‘The Governesses’ Offers Subtle Lessons in Shame, Constraint and Lust

Posted November 27, 2018 5:08 p.m. EST

Most so-called unusual novels are unusual in a few usual ways. It’s generally a matter of giving us too much or too little: drowning us in detail or withholding it; presenting a narrator who is a cipher or one who can’t stop clowning. Sometimes there’s a quirky framing device or (invariably ill-advised) experimentation with the book’s font or design. Whatever the case, whatever the tactic, these books aren’t as new as they strain to be; they’re variations on the familiar — fresh haircuts on faces we know.

But every so often a different creature darts into view: a novel that is genuinely original — and, often, very quietly so. Call it the anglerfish of literature, after those solitary, crazy-looking lurkers in the sea’s deepest trenches. The strangeness of such stories isn’t just at the level of construction; it emerges from the writer’s very perception of the world and seeps into the syntax. Think of those deranging modernist masterpieces — Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood” or Jane Bowles’ “Two Serious Ladies” — their dream logic and dark, nagging charisma. Where do such books come from? Do they really have antecedents? Like the anglerfish, they make their own light.

“The Governesses,” a newly translated novel by French writer Anne Serre, belongs to this category, if not quite these ranks. It’s a rawboned little story — a novella, really — 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.

Inès, Laura and Eléonore are the governesses. They have been employed at the country estate of the Austeur family, ostensibly to care for the family’s four sons. (Seemingly countless other boys later appear with little explanation.) Their real purpose, we come to realize, is to enliven the moribund Austeur marriage. Monsieur enjoys the presence of the young women, not sexually but for the excitement they bring into the home, their chaotic female energy. They flit around, planning parties, wiping the occasional cheek and inspiring nervous lust in the older boys.

Oh, and they also attack men — although “devour” is the word they’d prefer. From time to time, they go into heat: “climbing trees, scaring the birds away, stamping their feet at the gates, hurling all kinds of objects at each other.” In their yellow dresses, they press themselves against the gates of the house “like dead butterflies.” Cars stop, men emerge. More cars stop. “Whole evenings go by in this way: three yellow governesses pressed up against the gates, and all these men milling around in the gray twilight.”

When these visits don’t suffice, the women hunt. Like maenads, they set upon men who have wandered onto the property, giving chase, “their bare arms are covered with scratches, their legs streaked with rainwater.” The men seem to run very, very slowly.

That’s the story, pretty much, minus a few small twists. A baby is born to one of the governesses, and we meet an old man, a neighbor, who spies on the women with his telescope (the women erotically taunt him in turn). The real action is in the telling.

When the book opens, we see the governesses before properly meeting them. They are walking up the path, and we are directed to notice three things: their tight black hairnets, one woman’s yellow leather ankle boots and another’s sleeves with 10 pearl buttons binding them around the wrists. No sooner are the women introduced to us with these lightly fetishistic descriptions then the narrator turns on them — “the poor little fools.”

The identity of the teller seems to shift; he appears to know everything but then watches alongside us, admiring and appalled. At times one of the young boys might be recounting the story, or perhaps the old voyeur. There’s an energy here that recalls “The Virgin Suicides” — a story building around surveilled women. Mark Hutchinson’s splendid and sensitive translation sets the mood; he has a talent for the off-kilter adjective that first startles us and later explains so much: a governess’s “valiant hands,” a “scantily lit” salon.

Who is Anne Serre? She has written 14 novels; “The Governesses,” published in 1992, is the first to be translated into English. Although she has been interviewed extensively in France, there is still something elusive about her. For many years she wrote under a pseudonym, and the little I can dig up (and translate in my halting French) suggests a fanatical love of literature and a life of purposeful deprivations. She has refused cohabitation, marriage and family life — anything she believes might interfere with her work, or as she puts its, her vigilance. Out of her solitude hatch these sparkling, sadomasochistic stories, and, recently, some notoriety. Her 2012 novel, “Petite table, sois mise!” (roughly, “Little Table, Set Yourself!”) is the story of an incestuous family that participates in what are described as enchanted orgies. These come to an end when a daughter leaves for school, which she experiences as an exile from paradise. A French literary magazine caused a furor when it quoted a few sentences; the offending phrases were pulled and the editor issued an apology, pleading that merely citing the book was not itself inciting perversion.

There’s nothing quite so explicit in “The Governesses” (although a dragonfly is put to an unorthodox use). For all their antics, the governesses are not “unsavory,” according to the narrator. The old man concurs: “obscene” but not “disgraceful,” is his ruling. They are carnal and innocent; not shameless but, beautifully, shame-free.

This novel’s ideas about shame, constraint, lust and abandon are as subtle as the sex is frank, conveyed through insinuation and metaphor. “The Governesses” is not a treatise but an aria, and one delivered with perfect pitch: a minor work, defiantly so, but the product of a significant talent.

Publication Notes:

'The Governesses'

By Anne Serre

Translated from French by Mark Hutchinson

108 pages. New Directions. $12.95.