Tag Archives: Anne Serre

Review: THE FOOL AND OTHER MORAL TALES by Anne Serre

Translated from French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2021)

After publishing the uniquely provocative exploration of unconventional sexuality The Governesses in 2019, Les Fugitives return with another collaboration between Anne Serre and Mark Hutchinson: The Fool and Other Moral Tales. The Fool in question is from a tarot pack, and this was my stumbling block: I have no knowledge of or interest in tarot, and I felt rather lost in the first two stories. In fact I felt a little ignorant: I was able to appreciate how stylistically accomplished both the tales and the translation are, but beyond that I didn’t find any connection. In a bizarre twist, this turned around completely in the final tale, “The Wishing Table”, which was the one I thought I’d struggle with the most (“The Wishing Table” is narrated by a woman who grew up in an incestuous family, and it’s safe to say this is not a premise I found particularly appealing – but read on, because that’s what I did, and it was worth it!)

“The Wishing Table” is the longest story in the collection and when, near the start, I read the section that followed the announcement “They did things to us that it’s absolutely forbidden to do with children”, I did wonder whether I would make it to the end. There’s nothing comfortable about this story, but that’s where its brilliance lies. If I found the first two stories a little hard to follow, I think it’s because they’re deliberately destabilising, entwining the mundane and the magical, the philosophical and the fantastical: in the end I realised that this destabilising, shifting quality is precisely intended to reflect the shifting of the tarot cards, changing fates and paths as they are revealed and obscured. I didn’t revisit these first two stories in light of the third, but I do think that “The Wishing Table” is the one that really makes this collection.

The daughters are certainly not presented as victims: they are fascinated with their parents’ sexual bodies and the pleasure that can be gained from them (usually as willing recipients of sexual acts, occasionally as instigators). Nor are the parents depicted as immoral or sadistic: the narrator says of her mother that “As I’m sure you’ve understood, the idea that anything untoward was going on in her house had simply never occurred to her. She thought that this was what life was like.” A series of minor characters also join in the family’s “love feasts” (whether on solo visits or partaking in orgies), including a man the narrator repeatedly cavorts with in his car. There is something quite dark and disturbing about the parents sending their daughters off in the cars of men they barely know, but Serre disrupts any conventional reading of this by detailing the pleasure the narrator takes in the sexual acts in which she and her family engage. Indeed, her voracity for sexual pleasure is mirrored by her voracity for reading, connecting the two in ways that are harmonious with the collection’s focus on the union of the carnal and the cerebral.

“The Wishing Table” is full of polished surfaces: the large mirror in the hallway where Maman contemplates herself for hours, and especially the vast dining room table on which much of the incestuous activity occurs. This surface is the anchor that keeps the narrator sane while the other members of the family lose their minds, but it is also the surface that, years later, cracks and leaves her feeling “as if that table, instead of being a thing of joy and 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.” This realisation is prompted by the movement towards a more orthodox relationship, yet Serre refrains from making pronouncements on the narrator’s psychological development.

The story unfolds in a compelling way, drawing us into the family’s unorthodox homelife and then describing how it all disintegrated, small shifts preventing the individual members from sinking single-mindedly into the “wishing table”. The darkly fairytale scenario then twists to a more recognisable coming-of-age story, but the movement between places is always vaguely magical or dreamlike, recalling again the shifting of the cards. After the enchanted state of childhood, the early adulthood is much more grounded in a world outside the family home, the latter becoming locked in the bois dormant of the narrator’s memory (and which her sister locks away even more deliberately, as the narrator discovers when the two women meet later and try to salvage some kind of relationship with one another).

Hutchinson’s translation is full of lexical gems, and the style, which is at times deliberately arcane (and always shamelessly literary) is very reminiscent of The Governesses – the French original is (to my mind, at least) almost visible beneath the text in the register and syntax, but in a way that offers the stories as simultaneously very rooted in their source yet entirely portable. There is the occasional reference that you’d have to know French language or literature to fully appreciate, but not “getting” these references wouldn’t mar appreciation of the stories. Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together to bring this collection of “moral tales” (published separately in French) into one volume in the English translation. The result of their collaboration is a stylistically accomplished and thematically explosive collection of stories that are at once contemporary and timeless.

Review copy of The Fool and Other Moral Tales provided by Les Fugitives

A Feminist Fairytale? Anne Serre, The Governesses

Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The Governesses launches the 2019 catalogue of Les Fugitives, and is the first of six exciting-looking titles they’ll be releasing this year. In this short novella, Anne Serre turns traditional fairytales on their head: we have young women trapped in a remote rambling house, a possible curse and an almost certain metamorphosis, but nothing is ever quite what you might expect. The Governesses may be told in the manner of a pseudo-classic French fairytale, but don’t be lulled by this: it is a carnal, sensuous, ravenous tale of desire and observation.

Image from lesfugitives.com

The eponymous governesses are three ethereally beautiful young women: Eléonore, Laura and Inés, and they arrive at the sprawling country home of Monsieur and Madame Austeur, ostensibly to look after the Austeur children but really to invigorate the sedate surroundings: their arrival is described as “life itself advancing.” They bring a uniquely female energy to the Austeur home, a sensuality hidden beneath their ornately buttoned dresses and paraded in the grounds of the house (but never beyond its iron gates). Though Monsieur and Madame Austeur have only four children, a flock of young boys follows the governesses everywhere, enthralled by them, occasionally entertained by them and, in the case of the older boys, encountering new feelings of lust because of them.

The narrator is, it must be said, rather coy. We are invited to view the governesses, to spy on them, to pity them, and to pursue them as they escape from view; the narrator toys with us, telling us that “it’s obvious there’s a secret in their past”, but never revealing what this might be. Drawn into this world where nothing is quite what it seems, the governesses seem demure and vapid at first glance, but don’t be fooled: they are voracious sexual predators, hunting and devouring their prey. There are several references to their teeth, which are “gleaming” and “wet”, dripping at the thought of sinking into flesh. They hunt ruthlessly, capturing their prey in a net that may be either real or metaphorical, trussing him up, bleeding him dry, and using him for their own pleasure alone. So far, so subversive:

“They loved watching a stranger arrive. There were times, in fact, when they liked that more than anything, for as long as he advanced, ignorant yet dimly aware of a summons that was never clearly formulated as such, they were all-powerful. Once he had been bound hand and foot and consumed, on the other hand, they turned back into three poor little governesses.”

The governesses are siren-like in their allure, pitiless towards their prey but, crucially, once the prey has been devoured, they turn back into the form we first meet them in, “three poor little governesses.” Some kind of metamorphosis is at play, and will come full circle at the end of the narrative; for now, the governesses leap naked through the grounds in search of men to conquer, tearing their skin on branches and grasses. They are often described as a single being, and they take on – or partially take on – various forms: they bound across the road like young deer, their skirts rise around them like wings, and at other points they are described as alien, a coven of witches, and the Three Graces. They are vampiric, and they are also creatures of the moon, but at other times they are three flesh-and-blood women who reject their archetypal role: “They had heard about love, they had heard about men and the power they wielded. It filled them with dread.”

Traditional curses are disrupted, as it is not true love that will set them free, but the pretence of true love that will allow them to dodge the spell:

“Oh, if only they could leave! Run off with this man who has happened along, using him to pass through the gates and loving him because he can take them to a place where their bonds will be ever so gently loosed at last. So that, one day, each of them will be able to live and speak in her own name, be alone in the world and free of the others at last.”

So not only are they trapped, but they are trapped together, in a spell reminiscent of punishment (is it too much to suggest even reminiscent of Sartre and his famous “Hell is other people”?) Redemption would not be through love, but through living freely without being dependent on anyone else. Yet the governesses are not powerful enough to escape the curse or spell that binds them to the house and to one another, and condemns them to be dependent on the gaze of others: the elderly gentleman across the way spies on them with his telescope, and his voyeurism makes them feel cherished, “no longer alone in the world”. They revel in his gaze, sometimes performing seductive dances for him and flashing their skin at him when the fancy takes them, and other times sticking out their tongues at him and reminding him that they decide how much he gets to see and when. Still they are not free of their own narrative: their greatest curse is not that they are trapped, but that if they are not observed, they cease to exist (remember this as you close the book at the end).

The translation by Mark Hutchinson seems to capture the spirit of the governesses, these spellbound, spellbinding beings who defy all expectations: Cécile Menon, publishing director at Les Fugitives, told me that Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together, and it shows. There were only a few details (mainly syntactical) that I stumbled over; overall this was a seamless, sumptuous read. Serre’s book, like the eponymous governesses, may seem prim and archetypal at first glance, but is surprising and bewitching beneath the exterior. It is a hymn to voluptuous pleasure, a retelling of classic tales that foregrounds female sexual desire, an enchantment of the senses. If you like dark, decadent narratives, then it’s well worth losing yourself in The Governesses for an hour or two.

The Governesses will be released in the UK on 2nd April; you can pre-order your copy here. Available in the US from New Directions.

Review copy provided by Les Fugitives.