raid by the vice squad. That left us around forty-five minutes of free time. Our next stop was at the Ambigu, one of the last remaining cabarets of the golden age of Montparnasse. We crossed over the Seine by Pont Neuf. Tiff drove too fast for me to enjoy the ride; I was in the grips of an excited trembling from this race through the almost empty streets of Paris—from the speed, the solemn desertedness of the city, the violent contrast between the lights and their shadows.

A small roadblock in a little street perpendicular to the banks forced us to slow down, and I recognized the entrance to the Eden, still lit up, as we passed. Tiff, noticing my lingering gaze, suggested we go in to have a drink and see some friends. I was in such a rush getting out of the car that she had a hard time keeping up with me in her high heels. Once inside, we said some hurried hellos to the host, the cashier, and the coat checker, and then Tiff led me toward the wings of the stage. The neon dazzled me right away. In front of the mirrors was a row of half- naked women taking off their makeup. I barely had time to observe them before Tiff was dragging me along with her through a maze of doors and stairs toward the dressing rooms of the lead dancers. At the end of the corridor we crossed paths with someone I would come to know later as A***, who, head shaved, was now coming out of the dressing room to perform the finale: the descent down a big staircase lined with a teeming wall of black and white feathers. The show was drawing to a close. The dressing rooms were abuzz with assistants gathering costumes and dancers hurriedly removing their makeup. Tiff introduced me to one of the leads, also one of her old acrobatic partners. Strangely enough, certain of these people recognized me from the Apocryphe or some other club where they would go dancing for their own enjoyment once the show was over.

We had just enough time to exchange a number of hellos and to have a drink before leaving again for the eighth cabaret of the night. The visit to the Eden was a brief respite in this race that made up a typical night for Tiff. I had been in so many cabarets that they all started to look the same by five in the morning: a sweaty inferno, a bombardment of lighting alternatively seedy and brash, a night striped with so many lights that there was neither dusk nor dawn.

By the end of her treks, Tiff always found herself with feet bruised from high-heeled shoes and back aching from lugging her bags of stage costumes from her car to her dismal dressing rooms. Always in a rush, Tiff would grab the reward for her performance on the way out (between twenty and sixty francs depending on the quality of the establishment).

She dropped me off at my door. As I leaned in to say goodnight, her perfume caught my attention. What was it called again, and what did it remind me of? The question nagged at me for a long time before I managed to fall asleep. The next evening, on the way home from buying vinyl records for the Apocryphe, I passed in front of the Guerlain boutique on the Champs-Elysees and the name abruptly came back to me: Parure.

* * *

The Eden held a certain power over me; I was helpless against it. Before I went to work at night, I would spend two hours there, from ten to midnight. The troupe very quickly adopted me: they asked for my opinion on their makeup and confessed to me all their little dramas. I liked to let myself be brushed by naked skin, by boas and feather fans. I liked to watch as a face transformed under the stroke of a pencil and the touch of a brush, the line of a drawn eyebrow, the shape of an accentuated cheekbone. This living exhibition turned me off of antiquities; the odors of perfume and sweat were missing at all the museums I visited.

Out of all the dancers, A*** showed the most enthusiastic fondness toward me. Our relationship was very ceremonious at first. I would follow A*** into the dressing room, often bringing along a token of my affection: flowers; a photograph taken surreptitiously as A*** entered onto the stage; a fashion etching from the 1930s. My attempt at courtship was like something out of a book from the 19th century.

After the kiss on the lips that everyone there was rewarded with upon arrival, I would listen to the details of A***’s day. I would settle deep into the red velvet couch in the dressing room, stretching my legs over the armrest, and silently contemplate the slow process of applying makeup and arranging a costume. I noticed ironically that the dancers spent more time adjusting these little delicate nothings that elude nudity than they would dressing themselves from head to toe for a gala at the Opéra. There are a thousand details to consider when putting on a simple g- string that never even cross the mind of the socialite pulling on her long gown or the man fastening a bow tie on the wing collar of his shirt. A thousand details in order to show off a behind, leaving the thighs and hips free and visible, but without revealing the crotch. 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 the limbs and joints. Before leaving the dressing room, A*** always performed a few dance steps for my selfish pleasure; then we would separate. The last image I had before going to work was of the shimmering golden reflections on skin lit up by dim hallways lights and soon devoured by the shadows of the wings. I would linger for a few moments in the dressing room, contemplating all the tools of metamorphosis, the street clothes lying around. Often I would dreamily put back an object that had fallen on the floor, or leave a little note slipped between the mirror and its frame. It wasn’t the show that brought me to the Eden; I would hurry toward the exit while the audience applauded the opening, sitting with their champagne. Once outside, I would make my way on foot to the Apocryphe, progressively sobering up over the fifteen-minute walk that I always took, regardless of the weather or the season.

Anne Garréta is the first member of the Oulipo to be born after the group was founded in 1960. She was awarded the Prix Médicis in 2002 for her novel Pas un jour. Her novels are renowned for their lavishly creative protagonists: La Décomposition is the first-person tale of a serial killer who systematically murders Proust’s characters, while Ciels liquides tells the story of a character who loses the use of language. She is an associate professor of French literature at the University of Rennes in France, and a visiting professor in the literature program at Duke University.

Emma Ramadan has a BA in comparative literature from Brown University and a Masters in cultural translation from the American University of Paris. Her translation of Anne Parian’s book of prose poetry, Monospace, is forthcoming from La Presse fall 2015. Her translation of Fouad Laroui’s L’Étrange Affaire des Pantalons de Monsieur Dassoukine is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2016. She’s currently on a Fulbright grant in Marrakech on an independent research and translation project.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 30th, 2015.