Books, like people, have the capacity to seduce. It’s built into the very form: as with the love letter, a distance exists between the words on the page and the person reading them. There is great pleasure to be found in allowing oneself to knowingly be hoodwinked: the boundaries between life and the story begin to fade. Some people call this magic; still others, a game.
For the French writer Anne Serre, this is the entire point of writing. “Fiction, realist or not, doesn’t try to convince but to seduce,” she once remarked in an interview with Asymptote, and the three of her fourteen books that have been translated into English—The Governesses, The Fool and Other Moral Tales and The Beginners—have a glamour in the older sense of the word, that of witchcraft. These are books that, in their concern with the properties of fiction—plots, narrator, genre, characters—use these very elements to beguile. The structure of storytelling is an obsession of Serre’s, from the Jungian archetypes of tarot to a television true-crime trial, glimpsed during the height of a love affair. “No matter what the literary genre,” says Serre, “the goal is the same … A writer’s only responsibility is to seduce without cheating. You have to build a trap, a wonderful trap, that the reader is only too happy to fall into.”
And really—is it so terrible to want to be seduced? It’s exciting to play along, bemused, with the seducer, until fact becomes fiction, life merges with the book, and ordinary time fades away. To cede all power to the seducer, the writer—ah, but it’s only temporary. Morning will eventually come; the last page cannot be avoided. A book and a seduction have if nothing else one thing in common: eventually, both end.
And not only do fictions seduce their readers: characters within fictions are subject to seduction, in different ways in different genres. In fairy tales, it is especially key: without it, the prince will never be kissed, the stepmother will not be banished, and the princess will never wake up again. A fairy tale without an intention to seduce is not a fairy tale, it is simply a record of archaic governments and outdated social mores.
Fairy tales have a way of following Serre. Born in 1960 in Bordeaux, she studied French literature at the Sorbonne and went on to complete a master’s thesis on seventeenth-century fairy tales. Her work is often likened to them; “a John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale” is how literary critic Parul Sehgal described, in a pitch-perfect summation, The Governesses in 2018. Though Serre has in interviews denied her interest in the fairy tale as a form, it doesn’t really matter, because the fairy tale is interested in her. The Governesses, her debut—first published in 1992 and later translated by her close collaborator Mark Hutchinson—especially evokes the fairy tale and fable, with its incantatory language and surrealism-tinged plot. As in a lucid dream, the characters move through life as though the rules of space and time do not apply to them, and given the story’s abrupt and strange ending, it seems in fact the rules really don’t apply.
The novel—novella, really, as it clocks in at little more than a hundred pages—follows three young governesses, Inès, Laura and Eléonore, who are in the employ of Monsieur and Madame Austeur and tasked with looking after their young sons. The exact number of children is never really clear—the boys seem to multiply like frog eggs—and neither is the time period. There’s a car, so it must be the twentieth century, but when was the last time a country manor was so well-populated? An elderly man watches the governesses through a telescope, and sometimes they play along and flirt lasciviously.
Sex is the animating force in The Governesses, and there is something ribald and ancient, borderline pagan, in the way Serre portrays its rituals. The mere presence of the governesses stirs something up in Monsieur Austeur, a newfound virility: “The house had been peaceful. A bit too peaceful, perhaps … It was chaos he needed.” The governesses repair his and Madame Austeur’s marriage with their life force, restoring vitality to their world. But there’s also a darkness to the governesses, an incipient violence that occasionally manifests itself in another kind of sexual energy. The governesses, writes Serre, have “genuine love affairs, relationships that endure, with a beginning, a climax and the inevitable downfall”—note how similar the language of a love affair is to the rising and falling language typically used to describe the arc of a book’s plot—but they also have something else: every now and then, they seduce an unsuspecting man into an orgy, and proceed to “devour” him whole.
“The man has been bled dry, his handsome, open hands lying lifeless beside his body,” is how Serre describes the aftermath of one such ravishment. “Because he’s cold and doesn’t move, they put his clothes back on. Then, a bit the worse for the wear, but happy and replete, they make their way back to the house in silence.” The three governesses—one described, on the very first page, with a book in hand, “a finger between the pages”—are like sirens, like maenads; three fates, three graces; the maiden, the mother and the crone. A rich symbolism shimmers through them, thousands of years’ worth of myths coming alive, and without them, the Austeurs would be doomed; they’d have lost the plot. And in the end, when the governesses disappear, so too does this entire world: the world of the Austeurs, the elderly man and the little boys quite literally crumples.
In “The Wishing Table,” the third of three novellas compiled in The Fool and Other Moral Tales, sex takes on a similar transformative role. The story depicts, like old-fashioned pornography, the deranged incestual relations of a family. In the first half, the narrator is cheerful: “You probably think we had to be really messed up,” she writes, “living as we did in what other people would have called ‘moral squalor.’ And you’d be mistaken.” She sleeps with her cross-dressing father, she sleeps with her young and beautiful mother, she sleeps with her sisters and neighborhood boys and a doctor who is the friend of the family. “They did things with us that it’s absolutely forbidden to do with children,” the narrator recalls. “Especially Maman, who loved to fondle us. just had to see our pussies, to touch and rub us, to ‘gamahuche’ us, as they say in Sade.”
“The notion of a natural propensity for vice is essential to Sadeian psychology,” writes the British novelist Angela Carter, a writer Serre has been compared to, in her 1978 book The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography. Carter, like Serre, is famous for upending the tropes of fairy tales, returning them to their darkly sexual origins and pushing the architecture of fiction as far as it can strain. “This straitjacket psychology relates his fiction directly to the black and white ethical world of fairy tale and fable,” continues Carter, and this is where “The Wishing Table” begins to diverge from Sade, from simple pornography, and moves instead into the more nuanced world of literature. In the second half of the story, the narrator leaves home at the age of fifteen, her life running “along songlines like the ones in dreams.” She hitchhikes and drifts through France, eventually making her way to Italy, and begins to analyze her past. “What may have helped me perhaps,” she writes, compared to her two sisters, “who have had more difficult lives than mine, was my taking it into my head to write stories.”
Her parents die. She is confused and angry. In Rome, she falls in love with a glamorous older woman, whom she compares to “a character in a novel,” and to whom she confesses her dream of becoming a writer. Language becomes a key, the apparatus that allows her to look at her childhood with subtlety, and a line in a sand is drawn. Maman, after all, didn’t read, claiming she had no need: “‘I have the demon of love in me,’ she would say.” A work of art, the narrator realizes in the story’s end, is “a terrible joy,” born out of lived experience, and one that can “be forged from your body, your hands, your eyes, your poor broken heart.”
To become a character in a work of art—for some people, this is the goal of life. And the history of the novel is one littered with women who allow themselves to be swept up in the story of a love affair; is it a coincidence that Anna, the main character of The Beginners, Serre’s latest work to be published in English, shares a first name with one of the most famous cheating wives in literature? The Beginners charts the slow, steady, inexorable progress of a love affair, though with Serre’s characteristic interest in the scaffolding of fiction. How is it that one day, a person can be in love, and the next day, that love has transferred to someone else? “The speed with which people can change levels in your consciousness is astonishing,” Serre pointedly notes.
Anna, a middle-aged art critic, lives with Guillaume, her partner for the last twenty years. By chance, she meets Thomas, a vacationing scientist, in front of a bookshop; they chat, and meet the next day for coffee. Nothing happens, until suddenly, everything does, and Anna, after a year, leaves Guillaume for Thomas. The Beginners is Serre at her most realistic: through chance, a seed in two people’s lives is planted—and eventually, it blooms.
Books paper Anna and Thomas’s lives, from the bookshop where they meet to the books they exchange flirtatiously to the fact that Thomas reminds Anna of Jude the Obscure. “She still hadn’t understood, then, that Thomas was a real human being,” Serre writes of the moment that they finally cross over into their affair, when Anna allows herself to fall in love—though nothing physical has happened yet. “She still believed, and had for a year now, that this figure who kept popping up and whom she found so striking was a fictional character … whereas he was simply a man, with his life, his failings, his sufferings, his joys, his satisfactions.”
Life is not fiction: in the same summer in which The Beginners was published in the U.S., a flurry of news articles announced the latest cultural trend, “main character energy,” defined by the New Yorker as “any situation in which a person is making herself the center of attention … as if cameras were trained on her and her alone.” Like Emma Bovary, we confuse our lives with art. Eventually, though, the inherent passivity of this position must be breached; in The Beginners, Anna leaves Guillaume for Thomas, and suddenly the latter is no longer Jude the Obscure: he is a human being. For a moment, Anna hesitates, frightened by the sudden reality of the situation, the consequences therein. Characters do not make their own decisions; they are guided by their god, the writer. But Anna moves forward, breaks the spell, wakes up from the dream and finishes the story. And this is the end point of the seduction: eventually, you run out of pages, and real life begins.
“There comes a moment,” thinks the narrator of “The Fool,” a writer, “when life and literature are so closely intertwined that it’s almost as though you possessed magic powers and could conjure up in your existence things that happen in your books.” Like the Fool of the title—the first card in the major arcana of the tarot—this requires a gamble; moving forward, but sometimes off a cliff. Love changes you. So does a book. In picking it up, you conjured something, and maybe it was even unconscious: like a character in a Serre book, you were ready to be devoured.