‘Not One Day’ by Anne Garréta


By Jeff Bursey


At the beginning of the end of summer I spent pleasurable time reading reminiscences written by an unnamed narrator we are encouraged to think of as Anne Garréta, often referring to herself as “you,” that were composed according to a guideline (one of many) confidently outlined in the “Ante Scriptum” to Not One Day:

Which simply means that you will allocate five hours (the time it takes a moderately well-trained subject to compose a standard academic essay) each day, for a month, at your computer, aiming to recount the memory you have of one woman or another whom you have desired or who has desired you. That will be the narrative: the unwinding of memory in the strict framework of a given moment.

The women are given pseudonyms like B or E. (With my usual wariness—neither a vice or virtue—I didn’t regard the voice as that of the real Anne Garréta, but as a narrator whom I call N. As I’ve said elsewhere, non-fiction can feature personas just like fiction.) In confessional writing, for that’s what Not One Day partly is, there lies a greater danger than for novelists of actual people spotting themselves, or assuming they have. N. has prepared for that with an amusing defence laid out in “Post Scriptum”:

Finally, if such or such a person, [sic] formally recognizes herself under one or another initial and in this ink-mirror does not find her reflection flattering, wouldn’t she have herself to blame for having had the curiosity to read a book published under your name, in which she knew she ran the risk of encountering herself? Will she accuse the book or her desire to see herself figured in it, and find herself there, bared, even though forewarned… And to those who might object to the memory you have kept of them, you will respond that this memory stems from you just as much as from them: why didn’t they leave you a nicer one? But that is very much hypothetical. You don’t think you have really mistreated the characters of your memories. And as for those you did mistreat, who can say they didn’t deserve it…?

That’s an admirable stance, however it might play out in a courtroom.

The conceit is simple: a set of recollections involving chance encounters with someone who’s a stranger (met during literary and/or academic events, where some people capitalize on opportunities not available in their home university), changes in an established relationship from friendship to passion, or something in between, ostensibly presented in prose that’s left on the page as it first came out, complete with digressions and imaginings, existential concerns and sexual politics, hotel minutiae and quiet descriptions of physical activity. Even in a short book, the question is not if this can be done, but if it can be achieved in a satisfying way.


Anne Garréta (b. 1962) is an award-winning novelist of France’s Prix Médicis for Pas un jour (2002; the French title of Not One Day which has now been translated into English), an Oulipian, and a writer of exploratory novels like the genderless Sphinx (1986) that over the years has received much critical acclaim. Lauren Elkin, novelist, essayist, and Oulipian sympathizer (especially, and not paradoxically, as a severe critic of its male-centred membership and some of the lesser work produced by Oulipians), judges that “Garréta’s prose is elegant and even mannered, without being prim… [Her] work is wide-ranging and provocative.”* Daniel Levin Becker (with the death of Harry Mathews in January of this year now the only U.S. member of Oulipo) considers Garréta

an extremely talented writer in a mode that seems perpendicular to the workshop’s standard values. Although her novels are heavily preoccupied with the dimensions and effects of language and literature, the approach they take to those issues is neither winking nor mischievous, but rather engaged, politicized, at times almost militant; their composition is intense and tightly controlled, but the language that comes out often reads as fluid, florid, furtively romantic. In a sense, the challenges she sets herself are authorial and not compositional: even the technically daunting suppression of sex markers in Sphinx feels motivated by the desire to say something political about gender, not something grammatical.**

Those two appraisals may make the work sound heavier than it is, though it is by no means light. What the guidelines and quasi-legal defence (a topic that will be returned to) quoted above hopefully impart is some of the humour found in Not One Day.

What is soon apparent is that the structure of the book does not match the set goals, for Not One Day speaks of 12 females (with one exception), not a month’s worth. A reader has to wait to find out why there has been a change of plan. The journey from “Ante Scriptum” to “Post Scriptum” via letters (B, C, D, E, H, I, K, L, N, X, Y, and Z, all with a star after them, but it’s unaddressed whether that’s a democratic rating or a stylistic choice to avoid a period after a letter) features N. in this or that venue, at this or that age, often trying to figure out what she wants and what the other women want. While a few stories describe N. as successful when it comes to seducing, most show how she is not masterful, and indeed awkward, so there is no need to classify her as a female Casanova. Here she is in two different situations, the first contemplating how to hook up with B:

What did you have in mind? Pursuing the game you’d scarcely begun. Crossing back through the gardens, bottle of cognac in hand, climbing the staircase leading up to the vertigo-inducing wooden gangway that leads to rooms 16 through 24. Knocking on B’s door, identifying yourself, proffering the divine bottle and proposing a nightcap. Were you afraid she would refuse? It wasn’t a question of pride. Your hesitation stemmed from another concern. For if your offer was accepted, what then? How to proceed from there?… But if the temptation is not at all shared, then the threat of seeing the allure of this complicity dissolve, along with the harmonics of meaning that made you desire her in the first place… Was the attraction you had felt in her presence reciprocal?

N.’s mind doggedly follows trails of thought which are surrounded by shadows or feel rugged underfoot, trails that might be dead ends (as in her remark on harmonics) or open vistas that can be paralyzing or exciting. While anxiously waiting for a woman to check out her home to see if they can be alone, N. spends time “deciphering the titles of old books on the stand of a second-hand bookseller, in a state of mortal terror mixed with excitement… You had anticipated some flirting, but now the possibility of a room, a bed, was looming,… A Stendhalian panic was flowing through your limbs.” Wherever the trails lead, literature is a helpful companion, often in the form of the works of Rousseau or Balzac, whose Comédie humaine is cited frequently in this mini-chronicle.

N. can be calculating. After enjoying drinks (cognac again) with E, a “mechanical doll,” where the “cordiality between you has reached an improbable peak,” she is of two minds on what to do:

Your duplicity is perfect: if you plumb your soul, and you don’t stop doing so, you perceive two currents crossing your consciousness (as grotesque German metaphysics would have it). One, pleasant and gentle, has all the warmth instilled by alcohol and the comfort of the bar: a pretty trickle of sincere and ironic benevolence. The other, icy, considers the situation with a merciless eye: here you are in a new episode of the eternal struggle of consciousness for recognition, and the battlefield, once more, will be desire. The only question is that of the moment, of the movement, of the event that will begin the battle.

On occasion, a new lover controls the affair. N. combines a description of one particular power dynamic with a summary of modes of writing that works due to the inventiveness of the insight:

But, just as narrative fiction is formally indistinguishable from referential narrative (for they mimic each other to such a point that in these twin mirrors only mirages can be glimpsed), the description of pornographic, solipsistic alienation is indistinguishable from that of the perfect shared erotic passion.

So, what’s the difference?

The difference is that there was none. Dhad taken a lover and had had the genius to choose a woman [N.] to fill the role. But while she might have feared—or met some difficulty with—obtaining a certain something from him, she risked nothing by turning a woman—whom she managed not to notice was one—into the instrument. The relationship thus remained strictly heterosexual.

Such irony would be enough to turn you off of lucidity.

In her Afterword, Sarah Gerard discusses one obvious feature of the writing: “In the second person, Garréta sets herself apart from herself, can coldly observe her own behaviour—she also becomes the object of her own desire. She addresses herself, and directly addresses the reader, making the reader another desired object—and the reader reciprocates. The text itself becomes interrelational…” (98) Without going quite that far—I doubt Garréta seeks to so colonize the minds of readers—it would be fair to say that the use of “you” brings us into the work in such a way that on the rare appearance of the first person singular—as in: “Writing this title, the memory of the circumstances, uncannily, comes back to you. There I go.”—comes as a shock, as if a mere raconteur suddenly was boasting about these tales of desire in a loud voice in a public place. That’s craft, to disturb us from the choice of complicity with N. through an abrupt pushing away. She prepared us for this, in a way, from the first page when she stated: “You don’t have the heart to tell them [readers] that no subject ever expresses herself in any narration.” She underlines this lesson throughout, as when she says of herself and E: “We’re floating together in the warm bath of self revelations and secrets disclosed in the fiction of hidden faces.”


Apart from the physical details of what happens between sexual partners, about which little is related—Gerard writes that Garréta is “uncomfortable with her experience of desire at times: its messiness, its vulgarity”—and the wandering but interlaced vignettes, there are instances where key words contain much. Three I’ve chosen are peer, imbecile, and crime.

A few pages in, N. remarks on the process of putting down what she remembers from her sex and/or love affairs. “Perhaps you will finally manage, in some feeble way, to emulate your peers, who recount their every experience, spewing out volumes of life matter—and buy into it.” She lashes herself for supposed failures: “It would have been better had you kept a journal. But you do not possess the talent of your peers.” How are we to regard the word talent there? Is she saying that journaling is evidence of artistic talent? More likely she is mentioning, without saying so, the egos of others. There is a quiet wit undercutting those N. ostensibly thinks her betters. When she remarks that she has “…adopted a simplicity of morals that would amaze your peers” we might surmise that, first, a personal struggle is not all that’s happening in front of us, and second, that we are witnesses to another skirmish in a genre war as elaborated in the last pages: “To be sure, since your book belongs to the genre classically known as confessional, and strives to achieve an anatomy of desire, why would any reviewer hesitate to lump you together with that orgy of pen pushers devoutly pimping their own asses?” Further:

Idolizers, fetishists, pornographers occupy the terrain, build chapels, totems. But is that any reason to cede them the entire continent of desire? Just because so many of your contemporaries have colonized the territory should you, for fear of being caught in such vulgar company, in such a bad zone, avoid it, and so yield to an ultramodern, radical, and spectacular form of censorship?

But there’s no assured flag-carrying onto the battlefield, for N. continues: “what if, thinking you are resisting the pull of the dominant discourse, you were in fact practicing that very French form of resistance we call collaboration?” Everything proposed is almost at once viewed with suspicion, premises are revoked, and notions are relegated to a bin labelled Indeterminate.

As on the genre front, N. besieges herself with the descriptors imbecile and young imbecile: “Young imbecile that you were, trusting in her own strengths, filled with wonder at the thought of trying her young powers in intellectual disputes, in exhilarating projects of seduction.” These terms, and the contexts in which they’re used, reinforce the impression that N. had much to learn as she matured. Not One Day charts how the personal life and aesthetic choices combine, and it’s on the aesthetic plane where I’ll conclude.


“Post Scriptum” reveals the full workings—although one might want to be cautious about saying that; perhaps much of the full workings would be better—underpinning this rich, dense, and intriguing work. Providing too much detail would spoil the reading process, and really, my interest is in illustrating how one small detail reflects the larger picture of this Oulipian enterprise, as a shard of glass in the road captures a piece of the sky.

This final section contains much legal language. N. discusses the guidelines she has broken (that there are not the promised 30 women is the least of them) with reference to “contracts” that constitute “a quasi-legal fiction upon which are founded” ideals of communication through speech and writing. (Separate, I believe, from Jonathan Franzen’s Status vs. Contract argument.) Is there a neater way to portray oneself as a literary outsider—Oulipians are typed as odd folk who contrive fiendish experiments along academic lines—and a litero-criminal, in Wyndham Lewis’ word, than to write a text whose rules you broadcast but disregard, while still insisting that you are operating within established confines? Where are those confines—or “promises,” as N. says—if they’ve been broken?

The words crime and criminal show up often: “(the one that has your criminal predilection)”; “(For how can you throw out a present from your mother? It would be a crime of ingratitude and indifference…”); “(…An imposture, a crime, a swindle?)” Each time, or so I counted it, they appear they do so in parentheses, which is like placing handcuffs around the word. This is confinement enacted on the level of the word and sentence, and is a nuanced embodiment of Oulipian principles of formal restraint. “If you aim to thwart your habits and inclinations, you might as well go about it systematically,” N. says at the beginning, and we see that methodical approach when we interrogate the text.


“We encounter more family sedans on the roads of literature than Ferraris or prototypes,” (31) N. says partway through Not One Day. Deep Vellum has brought out one of the best books I’ve read this year, one whose compact nature contains more room inside than might be guessed from its modest exterior. Happily, Anne Garréta’s ambition is to create books that are not the products of an assembly line.



* Elkin, Lauren, and Scott Esposito. The End of Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement  (Alresford, Hants: Zero Books, 2013), 98-99. For my review of this book, along with an explanation of what the Oulipo is, see this review.

** Becker, Daniel Levin. Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 228-229.

Not One Day by Anne Garréta, Trans. Emma Ramadan and Anne Garréta | Deep Vellum | 101 pages | $14.95 | ISBN: 9781941920541


Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.