If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
On writing for the sound of it, scandalous joy, and the seriousness of scatterbrained expression.
Inès, Eléonore, and Laura, who are in charge of the education and moral development of a bevy of boys in the Austeur household, would much rather plan lavish parties and seduce strangers passing by the manor. As if possessed, the trio exhaust random men into a state of sexual catatonia, nigh onto death. And yet, as Anne Serre writes in The Governesses, “there’s nothing venal or flighty, nothing in the least bit unsavory, about the governesses.” Published last year by New Directions to critical acclaim, The Governesses was Serre’s first work to be translated into English by Mark Hutchinson. It is sumptuous and delightfully shocking.
This year fortunately brings another translation of Serre’s work into English by Hutchinson, The Fool and Other Moral Tales (New Directions). This collection of three novellas freshly engage us with Serre’s preoccupations with landscape, subconscious iconic figures, and language’s capacity to redeem, as well to alienate. With the third of these short works, The Wishing Table, Serre is at her most controversial, chronicling the clandestine rituals of an incestuous family. She generously agreed to answer some questions over email upon the publication of this new translation.
Your writing is often wickedly playful. You’ve expressed admiration for Robert Walser, and I was struck when reading some of his sentences next to yours by your shared sense of humor. In his Jakob von Gunten, for example, there’s this gem: “Nothing pleases me more than to give a completely false image of myself to people for whom I have made a place in my heart.” This sentence could easily be said by the titular narrator of your novella, The Narrator, who tries to keep his true motivations for intimacy and conversation secret, and who has “a little thrill at the thought of presenting to the world a façade so smooth that nobody could find a point of entry.” How have your literary influences affected your work, both in terms of subject and tone?
Anne Serre When I was young, I loved to read all kinds of novels and short stories. But when I detected a sort of smile in one of them, the smile of the narrator telling a story, I recognized something I already knew. This first time was probably in Kafka’s diaries and short stories. Otherwise, I was very fond of the irony in Katherine Mansfield, Maupassant, and Chekov. But my own sense of irony had something more childlike and scatterbrained about it. When I came across Lewis Carroll and, much later, Robert Walser, I realized you could write scatterbrained things in a serious way, or serious things in a scatterbrained way.
Another example of a crooked narrator who would like to remain hidden is in Mario Soldati’s story “The Green Jacket,” in which the narrator is a brilliant musician who enjoys passing himself off as a fool. Narrators who lie form a sort of club. At the same time, we need an audience for our art and our little games. Alone, left to ourselves, it would be awful.
MS I know you wrote your master’s thesis on the fairy tales of Madame d’Aulnoy, and The Governesses certainly has the quality of a fairy tale.
AS The topic was chosen for me by my teacher at the Sorbonne, Marc Fumaroli. He probably felt I was closer to Charles Perrault than to Bossuet or Boileau…
MS Your writing often sets up an enclosed world—the mansion of Monsieur and Madame Austeur in The Governesses, for example, or the secret sexual rites in the family home of The Wishing Table. What is the appeal of the enclosed environment?
AS Maybe it’s just the Aristotelian idea of “unity of place,” that rule of seventeenth-century classical French drama. Before Walser, I loved Racine! Somehow, it’s easier to put all your characters in the same place. You can build your story with just a few words—room, window, door, stairs, roof, chair. That way, you have more space to say something about your characters’ feelings or actions. If they go on a journey, you can add: road, town, car, train, even a plane! That’s way too much already. In one of my novels, Au secours, I invented a tiny island where my characters lived. And I put a hole in their boat to prevent them from leaving.
MS What about the chaotic figure that threatens the stability of such an environment? You brilliantly examine the merriment and carefree attitude of the Fool, as depicted in the Raider-Waite tarot deck. But the speaker of The Fool also finds him (and his real-world incarnations) to be quite frightening as well. Why is such a figure so terrifying?
AS The figure’s terrifying because it’s unnamable. Anything that’s unnamable is terrifying; and for a writer, perhaps even more so. Naming things is comforting. If you can’t name something (Is he a vagabond? A murderer? My loved one? Death? A ghost?), the world will disintegrate, and if the world disintegrates, you will too…
MS Is there a special appeal of the governess? I suppose I normally regard her as a kind of buttoned-up, restrained figure—Jane Eyre keeping everything together meanwhile Bertha, the secret wife, is the chaotic presence, for example. But your governesses are completely uninhibited and give themselves up to their whims and passions. Like the Brontës, you have two sisters.
AS Alas, my two sisters died prematurely, the eldest last year, and the youngest in 2007. Our mother died during our childhood, our father was an inconsolable widower who taught Latin and Ancient Greek (and in that sense was a bit like a nineteenth-century clergyman). We were very close as a family, in our house in the hills. My sisters and I would read and write stories, in this shadowy old house filled with an atmosphere of foreboding, and we didn’t like the outside world. But the resemblance to the Brontës stops there. I’ve never written Wuthering Heights, unfortunately.
My family was a very decent, old-fashioned Catholic family. We never talked about sex or money or politics, or about the outside world. All we talked about was literature and our parents’ memories. We never traveled. My father would take us to visit old French châteaux, churches, abbeys, museums. When young girls are raised that way, it can create a lust for life similar to what my governesses felt.
MS All of your translated works in English share a preoccupation with the act of writing, which can be a salve (as it is for the protagonist of The Wishing Table) but can also estrange the writer. Can you share some of your thoughts on this dual nature of writing?
AS There’s this widely held belief today (it’s very common in France) that women writers (not so much men) must have suffered some trauma in their childhood, which they try to cope with by writing novels. That’s one way of looking at things, though not one I have ever found very convincing. If there’s a trauma in a writer’s existence, it’s not about the details of their private life. The trauma is about being abducted by their mother tongue. I’m not the first to say this. Maurice Blanchot said that writers are survivors. Survivors of what? Of that abduction. Like any trauma, it gives you the impression of being slightly different from others.
MS Your reference to Blanchot reminds me of his essay on Orpheus’s gaze, where the unnamable or irretrievable is also generative. In The Fool, you write, “In a book, there’s always a word missing…Once the book has been published, the absence of that word has a powerful knock-on effect on the author. For months he tosses and turns in his sleep. He wants to find that word he can’t find. But his life, over time, has become ever more closely bound up with his books. So much so that he always finds the missing word, not in the act of writing but in life. Overjoyed at having found it, he starts writing a new book where once again a word will be missing, and so on.” Do you find the unnamable inspiring as well as terrifying? Have you ever found the elusive word for your own words? Or is this process always bound to repeat itself?
AS Yes, of course. The unnamable is what inspires me at first. You know this, since you’re a writer, like me. Generally, I find the elusive word once the book is finished and published. Sometimes it takes forever. I need a year or two to find it all of a sudden, the way you find an object you have lost. Once, I lost a gold necklace for an entire year; then one day, I suddenly found it wrapped around the bar of a chair in my house. It’s the same with the elusive word. It’s out there somewhere, but where? And like in life, it’s when you’re not looking for it that it turns up. But you recognize it at once, because even if you pretend not to be looking for it, it’s an obsession.
MS Mirrors abound in your writing. There are many reflective lakes and, of course, the unforgettable mirrored surface of the grand table in The Wishing Table, where the family members—especially the mother—enact taboo sexual rites. How do you see these mirrors and the unconscious functioning within your work?
AS I write mostly from my unconscious. The Governesses and The Wishing Table were written entirely in that way. One of the important influences on my work has been the Surrealists. Through them, I discovered that you could write the way you dream. I have great faith in the language of dreams; it knows something that’s concealed from our conscious mind. Proust himself said (in a letter to Jacques Rivière in 1919): “Shall I tell you that I don’t even believe that intelligence comes first in us. I would give precedence to the unconscious, which it is meant to clarify, but which forms the reality, the originality of the work.”
I hadn’t noticed my interest in mirrors in my stories, but I do remember a dream I had one night: I was in a lecture hall, which was also a refugee center, and somebody outside tried to shoot me. But he made a mistake: he fired at my reflection in a mirror. And so, I emerged unscathed.
MS The protagonist of The Wishing Table recounts the various dynamics in her incestuous family. She insists she was not traumatized by this history, but seems unable to form attachments or allow herself to be sexually vulnerable. Should we believe her?
AS I don’t know exactly who that woman is, the one telling the story in The Wishing Table, but when she says she isn’t traumatized by her past, I imagine she means that, despite her weird childhood, her capacity for joy is intact. She certainly has difficult relationships with people, but, to my mind, the reason for this has more to do with her inexplicable joy than with her childhood sexual life. It’s this inexplicable joy my narrator wants to conceal from others, in the same way, I imagine, as Walser’s narrator wanted to conceal his true identity. Joy of that kind is scandalous because it has no explanation.
MS The provocative nature of The Wishing Table has garnered a lot of attention. In The Governesses, too, the three governesses seduce random men passing by the manor with a great frenzy. But there’s an innocence to it. Is this a plain depiction of unbridled sexuality? Is there a challenge posed underneath such escapades?
AS I remember how my own sexual desire came as a big surprise to me, what an astonishing event it was for me when I was a teenager. I wasn’t at all prepared for it; it was as if I had discovered in myself something absolutely unknown. If I write about female desire in my stories, my guess is it’s because of that revelation, which was a huge event in my life, more important in a way than sexual pleasure itself. I never set out to be provocative in what I write, it’s the least of my concerns. I never set out not to be provocative, either. My only concern is to compose something that has a certain sound.
MS What is that “certain sound” you’re seeking? What qualities are you searching for and how do you recognize it once you’ve found it?
AS It’s what I would call the sound of my life. But I’m only too aware that, in saying this, I’m not saying anything very precise!
MS I hope there will be more translations of your extant works into English, including Au secours, the wonderful-sounding novel about the characters trapped on an island with a broken boat. What are you working on now?
AS My next book, which is due out in France next January, Grand tiqueté (no need to look up the word “tiqueté” in French, as it doesn’t exist) is a tale written in a made-up language. I twisted French words about and invented lots of new words, but as I respected the rhythm and tone of a tale, you can follow the story, which is about three drifters walking on the moors, who meet first the Virgin, then a handsome sailor, then their dead mother, who they keep by them in a sort of little bird-cage, and so on. Of all my books, it’s my favorite. I had the feeling when writing it that I had found my primordial language.
Mary South’s debut story collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, is forthcoming from FSG Originals in March 2020. She is also a Contributing Editor at NOON. You can find her online at marysouth.net and @marysouth.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.