Anne Garréta was the first person born after the founding of Oulipo to be admitted to the experimental literary group. The conceit of her memoir, Not One Day (2002), is consistent with that association: At the book’s opening, she vows to write five hours a day, every day for a month, each time recollecting one woman whom she’s desired or who has desired her. She will place the entries in alphabetical order. The result, she says, will be a “stammering alphabet of desire,” one that will locate, spell out, and delineate desire in her life. But in the end, the book doesn’t follow its own rules; it is as elusive as desire itself, unable to be pinned down, slippery as the object of its second-person point of view. Rather than comprising, impossibly, an elucidation of the nature of desire, the memoir instead enacts it, becoming an experience of seduction and pursuit.
Garréta has published six books in France, and two—Sphinx (1986) and Not One Day—have been translated into English (in 2015 and 2017, respectively, both by Emma Ramadan). Both upend expectations for love and literature, insofar as we can expect to be anything but transported. In Sphinx, Garréta offers a love story without revealing either of the lovers’ genders. The book is a dark, pulsing romance, tortured and thrilling.
I spoke with Garréta recently about Sphinx and Not One Day. I was, at the time, falling in love and in the grip of desire. “Everything becomes salient,” Garréta told me, when I shared this with her. We talked about the relationship of desire to writing, the various states and attitudes of the physical body, and the reawakening of curiosity.
How do you view the relationship between desire and writing? In your life, are those two things intertwined?
I’d say yes because they’re both quite complicated to figure out and they are both liable to fall into cliché, into patterns that are customary and basically uninteresting. So the difficulty, both in desire and in writing, is to create forms that are not necessarily given or granted. It takes effort. I would say that it’s not a writing of desire, or that there’s a direct connection—there’s an analogy.
What do you mean “an analogy”?
The analogy is that they have the same structure. 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.
For instance, by removing gender from the equation of love. Removing it from the language and thereby removing it from the relationship.
Right, and thinking about what does removing gender do both to the imagination of love and to the form of the novel.
What about memoir? In Not One Day, you’re overt about the fact that the author-as-character is constructed, so I can’t assume that in the first chapter, what you say about, for instance, confessional writing or writing about desire, actually reflects your feelings. How do you feel about the messiness of writing desire?
The more you attempt to do it, the more you realize that it’s an impossible task. The task of elucidating desire always has a remainder—there is always a piece of the story left over. So you think you have become lucid about things that you feel, that you went through, what a certain type of story or relationship was about, and then you realize there might have been something else going on that you did not even notice. And it’s not a matter, simply, of repression, say. It’s just the great difficulty in figuring out what one feels, what one experiences, what one actually desires.
You can never completely figure it out.
No, and the danger comes when you think you’ve figured it out. You’re very likely to fall flat on your face.
You were talking earlier about repeating the same old patterns. You run that risk, too—if you think you’ve completely figured something out, then you may have failed to see a pattern in your life or in yourself.
Right, the underlying pattern. It’s because there’s no immediate translation between what you perceive and what you think. There’s a filtering, which distances any human being from what they’re actually perceiving of the world around them. So this is increased or emphasized or made worse in issues of desire and issues of love, where there’s not simply the feeling and the emotion, but also a lot of possible passions like narcissism, like fear of lust, fear of abandonment, et cetera. My sense is that writing is a great instrument of investigation. It helps more than anything to clarify things sometimes, if it’s properly used.
Can it clarify even if we can never completely understand?
No, but there’s a difference between being totally blind and living chiaroscuro. I’m not saying that it brings about total enlightenment, it just gives us a little sense of where we might be standing. So we might be shadowboxing instead of stumbling blindly through obstacles.
It’s interesting, when you’re writing about desire, how much you’re looking at and interpreting gestures and tiny nuances.
I really appreciate the fact that you noticed that because I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. Because again, it’s very opaque—you’re trying things, but then sometimes there’s a moment of clarity retrospectively. I’ve been focusing more and more on this sense that we do not pay enough attention to that microscopic level of how we walk, how we talk, the gestures, the attitudes. I’m more and more interested in these various states and attitudes of the body and what they communicate, and how they’re deeply linked or how they produce our identity, more precisely.
What do you mean “produce our identity”?
Here’s an example. Some of my students are sometimes very good students who are very shy. You can see it in the way they walk, in the way they sit in their chairs, in the way they stand in the middle of a room in public. I tell them that if they want to teach, they’ll be devoured by their students. If they’re going to be teaching in real places, they need to practice something that is going to give them physical assertiveness. I tell them to do some sort of martial arts because it’s going to change their relationship to their body.
I love the chapter in Not One Day about the self-defense class. It’s all about tiny gestures and the almost undetectable suggestions within them.
The difficulty is that all of these things are below the radar. We’re trained as animals to detect aggression and affection in others, and all of these gestures are interpreted in the background. You’re barely conscious of them. To bring them back to the fore is extremely difficult. But it’s been very much the work of literature to bring back to the fore things that are processed in the background. Think Nathalie Sarraute, Virginia Woolf, or Georges Perec. It’s a sublevel, which might not be the Freudian unconscious, which might just be below the radar of consciousness—and writing can bring it back up.
In Not One Day, you compare it to spiderwebs—undetectable threads between people, and we can feel the tug of the threads between our bodies. I said something similar the other day to my girlfriend—I think I can feel what you’re feeling sometimes. And I’m not just imagining it. Maybe I’m reading small movements in her face, but I actually think it’s more magical than that, or more chemical.
But it’s also the fact that when you’re attracted to someone, everything about them becomes salient. We pass hundreds of people walking on the sidewalks of a big city, and we don’t even notice who they are, what they look like, their gestures and postures, unless we make an effort, or unless we have a kind of professional curiosity. But being in love, or being attracted, suddenly you pay attention. Suddenly everything becomes significant and you see things you’ve never seen in anybody else’s body, or aspects of walking, talking, standing. Extreme attention is paid to what we generally don’t notice.
Can you compare this to any other life experience?
That hyperawareness? I would say it’s like being a hunter or being prey. I tend to look at it as something very archaic—it’s hunting, it’s capture. It’s deeply inscribed in the species.
It’s desirable to be the prey, too. You’re hunting but you also want to be hunted.
Right, and socially we have a tendency to partition the world into hunters on the one side and prey on the other. What’s more interesting is a reversibility of positions, because you get to see more and to understand more of the world that way.
In Sphinx, because the narrator is a dj, there’s so much focus on bodies in the audience, bodies in the club moving together with the music, this automatic synchronicity.
With music, and with almost very little music, just a basic rhythm, we can manage to synchronize any number of bodies and produce something very strange, which is a trans-individual feeling. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that at nightclubs or at parties, when there’s really something happening. Again, it’s archaic, even produced by the most contemporary forms of electronic dance music, and sampling and remixing, and amplified sound and noise, it’s still one of the basic building blocks of the feeling of being in common. When I wrote Sphinx, I must have spent two and a half years, every night, in nightclubs, never sleeping even one night in my own bed. I was fascinated by the spectacle.
When you were writing Sphinx were you dj’ing full-time?
Full-time, professionally in nightclubs in Paris. I was supposed to be a student full time, but I spent my nights dj’ing and then would go take exams at the university.
Was your dj’ing experience the inspiration for the novel?
Yes, very much, and it’s an experience I don’t regret because there’s this way of thinking about forms, about art, about constructing novels that is also a function of this experience of dj’ing. I had a very classical French education, so I can tell you everything about the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, et cetera, but I was also in the middle of very contemporary stuff. The dj culture was this new mode of producing bodies, of getting bodies to be together, of dealing with music.
Do you think of writing in the same way as dj’ing?
Oh, yes. There’s a novel of mine that has not been translated, La décomposition. It’s written on the principle of sampling and remixing. But sampling and remixing is the same thing as the old logic of détournement, or collage, of the twentieth-century avant-garde, from Cubism on—selection, quotation, pulling together little moments and fragments and things, and doing something new with something old. Decontextualizing and recontextualizing a fragment of meaning.
You also write about dj’ing a bit in Not One Day, but I don’t know which of those sections is fictionalized.
But the information about the technical practices is not fictional. And knowing which section is fictionalized doesn’t matter. What matters is the sudden twist, when you, the reader, thought you knew what you were trying to capture, and the text turns on you and you don’t know any longer. So, it’s again this hunting/hunter, prey/capture, and deflection.
Sphinx was translated into English thirty years after you wrote it. How did it feel to revisit it?
I haven’t reread Sphinx in a long time. I was very young when I wrote it, so now when I reread it, all I see are the defects, the flaws, the places where I shouldn’t have written that sentence, or that word is not what I meant, or the structure isn’t the way it should be. I understand what I was trying to do. I think it was worth the effort and the idea or the principle behind it really did something—it was a strong attempt at displacing something in the culture. But still, I’m not happy with it.
When Emma Ramadan was in Paris and was at work on the translation, I worked with her regularly for a couple of months to go over certain passages, but at some point, I couldn’t take that book any longer, and I went into one of my modes, which is radio silence. And Emma finished the job all by herself, and bravely. But I’ve been unable to reread it in English.
I’m grateful and honored that people find something in it, and I sound kind of ungrateful or falsely modest when I say, No, it’s flawed. It’s something I should entirely rewrite—except that I don’t know how to go about reading it in order to rewrite it. Not One Day was much easier because I wrote it much later in my life and I knew better how to control the effects. I was better at calibrating the intensity, the variations in intensity. It’s less youthful, romantic. I can reread it. I actually worked in-depth on that translation, so it was a totally different ball game.
In the beginning of Not One Day, you talk about giving your reader what you think they desire—stories from your life, stories about desire—which implies a certain relationship between author and reader, pursued and pursuer, which is shifting. How did it feel to have your very first novel reach a new audience? To form anew this new relationship between author and reader?
It’s very strange, because of course I wrote that novel. Of course I remember very precisely what went into that novel, and the key desire, the determination I felt to upend the system of gender in language and in representation. I wanted to do something that was thought impossible, or that was thought extremely transgressive, and I had the will to do it. So, I know it’s me. I still have the same desire, when I write, to do something different, do something that is going to bring into question some of our presuppositions, some of our pieties or whatever. I still want to write in that mode, but aesthetically I can’t identify any longer with the writer of Sphinx. So it’s as if it happened to someone I knew. It’s as if the translation is a book by someone I knew—and, well, someone slightly irritating but for whom I have a certain fondness. And that’s how it goes.
Now, what’s interesting is that thirty years later, people didn’t seem to notice that the book was that old. It seemed to be fully contemporary. And I’m pretty proud of that, for that friend of mine who wrote that book thirty years ago. It has withstood the test of time.
Has your work landed differently in America than in France? Have you noticed that readers receive your books differently in either place?
I would say that it’s been very well accepted in the U.S., now—at this moment. At the time in France there was some strong … I mean, it sold well, it was a success, it was heralded, etcetera. But there was a level of negative reaction, of politically negative reaction, which was interesting.
For example, before the book got picked up by Grasset & Fasquelle, which has been my publisher ever since, I presented it to another publisher. The readers’ reports were good, but the head of the publishing house refused to publish the book, saying that it was a perverse book.
Perverse because you didn’t identify the lovers’ genders?
Right, because it was basically undermining or deconstructing a difference, or a binary, which that person held to be foundational to civilization, or culture. Now, thirty years later in the U.S.—after years and years of queer theory, deconstruction, Judith Butler, all sorts of things—there’s no scandal any longer. There’s just a strange experiment which validates the experience we have now of gender and sexuality.
You mentioned Judith Butler just now, and it occurs to me that you’re also an academic. How does academic writing inform or interact with your creative writing?
I’ve always done both things at the same time. I like to think and I like to write. I’ve more or less designed my life around that. The thing is that academia does not require only that you think, it also requires sacrifices to the gods of academia. Conferences, you know, and doing things a certain way. It used to be that theorists would pay more attention to literature, and I think it was good for theory. Nowadays, people don’t read literature the way they should read it. They read it to find an example of something they have thought about earlier. Just an illustration, if you will. Very few people are willing to undergo the real experience of reading a book. It’s also possibly because so many books are formulaic, so it’s not an experience any longer.
What is it if it’s not an experience?
It can be relaxation, it can be a ritual, it can be a habit. It gets your brain modulated in a certain way. Very few books and very few authors manage to make the reading of the book an experience. And I’m always looking for writers who do that.
How do you define “experience”?
Well, you embark on the thing and you don’t necessarily know where you’re going, and as you experience the book—or it can be a movie or a piece of art—it reorders the circulation of your affects, of your perceptions, in a way which is not always easy to figure out because it’s, once again, very opaque. You think you might be bored sometimes, but not entirely bored because things happen. But—something happens. It manipulates your desires, your perceptions, your affects in ways that aren’t predictable.
You see something new.
Right. That’s real experimental literature, by comparison with blockbusters, James Bond–type of movies. They can be fun to watch but leave very little in memory.
Most books don’t include this kind of experience.
Right, because—I’m not going to say something that’s extraordinarily original—but lots of books are written following a formula. The formula is something which can be taught, can be replicated, multiplied indefinitely. The difficulty, or the interesting things, are books that manage to hold your interest, that do something without being a pure replication of a formula.
Or might employ a formula to a greater end.
Exactly. Give it a tweak. It can be a minor twist, a tweak of the formula, but then it displaces something in your perception. The problem is that after a while, when you’ve spent enough years reading enough books, which is what you’re going to end up doing—you’ve already read a lot of books, you’re going to read more and more—you’ll open a book and think, Well, I’ve already read that twenty times. Give me something new. There was a point when I started despairing of ever finding something new, but I still manage to find new things. There’s a lot happening, there’s still life in literature.
Do you find that your work in academia continues to open up or help broaden your experience of literature?
It’s more a deepening than an opening up. It’s a deepening because I get to read and reread certain types of texts. I get to think again, to look at them through different, accumulated lenses. For example, when I sit on the jury of a literary prize, I receive two hundred and fifty novels and have to wade through them. It’s a slog, but then suddenly I discover something I’ve never seen before. That’s a kind of “opening.” Academia is more an opportunity to test out, to deepen my understanding of certain things, simply by having to tell others, mostly by teaching.
How has your relationship to desire changed over your many years of writing about it?
Well, I’m calmer than I used to be. This also has to do with the fact that my desires were not received normatively in the society I was living in. Their expression took on an urgency that they probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Being in a minority gives a certain edge to what you’re feeling. That was the case—it still is the case—but I’ve been more and more interested not in desire per se, because it’s coextensive with life, but how to turn it into forms that are not destructive, which can be more utopian. What has surprised me, though I shouldn’t be surprised, is the strange devolution of desire in the commodified and reified forms of pornography. I mean, I’m not anti-pornography. I’m not a puritan, and I think that people should be doing whatever they want, but I’ve been quite surprised at how boring, how limited people’s experience of desire has remained, even though they’re made to believe there’s a sudden flowering or abundance of products on the market. I’m pretty stunned. For example, I have this Ph.D. student who’s writing a dissertation on pornography—basically, he’s looking at it and he’s doing analysis. And so much of it is boring that I really wonder if there’s anything—
So much of the pornography he’s writing about is boring?
All of it. Or, everything that I come across is boring. I don’t understand how people can stand such boredom. I don’t think people’s desires are simpler than mine. Children, all human beings, except in the cases of dramatic mishaps, have curiosity. They have an appetite for knowledge, for playing, etcetera. And what I see after a few years is this explosion of curiosity reduced and reduced, socially, to these very narrow types of endeavor, or pursuit, enjoyment. And I think it’s the same thing with people’s desires and capacities for love. I think they’re channeled into extraordinarily boring and reified products.
Can they be reawakened or rediscovered?
I hope so. I hope people are not dead or not fully zombified.
I think that for people who are interested in literature or interested in art, that curiosity is preserved longer than for people who are not interested in those things. We’re generous with our desires as artists. We share our desires with others. Art functions partly to reawaken this.
I agree, but why should those possibilities be restricted to a small group of people? I think it would make life more interesting in general and more livable in general if this were not such a restricted option, or if access were not so restricted. What if it were a general practice or a practice sufficiently widely shared that you don’t feel like a kind of perverse minority?
That’s the utopia you were referring to a moment ago.
That’s the utopia of it. It’s very important to keep it alive.
Has that sense of urgency grown for you over time?
It’s still the same. And I think there’s no difference, say, thirty years ago and now, in terms of all of the things that are absolutely unbearable—our environment, ways of living, ways of being, our ways of relating and dealing with bodies.
I just remembered that earlier today you had to deal with some bodies who needed to get to Tae Kwon Do practice.
Right, my kids. I have twins with my partner, a boy and a girl. I want them to be able to fight for themselves, stand up for themselves, and stand up for what’s right. This entails a certain technique of the body which gives them some ways of keeping safe and having a relationship of trust between their world and themselves. I don’t want to send my kids to college without a black belt in something.
The martial arts come with a tradition of respect and thoughtfulness, self-control.
It’s the opposite of wanton brutality or violence, and it has an aesthetic aspect. Dance used to be a martial art, and in some quarters it still is. Brazilian capoeira, for example, is a dance and a martial art.
Did you ever practice dance?
No, I wish I had. Outside of the regular nightclub setting, I’m not a dancer. Did you?
For a couple of years. I studied gymnastics as a child for six years, and then ballet for three years, and then I became more interested in music in high school, then got into photography, then writing. I had always been writing. But I cycled through all of the arts, and I find it interesting how much they commingle in your work, how one art form interacts with another.
It’s a whole package. There’s no way to make it a specialization. You’re either good with language or you’re good with images—human beings don’t work that way. The most interesting writers are the ones who are not simply stuck with words on a page but have some sense of another dimension.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, a New York Times critics’ choice, and the novel Binary Star, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times first fiction prize. Her short stories, essays, interviews, and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, Granta, The Baffler, Vice, Bomb Magazine, and other journals. She writes a monthly column for Hazlitt and teaches writing in New York City.
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