The Governesses by Anne Serre (Les Fugitives)
by Anne Serre
Translated by Mark Hutchinson
Published 2 April in the UK by Les Fugitives, London (published in the USA by New Directions, New York). Paperback, 108 pages, £10.00, ISBN: 9780993009396.
Longlisted for the 2019 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA)
‘Prim and racy, seriously weird and seriously excellent.'– The New York Times
Photograph © Les Fugitives, 2019
The sensational English debut of a major French writer — written with the elegance of old French fables, the dark sensuality of Djuna Barnes and the subtle comedy of Robert Walser, this warped erotic fairy tale of a novella introduces UK readers to the marvellous Anne Serre.
In a large country house, shut off from the world within a gated garden, three young women responsible for the education of a group of little boys are hanging paper lanterns for a party. Their desires, however, lie elsewhere... Meet The Governesses: wild or drifting about in a sated, melancholy calm; spied upon by Monsieur Austeur, fascinated by the ever more mysterious unfolding of events, like the charms and spells of a midsummer night's dream…
But who are the governesses? Or perhaps, what are they? Fierce mythological creatures, bacchantes? They are pitiable, yet cruel. They are three, yet often speak as one. Their apparent joviality and innocence conceals a dark secret.
Classical in style, but both calm and wild, a blissful and melancholic reading experience, this charming, mysterious, sensual novella, described by Libération as ‘a delightful Sabbath’ is one not to be missed.
Anne Serre has written fourteen books, as well as essays and short stories. She was awarded the Cino del Duca Foundation Award in 2008. Originally published in French in 1992, The Governesses (Les Gouvernantes) was a debut novella, and is Serre’s first book to be translated into English. It is a perfect introduction to her work for English readers, for which we thank Les Fugitives.
Mark Hutchinson’s other translations include René Char’s Hypnos: Notes from the French Resistance and The Inventors and Other Poems.
‘Prim and racy, seriously weird and seriously excellent. A John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale. There’s an energy here that recalls The Virgin Suicides.’ – Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
‘This could be the setup for a neo-pagan farce about the battle between Eros and civilization, but as Serre delves into the three women’s existence, the novel taps into deeper, quieter waters: the Keatsian twinning of joy and melancholy…’ – Publishers Weekly (starred review, Best Books in Fiction 2018)
‘In The Governesses, Eléonore and Laura capture a male passerby (…). Albeit with more warmth, the scene recalls the chilling, somewhat theatrical erotic descriptions of Pierre Klossowski.’ - John Taylor, TLS
'What is most unique to the narrative is that it is not just an expression of female sexuality, but a healthy exploration of lust and desire from all perspectives — a complete surrendering to passion. This inclusivity enables all readers to reexamine their personal relationship with desire.' - The London Magazine
‘A cruel and exhilarating book. Anne Serre’s style is perfectly controlled. Colorful, by turns elegant and violent, it provokes that enchantment borne out of an unbridled imagination.’ - Paula Jacques, Marie-Claire
‘The story, classical in appearance, soon jolts us out of our sleepy ways.’ - Le Monde
‘A sensualist, surrealist romp’ – Kirkus Reviews
‘[A] visual feast, a cabinet of curiosities, a long gallery filled with self-contained dioramas for us to stroll past and admire. Serre tells a tale meant to bewitch and delight her audience … presenting us with the perfect diversion. She succeeds brilliantly on every count, demonstrating both exceptional clarity of tone and agility of invention.’ - Tara Cheesman, Vol1Brooklyn
‘Serre’s language is tight and fabulist, a slim and sensuous fairy tale that reads like something born from an orgy between Charles Perrault, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter (hubba hubba).’ - Lauren Friedlander, Full-Stop
‘The Governesses is a wonderful book: an erotic fairy tale, barely 100 pages long, but every sentence finely honed, a credit to author, translator and publisher.’ - The Mookse and the Gripes
‘A hymn to voluptuous pleasure, a retelling of classic tales that foregrounds female sexual desire, an enchantment of the senses’ – Helen Vassallo, Translating Women
‘The simple, sensual writing and nineteenth-century Charles Perrault atmosphere are strangely contemporary, with their underlying frisson evoking the dangerous power of insouciance and open sexuality’ – Bookblast
'The sensibility of a writer who won’t settle for genre-specific tropes and adds more dimensions to her characters to build realistic, complex protagonists' – Platon Poulas, Pandora Magazine
‘Serre’s novella is as light and cool as a breeze on a summer’s afternoon and yet as dark as the soul of someone calmly intent on racking up all seven deadly sins’ – Mia Spence, Splice
You can read excerpts from The Governesses here:
GRANTA – https://granta.com/the-governesses/
And listen to the books editor for France 24 TV talk about it (at 3:31) - https://www.watch-latest-news.com/french-to-english-translation-hot-off-the-press/
‘It’s playful, it’s original, there’s a real tinge of black humour … I absolutely loved it. Also the English translation by Mark Hutchinson is really beautiful.’ France 24 TV
Also look out for features by Anne Serre in GRANTA, the Times Literary Supplement, and a feature with extract in the Summer issue of TANK magazine.
In fact, here’s a sneak preview of the GRANTA feature:
‘The moment that first sentence has been written down (for it has to be written down; if I just store it away in my head, nothing comes of it), a sort of parthenogenesis or self-fertilization kicks in, whereby each sentence brings forth the next with relative ease. Then interspersed with this are scenes I have imagined and scraps of memory. And what’s interesting at this point is how well your imagination and memories get along together, as though they had been waiting for one another, waiting for that meeting, in order to form a story. This may, in fact, be what happens in that mysterious first sentence: all of a sudden there’s this perfect romance between the imagined and the experienced.’ - Anne Serre, ‘How I Write My Books’, in Notes on Craft, for GRANTA
Please see also: