In Maggie Nelson’s bestselling 2015 memoir The Argonauts, she describes her partner as “neither male nor female” but “a special—two for one.” That characterization comes to mind when reading the dedication of Anne Garréta’s 1986 novel Sphinx, which states, simply, “To the third.”
Sphinx is the fragmented retelling, “ten or maybe thirteen” years after the fact, of a romance between two characters whose genders are never revealed. It was recently translated into English for the first time by Emma Ramadan. In the book, as in Nelson’s work, gender is both central to the text and completely besides the point. The narrator, je (as Ramadan writes), is a disillusioned theology student who leaves academia for the vibrant Parisian night scene. Thrust by tragic circumstance into the DJ booth of a club called Apocryphe, je discovers both a knack for mixing music and a new hobby in “the contemplation of bodies.”
In this underworld, je meets A***, an alluring African American dancer from Harlem who’s 10 years je’s senior and addicted to sex and television. Across 120 pages, je pursues A***, their relationship crescendos and crumbles, and je struggles to come to terms with the loss by stringing together the very narrative the book comprises. All the while, even though the characters who swirl around the lovers are assigned genders, it’s never made clear if je or A*** identify as male or female or something else. That friends and family draw fault lines across race and age—other ways in which the lovers differ—but never mention gender only deepens the sense that this particular non-biological binary is inconsequential.