Anne Serre was ten when her mother died in 1971. She claims to have no memory of the preceding years. ‘My father sank into a depression,’ she told the White Review in 2020, ‘and my sisters and I … tried with all our might – like all children in this type of situation, I think – to protect him, resuscitate him.’ He took a job as the deputy headmaster of a secondary school in Orléans, and the family moved into a staff apartment. When she had nothing to do at the weekends, Serre roamed the empty school and wrote a book – in part, she says, to seduce her philosophy teacher.
Her first book, The Governesses, published in France in 1992, began as a short story.Even now it comes to little more than a hundred pages. Three governesses, ‘mistresses of games and pleasures’, are employed to entertain the four young sons of the Austeur family. Although they have individual names (Eléonore, Laura and Inès), the governesses work as one. When they are at a loose end they like to ‘stroll through the garden together’ discussing their favourite t0pic of conversation (men). They talk to outsiders (men) at the gate ‘in turn, though it’s practically the same voice’ and hope that one will venture into ‘the trap of their vast, lunar privacy’. If he does, they ‘devour’ him sexually and leave him for dead. They are unwittingly destructive: ‘They’d love to find him again, restore him to his former state, dip back into him and draw out that sense of bliss without which they feel bereft.’ The governesses keep ‘vowing’ to redress their unbalanced natures, ‘to learn Latin or Hebrew’ for instance, or to be more like Madame Austeur, who always dresses in grey.
But the governesses’ pursuit of excitement is what animates the household. Their ‘gargantuan appetite’ brings passion to a family where the parents ‘prefer to live apart, so long as they are together’. In return, Monsieur Austeur ‘reins them in so that everything is once more orderly, composed’. All the characters play their part in the family romance and each depends on the others: when the governesses first arrive and find themselves lost in the grounds, all they need to do is ‘climb a tree and look for the smoke from Monsieur Austeur’s cigar’. Together, they achieve an unconventional harmony – Monsieur and Madame Austeur, the little boys and the little maids, the governesses – and the elderly gentleman who watches them across the garden through his telescope and records his observations.
Château Austeur is the book’s entire world, as well as the stage for the governesses’ exploits, and regularly changes its aspect, one minute sensible, the next out of all proportion; straightforward then cartoonish. When Madame Austeur is put out that her husband has given over the upstairs salons to the governesses’ acrobatics, she responds by roaming ‘through the gardens in her long grey gown, pulling out flowers by their roots. That evening at dinner, however, after Monsieur Austeur had placated her with a discreet caress between the hallway and the dining room, she was all smiles.’ This zigzag pattern of events, which Italo Calvino identified as a feature of folktales, creates ‘incessant motion’ within a restricted space. Play is more real here than reality: three pages are dedicated to the governesses’ game of pretending to leave ‘just to stir up the household’, while ‘relationships that endure’ are said to have ‘a beginning, a climax and the inevitable downfall’. Everything is in a state of terminal undoing.
So it is with the governesses. At the book’s midpoint, after an evening of exhibitionism directed at the voyeur with the telescope, in which ‘they part their buttocks for the figure observing them’, Laura dreams of opening a ‘large, royal blue door … onto an unfamiliar stretch of countryside’. Nine months after this fertile dream, she gives birth, and the ‘centre of the house’ shifts. ‘Perhaps that was why she’d had this child: in order to change the roles in the household?’ Then, ‘there came a day when, much to everyone’s surprise, the elderly gentleman withdrew, for he was tired of watching the governesses.’ He directs his telescope instead at a fern leaf and a hare. Without his spectatorship, the governesses languish (‘We’re fading,’ they announce, in a rare piece of direct speech). ‘The gardens shrank, the little boys toppled over, the house lost its walls, Monsieur Austeur his cigar, Madame Austeur her grey dress, the maids the platters they had been carrying.’ There is no moral in the ending – Serre has jettisoned that element from the folktale genre. Like Leonora Carrington, she does not mimic life, but has an interest in stories as machines with their own life on the page. But stories like Carrington’s ‘The Debutante’ fantasise about freedom (the freedom of a hyena to give a ball, of a girl to read her book in peace) while Serre’s governesses are fated to play out their role. ‘Who can be said to have free will?’ she writes elsewhere.
The Governesses was called ‘promising’ by Le Monde but Serre’s subsequent work received a hushed reception in France. Though she has said they were only ever intended as exercises, or musical scales, her early stories, collected in Un voyage en ballon in 1993, are helpful guides to her work, which is often described as ‘fabulist’: not because they contain animal allegories but because of Serre’s stylistic habits. The narrator is usually obtrusive: Serre has described her narrators as being ‘armed’ and ‘valiant’, like medieval knights. They switch between the imperious passé simple and idiomatic phrases like ‘ma foi’ (my word). Sometimes she summons up a listener to comment on the narration: ‘Let’s not debate this forever,’ one teases, after quibbling about a word choice. Characters are referred to by their initials and sometimes disappear without explanation. As in fables, emotional states are revealed through behaviour: ‘I whistled as I left my mother. My step was light, I leapt into the mountains.’ Describing the long journey taken by three sisters to their father’s funeral, the narrator remarks that ‘there is the possibility of a picnic all the same because, ultimately, one can be going to a funeral and feel peckish. Dignified, they take out a ham, spread a checked tablecloth … and, still dignified – is one allowed to sing before a funeral? No – they wipe their knives melancholically on their skirts.’ Landscapes are half-metaphorical.
But, even in these early stories, there is more going on than the word ‘fable’ would suggest. One story begins with an ending (‘On the last day of their love, Clara and Pierre Glendinning went for a walk in the countryside’) and one ends with a beginning (‘I think I will be born anew in my mother’s house’). Another is composed entirely of questions, arranged in stanzas and apparently directed at someone who has gone away leaving few instructions: ‘Does the name Patricia Nothingdale mean anything to you?/Do you know that this person presented herself to me as having rights over you?/Which rights?’ In other books – Eva Lone (1993), La Petite Épée du coeur (1995), Film, Au secours (both 1998) and Le Cheval blanc d’Uffington (2002) – Serre can be analytical, metatextual, abstract. Au secours is contrived as an offer of rescue to the painter Paula Rego. ‘How could I be your friend if I didn’t miss you?’ When she discovers a hole in the bottom of her boat, the narrator’s offer becomes a plea to be rescued by Rego – as well as a meditation on a life dedicated to invention. A number of Serre’s protagonists are called ‘Anne’ or ‘Anna’, and ‘mon ami Mark’, who shares the name of her friend and translator Mark Hutchinson, sometimes makes an appearance. Islands recur, so does fate, suicide, sequences of women, hot air balloons, knives with ivory handles, absent interlocutors, driving alone and the comparison of characters with literary and artistic figures: Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Taylor, Romy Schneider, Maigret.
Le Cheval blanc d’Uffington deals with an author who has secluded herself on an island to avoid strong sensation, choosing to write about the world instead of experiencing it. ‘For a year, I had incessantly questioned myself as to how to preserve my own joy without it hurting me and it was extremely difficult.’ While music ‘sucks her into a well’, writing allows Anne not to forget her old life completely. When she visits the mainland in an attempt to rejoin the world, she realises the risk she had incurred by ‘turning streets on which she’s walked into written streets’, remembering that even at the time it had seemed like ‘a miracle to find herself intact and in good health the morning after’. Guided by instinct, she sets off on a tour of churches. At one, she meets her dead mother, at the next, her friend John. Her observations are childlike and, soon enough, she develops an affinity for a little girl. ‘I was so scared that she would take me over to the side of childhood,’ Anne says, ‘that I became more brusque. I spoke to her as though to a man; she spoke to me as though to a man; we were two men. I was amazed at her understanding of my desires.’ This is not enough to make Anne want to become a mother, however, or to make the girl the subject of her story. Instead, the plot centres on a missing man, someone she used to know. But perhaps she is just looking for a form: ‘When I tell a story and there I am carried off as if on a speeding sailboat, a runaway horse charging, I keep in mind that I have the unfortunate habit of saying rosebud instead of table.’ Itself composed of five or six lines (spine, flank, three legs, a square, beaky face) cleaved in chalk, the white horse makes an appearance when, having lost the group on a walk in the Auvergne, Anne finds it spread out in front of her and is reminded of a ‘love story that had not happened’:
At almost every turn, I stumbled against him so often on my path that, meeting him incessantly and incessantly avoiding him, I ended up drawing a kind of hollow shape. And the body of my love was so gigantic that it made me laugh. It was like Gulliver’s body, around which a whole little armed, frightened and fascinated people is deployed, or like the Uffington White Horse, drawn by the Celts into the mountain itself, that covers such a distance that you can’t see it from the earth, only from the sky. To go from one church to the next … was to go from the angle of his shoulder to his elbow, then from his elbow to his hand, and so on, so that in a certain way the body of my love covered the earth.
Serre is posing a question about what is essential to a story and to a life, and what remains if one element (geography, for example) is subtracted, then another. The ‘hollow shape’ that is carved out is unfulfilled desire.
In 2003, Serre wrote a defence of smoking in Libération, in which she described the way cigarettes give shape to life in mental institutions and prisons, offering the possibility of small humanising gestures. (When asked about this later, Serre said that she didn’t know what had come over her, dabbling in reality in that way.) In the two short pieces she wrote soon afterwards, Le Narrateur (2004) and Le Mat (2005), English translations of which are included in The Fool and Other Moral Tales, she goes back to thinking about fiction. Both of them deal with stock characters. The figure of the fool, like his Tarot counterpart, represents a kind of chaos. Serre relates, in the first person, his appearances in her life, and claims that ‘the childlike ruses I adopted’ to escape his clutches constituted a practice that, over time, meant ‘I became a writer.’ Once you have evaded the fool, ‘you can move freely on the mountain plateau of independent-mindedness, without being afraid you will meet some terrifying ghost from the past.’
In Le Narrateur, the narrator is treated as just another stock character. He avoids the judgment of others by watching from a distance rather than participating (‘he has never voted’). Serre visits on him the indignity of becoming a character among many: ‘He tries to walk at the same pace, laugh at the same things, take an interest in the same discoveries,’ but ‘he can sense their mistrust.’ The others are troubled by his ‘enigmatic presence’ and speculate about his true nature: ‘A shady character? A gangster? An ex-con?’ When the narrator does take part, for example, in an orgy, he tells his lovers whom they remind him of, as though his role is to make the connections between one episode and the next. Thrown among other people, he is revealed to be a self-satisfied fraudster, ‘a perfect little saint, insufferable, always merry, always friendly, always polite’, much like ‘those serial killers who … to everyone’s surprise, turn out to be good husbands, good fathers, good friends – it was a question of protecting behind indestructible walls the rites being acted out in his secret room.’ (Hutchinson’s translations retain as far as possible the rhythms of Serre’s prose, but I wonder if we will soon see a novella called The Translator. She likes an intermediary.)
After her next book, Un chapeau léopard (2008), Serre began to receive more acclaim in France, though the only change, as far as I can see, is that she began to talk more openly about her work. The Beginners (Les Débutants, 2011) opens like a news report: ‘In August 2002, Anna Lore, age 43, fell madly in love with Thomas, age 56.’ Their past lives seem to fall away, including Anna’s marriage to Guillaume (‘she had a childlike trust in him, he looked on her as a marvel’). The ‘space around Anna’ changes after Thomas texts her: ‘This went on for two hours, at the end of which she sent a cautious, “I’d rather we let a little time pass first.” Feeling relieved, she was making her way back up the rue de Seine when he replied: “Another ten years?” Six days later, she phoned him.’
Anna becomes useless with love, like a romantic heroine: ‘Could anyone imagine Phèdre with a job?’ But the similarities stop there. After much dithering as to whether she should leave Guillaume, he leaves her, his voice becoming ‘that of a manager, a boss, a high court judge’. Worst of all, ‘for the first time, he thought like an ordinary man and ascribed ordinary behaviour to her.’ The separation is inconceivable to Anna, but as she considers the relationship (Serre uses repetition to show her stitching and unstitching the past), she begins to see that it was only ever two monologues. And yet, she insists, ‘in twenty years they’d never had a single misunderstanding.’
Putting down one of Serre’s books is like coming up for air. The theorist André Belleau argues that, unlike novels, short stories collapse time in the service of a singular event; Serre’s stories of all lengths do this. (She’s noted that her longer books are always roughly the same 120 pages.) Her first sentences are ‘packed tight, like an egg in its shell’, middles are significant (when Guillaume leaves Anna, she remarks that ‘for this to have happened at the middle of the book, it could only have occurred at the very centre of her being’), and endings mean breakdowns.
One of Serre’s most tightly packed lines opens ‘The Wishing Table’: ‘I was seven the first time I saw my father dressed as a girl.’ The story begins as an account of a household where incest is central to family life: if the orgiastic frenzy is paused, when the three daughters go on holiday with their grandparents, for example, ‘we would become fretful.’ The architecture of the house becomes warped by it: ‘Our little house on the rue Alban-Berg, with its polished furniture and the dining-room table where Maman would recline, Papa’s study, which we never tired of entering, and the hallway with the huge mirror in which Maman would examine her naked reflection – how we longed to be back there!’ The abuse carried out by both parents is documented with enthusiasm. As in The Governesses, there is a certain order to proceedings, the situation ‘was obviously dysfunctional and yet functioned so well’. The narrative glides from room to room – no door is kept locked.
The desires of the neglected mother and the power trips of the father drive the family dynamic. She is an exhibitionist who stays indoors (or perhaps she is an exhibitionist because she always stays indoors), who ‘seemed very much in love with Papa, but he was hard on her’:
The moment he was home, she would plead with him, ‘Touch me! Touch me, my love!’ while they sat watching television together on the sofa. Whereupon Papa would brutally squeeze one of her breasts, or, without glancing around, tug violently at the curls of her bush.
Dr Mars, ‘one of our allies’, pops by between house calls to ‘follow Maman into the dining room, shove her down against the table and thrust himself violently inside her’. In response, the narrator explains that her mother ‘had an unhappy childhood; she needed a bit of madness.’ If the reader is shocked, the narrator is not, nor, Serre has said, is she trying to produce that impression. Living without an external pattern to follow, she experiences everything as new. To recall her childhood a ‘fecklessness – a certain forgetfulness even –’ is necessary. She even worries that in documenting ‘the broad strokes of our family life’ she is ‘circumscribing’ her mother’s ‘form’.
As in The Beginners, there is a rupture in the middle of the story – in this case, a physical separation. The narrator decides to leave home at the age of fifteen, giving only the slightest explanation: ‘If I left my family early it was because I was ready to lead my own life.’ The second part of the story considers what ‘living’ might mean after such a childhood. ‘My life ran along songlines like the ones in dreams’, she tells us. ‘I lied because I’d always lied.’ Updates from her siblings punctuate her days: ‘Mother frail. Permanently bedridden.’ ‘Mother delirious.’ ‘Mother dead.’ She describes this news as ‘alarming’, but reports that ‘for many years I had no real feelings.’
This second phase of her life is characterised by the repeated words ‘never’, ‘anything’, ‘never’, ‘nobody’. People are interchangeable – ‘red-headed men, dark-haired men with singsong accents, strange men, men in fast cars’ – and so are places: ‘One man took me to Nevers, another to Nîmes, to another I said: “I’ll go wherever you’re going,” then left him along the way.’ The tone here is different from that of the matter-of-fact first part of the story. It’s as though the narrator is employing a lyrical language, rather than a rational one, because her life is now a series of contingencies. ‘It’s a gift I’ve always had, at fifteen, at twenty, at twenty-five: finding a decent hotel with nothing to go on but my own intuition, something inexpensive, a godsend, always a godsend.’
But she doesn’t regret her childhood: ‘It’s not out of loyalty to my parents that I insist on the beauty of that period in my life. Our union was so intense and so compact, our sexual complicity so steadfast, like a firm handshake, that I’ve been leaning on it for support ever since, on the dark lake of our dining-room table.’ The past, steadier than the present, is what the narrator chooses to record; she finds that writing is a ‘gleaming banister’ she can cling to. ‘Why is it that so many people in my life have wound up insane? … Wasn’t it obvious to them, as it was to me, that this dark lake and its black waters would save us, so long as we kept peering down into it?’ She enacts the metaphor when she visits Lake Maggiore, ‘going from one island or one side of the lake to another, as if trying to encompass and contain, to examine from every conceivable point of view, this enormous table that was much too big for my life’. Like Anne contemplating the chalk horse, the narrator’s account of her attempt to fathom the unfathomable has something to do with the fiction writer’s attempt to superimpose a complex imaginary life over familiar territory.
Rather than following on from the first part, the second section of the story overlays it, leading to strange refractions. In Rome,
everything I saw filled me with an intense and piercing pleasure, everywhere I went I found meaningful phenomena on the march: a tree in bloom and birds screeching outside the window of my boardinghouse on the Aventino in May; in another part of Rome, a boardinghouse with a dark, frozen corridor like the hallway in my childhood home.
Seeing her lover from a certain angle suddenly takes her back, only now with the thought that the dining-room table, ‘instead of being a thing of frenzied, passionate delight, had been a sacrificial altar, as if I’d been amputated there, tortured and dismembered, but back then had somehow dreamed my way through it all.’ Serre seems to be saying that we turn trauma into art without always knowing it to be trauma, and that we write without having full awareness of our subject matter.
The image of a castle recurs. The narrator first sees it during a sexual encounter with the family optician, then, when her father dies, she has ‘a feeling of something being born, a surge, a castle springing up inside me, with its towers, its crenellated walls, and its drawbridge raised’. It returns at the end, after she visits her sister:
She nattered on about my new haircut, about her son, her pregnancy, the labour and the delivery, the work her husband did in the garden then again about her son, again about the labour and the delivery, her husband and the garden, without once leaving a gap in which our eyes might meet and address the question that was written there, a question so serious and profound that it would have been terrifying to have to confront it: ‘How are you?’
On her way home, she sees the spires of a cathedral and remembers the optician, ‘busying himself on top of me, inside me, beneath me, while I observed a bird on the other side of the car door’. Dissociation has become the basis for fiction and so, the narrator notes, ‘everything was right with the world … you only had to pay – as I had always known and believed – close attention for a terrible joy to be born in your life, for a work of art to be forged from your body.’ The narrator can create art as long as she accepts that she is condemned to look into her past. It might seem that she is paying ‘attention’ to the wrong thing – the bird and the towers – but writing allows connection and disconnection, and the metaphor of the castle encapsulates that split.
After such steep and circling work, Serre returned in Dialogue d’été (2014) and Voyage avec Vila-Matas (2017) to unpacking the act of writing. The Governesses, her first book to be translated into English, came out in 2018, leading some American reviewers to argue that her work hadn’t been translated until then because of the squeamishness of the Anglophone mainstream. France isn’t straightforwardly less squeamish, and in fact the change of language seems to make Serre’s work more palatable, even as it makes it more enigmatic. Grande Tiqueté (2020) might prove to be untranslatable. It is written in an invented language inspired by the archaic dialect Serre’s father spoke as he was dying. She believes she could understand it because it was addressed to her. She writes in the foreword that her father taught French, Latin and Greek. ‘One day he picked up a hitchhiker, a German, and it turned out this man was also a Latin teacher. They spoke that language for the whole car journey, from Bordeaux to Orléans.’ When they needed to use a modern word, ‘telephone’ or ‘petrol’, say, they would use a classical metaphor. Like nonsense verse, Grande Tiqueté takes more pleasure in sonic randomness and confluence than in meaning. The actual story, as far as I can tell, is about three companions who set out on an adventure and meet a virgin, a sailor, a mother and a hanged man called Alistair – according to Serre the book is both ‘a conjuring’ (etymologically, a banding together) and ‘an exorcism’ (a driving away).
That same year, her collection Au coeur d’un été tout en or won the Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle. Each of its stories, which are at most a few pages long, takes its first line from another writer (Arthur Conan Doyle, Marie NDiaye, Robert Walser). In the course of this repurposing, Serre seems to shed her fabulist narratorial armour. Good things happen: a mother becomes unrecognisable – more affectionate and practical and chicken-roasting – overnight; a therapist turns out to be a forgotten cousin; a girl decides to leave a boyfriend who is a little deranged. The girl thinks about why she chose to be with someone who perplexed her friends and caused her to forget she had grandparents and a family. ‘Did occasionally adopting a different face to my own give me strength when I found my own, when it was my own that I displayed?’
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