book: The Governesses (1992; trans 2018 Mark Hutchinson) by Anne Serre

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An odd little novella that I read avidly while at the same time having no idea why on earth I was so enthralled. There are clearly subtexts going on in the tale, but I was uncertain what they actually were. There are lots of little anecdotes but almost nothing by way of plot, except in the concluding few paragraphs, where there’s a winding-up, and somewhere in the middle, where one of the titular governesses has a baby, paternity unknown. Characterization and continuity seem to have been done with an eye to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: on one page we’re told a governess once spent six years living with a man, on another that it was ten, and so on. The novella seems designed to irritate people who demand simple answers to the complexity of the real world, which is in itself at least quasi-paradoxical because the setting deliberately divorces itself from the real world . . .

Ah, yes, that setting. In the mansion of a country estate somewhere — we assume it’s in France, but that’s never specified — and in an era that’s likewise never specified (although there’s mention of a car, so we know we’re not talking about Renaissance France, however much other circumstances seem to point that way), dwell M. and Mme. Austeur, a troop of unexplained small boys who spend their days rolling hoops, a brigade of “little [house]maids,” and the three young governesses Eléanore, Laura and Inès. Also important to proceedings is the old geezer who lives in the house across the road (eh? yes, I know) and who watches all the proceedings on the estate through his telescope.

Most of all, he watches the governesses, because they give him quite a lot to watch, ho ho. For the most part completely uninhibited, they often strip off and pose provocatively when they know he’s watching, either to entertain him or to taunt him — who can tell? Also worth the attentions of his telescope are the various instances when a young man wanders unknowing into the estate only to find himself being stalked and multiply ravished by the Bacchantes-like governesses. (This book is determinedly not for younger readers: Be warned.)

Of course, the term “governesses” is a bit of a misnomer here. The three women were originally employed indeed to tutor those little hoop-rolling boys, and sometimes they still do a bit of that, but more recently their job description evolved to include as a primary duty the preparation of unrestrained revelries that seem again to invoke the god Bacchus.

That’s more or less the novella, yet any straightforward description cannot hope to convey the hypnotic effect the piece has. (Translator Mark Hutchinson deserves a lot of credit for having managed to maintain, I assume, this effect during the transition into English.) I’m now, as you’ll understand, quite interested to read more by Serre, but there doesn’t seem to be all that much in English translation. Let’s hope the editors at New Directions or elsewhere hear my plea!

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