The most erotic experiences of Anne Garréta’s life took place in a dojo—when the writer’s face was being flattened against a sweaty mat, or her sternum was the target for a series of strikes. She tells the story in a chapter of Not One Day, her slim collection of writings on desire, published in French in 2002 and just translated into English by Emma Ramadan. Upon learning that a younger woman in her self-defense class has been pining after her, but not which one, Garréta begins to read desire into every encounter. Victim-aggressor role-play becomes an arousing dance. She waits for the desirer to be unmasked by a pause that lasts a second too long, or “by a gesture that was a bit too emphatic or a bit too soft.” But the revelation never comes; desire remains fluid, attaching itself to every body and every interaction and becoming “utterly enchant[ing]” for it.
The self-defense chapter, which appears towards the end of Not One Day, twists itself around the key questions of the text, which Garréta hints at with the book’s opaque dedication: “to none.” What does desire look like and to whom does it belong? And why is she writing these personal stories in the second-person—or, rather, for whom? True to her origins, Garréta doesn’t answer outright but rather pulls the reader into a little literary game.
Garréta is best known for her debut novel, Sphinx, a love story between two characters whose genders are never revealed. The novel, published in French in 1986 and translated into English last year, helped her become the first female member of the OuLiPo, the French collective of writers and mathematicians who work within self-imposed constraints. While the constraint of Sphinx (and most OuLiPian texts) is never stated outright, in Not One Day Garréta lays out a series of rules for herself in the opening pages: She will sit down at a computer for five hours a day—“no more no less”— every day for a month, and write about a woman she has desired or who has desired her. There will be no drafting, no erasing, and no revisions. She will write the memories as they come to mind, then order them not chronologically but alphabetically, after an initial somehow related to the central figure of each. As she puts it, she will “subject [herself] to the discipline of confessional writing.”
“The stammering alphabet of desire” that follows is sweeping in scope and style. Each of the 12 stories, just a few pages long, can be read as a reflection on a different kind of desire. In “B*,” the author is made indecisive with yearning, “sketching out [a] virtual night” as she debates whether to invite a woman over for drinks. In “C*” she grapples with her sudden unreasonable attraction to a woman in a club that she’s long found repulsive. “D*” is mostly comic digression; to delay writing about a series of uncomfortable sexual encounters, Garréta muses about her failure to live a spartan life (her mother lavishes her with teaspoons and dishtowels—family heirlooms—that she cannot refuse). In a slew of different styles, her stories explore feelings that are acted upon or repressed, requited or not, protean or fixed.
This translation of Not One Day makes it the latest in a string of genre-bending books by female authors that defy a common assumption about confessional writing: that it is, more often than not, an unrestrained spewing of emotion, lacking craft or consideration. (This is precisely why, as Leslie Jamison wrote in the pages of The Atlantic, a number of female memoirists——who, not coincidentally, are far more likely to be assigned this label—have rejected the term.) Perhaps most memorable is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, published in 2015, which catalogues her partnership with the fluidly gendered West Coast artist Harry Dodge through the seamless blending of autobiography and theory. By placing her own stories on the same plane as philosophy, psychology, art theory, and more, Nelson asserts the instructive value of her own experiences.
At around the same time, Chris Kraus’s cult novel, I Love Dick, took more mainstream flight. In this book, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker (also named Chris Kraus) becomes infatuated with a man named Dick and, egged on by her husband Sylvère, begins to write him letters. What starts as an arousing couple’s activity that reignites the passion in Chris and Sylvère’s marriage becomes a solo one that threatens their union. Meanwhile, Kraus’s letters become longer and more confident in voice, playfully weaving in discussions of art, criticism, and history.
I Love Dick met an icy reception when it was first released in 1997, for what some critics saw as its oozing of feeling and blatant disregard for Dick’s privacy. With the help of hindsight—and republication—it’s now hailed as a bold and successful experiment in personal writing, with fans like Sheila Heti, Lena Dunham, and Jill Soloway, who has even adapted it into a series for Amazon. The zeitgeist lagged behind Kraus—much as it did for Garréta, whose Sphinx and Not One Day were translated into English more than a decade after they were published in France. In I Love Dick, Kraus, perhaps unwittingly, offers an explanation for why Americans have been slow to accept such bold, experimental writing by female authors: “Who gets to speak and why ... is the only question.”
Though Garréta is wary of the “slippery slope” of confessional writing and the cliché that can lie at the base of it—“All we seem to do nowadays is tell and retell the stories of our lives … from the same angle, convinced there’s only one key to unlock the secret of our subjectivity: desire,” she writes—she finds herself drawn to “play at this very old game.” Indeed, “play” is right. Much like Nelson and Kraus, Garréta explores love and desire outside of familiar scripts, refusing to be boxed in by social or linguistic conventions.
Garréta does this most fiercely in the chapter titled “L*,” describing how a girl of “ten or eleven, perhaps” (the age of “a growing body’s prolonged clumsiness”) becomes besotted with the much-older author after she guides her along some difficult terrain (“the soles of her little girl shoes were sliding on the cobblestone”). When the girl’s stepmother explains away her daughter’s infatuation by saying she’d confused the short-haired author for the Prince Charming of her fairytales, Garréta rejects her simplified analysis. If “by some fluke” it were a fairytale, she retorts to the reader, the neglectful stepmother would fit her designated mold of “the witch, an obscene narcissist, a jealous caster of spells.” Garréta makes it clear that this ambiguous romance is not the stepmother’s to interpret. In doing so, she defends what Nelson elegantly describes in The Argonauts as “the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one.”
For all the novel kinds of desire Garréta catalogs, with joy or regret or longing, the book is less a musing on desire itself than on the difficulty of recording desire. In between the vivid scenes of “L*,” for instance, Garréta laments for pages about how rare such clear, sensory recollections are. These “memory-images,” like “paintings defying the articulation of a single perspective,” must therefore be strung together with memories that amount to little more than “a sort of stenographic scribbling of the past.” Aware though she is of the trap of cliché, she can’t help but produce a “hasty script, to be completed with all that we know too well, or believe we know too well.”
Garréta may at times feel frustrated by her experiment, but it’s precisely these messy moments—when her project “explod[es] in [her] face” as she puts it—that her experiences seem the most real. Take the heartbreaking “K*,” in which the author catalogs her growing desire for a longtime friend in a series of fragmented scenes, her whirring mind captured by lengthy sentences with many clauses. Her struggle to narrate this particular story leads her to discover this desire was something else entirely—love—and to belatedly grieve the loss. As she writes: “It’s because the memory is still alive that it resists autopsy and decimation over the course of a story.” K*, still significant to her, will not be immobilized by her typing. The act of writing, in all its disarray, has clarified her memory, making the fuzzy edges of feeling more defined.
But this particular confession is nothing compared to what comes next. In the post-script, Garréta reveals that she didn’t play by her rules. Thanks to her “cardinal vice—procrastination,” she wrote the chapters over the course of 16 months, rather than one; she sat down to type in the evenings, rather than in the daytime. “It would probably be more honest … to change the title to Not One Night,” she muses, “but that would violate in its turn the rule whereby you decided to eschew second-guessing and crossing out.” Adding to the unreliability, it turns out one of these “exercises in memory” is actually fiction. “How will you henceforth (re)read them, reader?” she asks. “As fables or as true stories?”
Garréta had hinted as much at the start—“that no subject ever expresses herself in any narration”—but even with the advance warning, it’s a jarring revelation. Suddenly readers are like Garréta in the dojo, (re)reading every encounter, and unable to locate desire with any certainty. But if her dojo dwelling illuminated anything it’s that desire lives largely in the “search for signs,” and now the reader is in on the game. That it’s not clear which stories are “the unwinding of memory in a given moment” and which story is fiction forces readers to review their assumptions about what desire does and does not look like, and what the confessional form can and cannot contain. With this final, cheeky revelation, Garréta proves that personal disclosures don’t always represent the self-serving pouring forth of feeling, but can be powerful—and empowering—acts that provoke reckoning.