Sphinx – Anne Garreta

The blurb has billed Sphinx as a love story that delves into the nightclubs and cabarets of afterhours Paris. But it is much more than that. It is not just the story but the way that it is told that makes the novel stand out.

Indeed, it is all very well to write any kind of novel. But how about writing a novel by deliberately imposing a constraint and then writing within its confines? Not that simple. This is what the writers from the ‘Oulipian’ movement chose to do. The most illustrative example is the author Georges Perec. He wrote his book ‘La Disparition’ (which I have not read) by not using words containing the letter E in the entire text.

Anne Garreta chooses to do something similar; making this the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo.

So where is the Oulipian constraint in Sphinx?

Sphinx, in very simple terms, is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer from America. Basically, this is not just a love story but a genderless love story. And that is its main conceit.

Throughout the novel, the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.

A glimpse into the plot then. It begins with the unnamed narrator reminiscing about the time when he or she met the dancer A*** in a cabaret in Paris.

It is revealed to us that the narrator is an intelligent student looking to major in theology but somewhere along the line is gripped by an infinite sense of boredom. It doesn’t help that debates and the classes in general lack intellectual rigour. Not surprisingly, the narrator starts drifting.

A priest tries to be a sounding board to the narrator and help provide some direction. They start meeting regularly and ironically these discussions take place in clubs and cabarets. One such nightclub, The Apocryphe, becomes a regular haunt.

The narrator then recalls the catastrophe that takes place in The Apocryphe, which leads to him/her taking up the temporary post of the resident DJ in that club.

And so began what seemed to me a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering. The Padre neither encouraged nor discouraged me from this new path; after all, he had been partly responsible for leading me into it.

Post the shift at The Apocryphe, a tour of clubs and dives followed with a group of friends. That is how they end up in the Eden and where the narrator meets A***.

Over many meetings, the narrator relentlessly pursues A***, who finally relents. What follows therefore is a whirlwind relationship between the two. But it’s not always easy as society, bogged by stereotypes, is all too ready to condemn them. Nobody understands why they are together in the first place.

At the Apocryphe and everywhere we went, people made remarks about our striking dissimilarity. They teased me over the contrast in colour between our skins, they stressed the difference in our mannerisms: the impulsiveness of A***’s voice and gestures, that wild exuberance and openness to the world, which by comparison underscored my moderation and reserve. A*** in turn had to bear the incessant prattle about my religious and social background. They painted a picture of my incomprehensible oddities: my isolation; my taste for solitude strangely coexisting with a sudden dive into this world; an unheralded abandon of a university career for the improvised post of DJ. For want of any intelligible coherence, they assumed I must be harbouring some kind of vice or perversion.

This then is a novel about love, its difficulties and the unimportance of gender. The writing shines too. It is indeed a feat that Garreta could write such a novel and still manage to not reveal the gender. Certainly, it would have been a challenging task in the original language French, where the construction of verbs in a sentence, typically gives an idea of the gender of the subject.

What about its translation to English? Here the translator Emma Ramadan has to be applauded too. In an illuminating afterword, Ramadan has pointed out the challenges in translating such a text and how she had to bend or rewrite the text in such a way that the gender of the characters is not revealed and at the same time the essence of the text is not lost.

In a world where pre-conceived notions about gender, race, religion and identity form the fabric of modern society, Sphinx does a great job in ripping it apart.



After The Circus – Patrick Modiano

I hadn’t heard of the French author Patrick Modiano until he came into the limelight when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Clearly it was time to explore him.

In the Café of Lost Youth was my first foray into Modiano and I was hugely impressed. It only made sense then that I work my way through his back catalogue…and so zeroed in on After the Circus.

After the Circus (wonderfully translated by Mark Polizotti) is a deeply atmospheric and evocative tale set in Paris. It opens with the narrator (whom we later come to know is called Jean)  in a police station, being asked some questions, to which he replies but not always truthfully (for one he tells them that he is an adult when he is actually underage). We do not know why he is being questioned. Actually, neither does Jean himself. All we know is that the police found Jean’s name in an address book.

When Jean emerges from the room, he notices a woman (Gisele) called in for questioning after him. Something about her leaves an impression on his mind. He waits for her at a café and when they get talking, we learn that her name was in that address book as well.

The two are strangely drawn to each other and the rest of the novel charts how they spend their days walking around the streets of Paris; the city, beautifully evoked, and as much a character in this novel as Jean and Gisele.

Jean, meanwhile, is offered a position in a bookshop in Rome, which he welcomes with open arms. He puts across the idea to Gisele who consents to shift with him there. Given his past, Paris remains a murky city for Jean and Rome promises to be the place where he can make a fresh start.

Why is Jean haunted by his past? Probably, it has something to do with his father, who was always involved in shady dealings and is now on the run. The precise nature of these dealings is a mystery.

But there is something more that unsettles Jean. This is where we are introduced to a few more characters, Pierre Ansart and Jacques de Bavieres – acquaintances of Gisele – who convince the couple to run an errand for them. The purpose of this errand and its ultimate consequences remains vague, peculiar and strange.

This then is typical Modiano fare. His novels are impressionistic, suffused with atmosphere, longing, and always pointing to how imperfect memories are.

Throughout this novel a continuous sense of unease prevails. Is Gisele really who she seems to be? And as the two of them plan to escape Paris and shift to Rome, will they finally leave their demons behind?

After the circus

The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford

‘This is the saddest story that I have ever heard.’ Thus begins Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece The Good Soldier.

John Dowell (the narrator of this story) and his wife Florence are leisured and wealthy Americans. They meet Edward Ashburnham (‘the good soldier’ of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora, who are English and of a certain class, in a German spa resort town. A nine-year friendship ensues. In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that his wife Florence and Edward Ashburnham are dead but we do not know why. Nor do we know the circumstances surrounding their deaths. What follows therefore is a tale of deception, intrigues and the dawning realization of how mismatched the couples are.

What’s interesting here is how John Dowell chooses to tell this story. Since he is looking back to the past and trying to make sense of what has happened, the narration is not linear in the way traditional novels are. It is a very rich and layered story and as the novel progresses, the explanations and motives of the characters become clearer. Or do they? After all, we only know one point of view and that is John Dowell’s.

The other strength of the novel is how psychologically complex the characters are. For one , they are well fleshed out. But because of the narrative style, we find our sympathies for the characters constantly shifting. And that makes the novel ripe for multiple interpretations.

This is a tremendous novel, brilliantly written and Ford’s crowning achievement; a fact the author acknowledged too.

Indeed, in 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Good Soldier 30th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2015, the BBC ranked The Good Soldier 13th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels. Truly well-deserved and a classic.


Mad Enchantment – Ross King

For an art junkie, a trip to Paris is incomplete without a visit to the Musee d’Orsay. This is after all the mecca of Impressionism, that art movement in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, which was reviled by critics in its early years but revered much later. Musee d’Orsay displays a host of paintings by Impressionist painters such as Renoir, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro and the father of them all – Claude Monet.

But this is not the only museum that showcases Monet’s art. The Orangerie Museum is dedicated to Monet and more so for displaying his famous water lily paintings. It is these paintings which form the subject matter of Ross King’s engrossing book ‘Mad Enchantment’.

This then is a biography of not only Monet but also the history behind the creation of these water lily paintings or Monet’s ‘upside down paintings’ as they were so called. King goes on to show a bit of Monet’s early life as a painter, the essential ‘Frenchness’ of his art as he painted canvases of the Normandy coast,  wheat stacks, and the Rouen  cathedral to name a few. King touches upon the significance of light in these paintings. Essentially Monet worked a lot outdoors and that too on many canvases at a time so that he could capture that fleeting play of light in his work.

Ross then goes on to show how besides painting, Monet also developed a strong interest in gardening. This is significant as it prompted Monet to cultivate a water lily pond in his garden at Giverny with the famous Japanese bridge across it.

This water lily pond then became a subject of his art for much of his later years. The idea for a ‘Grand Decoration’ was conceived; a slew of water lily paintings on much larger canvases. These would be displayed in a circular room, which Monet called his ‘flowery aquarium’ thereby giving a sense of peace to the observer.

But the path to realize this ambition was not always easy. King explains how Monet had to suffer the difficulties of the First World War, periods of self-doubt, loss of some of his family members and contemporaries, and his own diminishing eyesight…to create these masterworks.

King’s prose flows smoothly and makes this biography fascinating and eminently readable. A must read then for anyone remotely interested in art and art history.


The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

First read of the new year and a cracking start.

An 18 year old Irish woman studying in drama school falls madly in love with an established actor, a little more than 20 years her senior. But more than the age gap, it is the older man’s dark past that could potentially derail their relationship.

With an unflinching eye, author Eimear McBride examines this relationship in microscopic detail. The prose is stream of consciousness style and yet accessible, rhythmic, sensual and remarkably intimate.

This is McBride’s second book and was shortlisted for the relatively new Goldsmiths Prize, set up to reward innovation in literature.

 lesser bohemians

The best of 2016

It’s been a great year of travel, and armchair travel!

Here are my top ten reads for 2016. Unique voices, innovative and sharp writing, and strong themes make them stand out.

Relationships dominate the list but they are not always romantic. ‘The Blue Room’ and ‘Hot Milk’ explore the complex relationship between mother and daughter as the daughters struggle to gain individuality.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ beautifully captures the growing love a young French girl feels for her father who has just returned from war and who she is seeing for the first time.

Can two sisters, in a remote northernmost part of Norway, live harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? ‘The Looking Glass Sisters’, a much darker work, had me riveted.

In ‘Attachment’, a French student reminisces on her romantic relationship with her professor and how it was received by her family. ‘Paulina & Fran’ throws light on bohemian life in art colleges and how the reality, once you graduate, can be different.

However, human contact is not something one craves all the time. ‘Pond’ is a captivating tale of the pleasures of a life in solitude told by an unnamed young woman in a series of vignettes.

‘Manual for Cleaning Women’ has been a real find. Berlin led an eventful life. Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman while raising four boys all one her own. All of her experiences are captured in this rich collection of short stories in prose that is simply luminous.

And no one writes about California and LA as brilliantly as Joan Didion does in Play It As It Lays. The novel brutally dissects 1960s American culture.

The Faulkner is of course a classic and very rightly so.

That rounds up a truly wonderful reading year!

And oh, I just noticed that Faulkner is the only male author on the list:)