Anne Serre, Writing as a Game of Cards

Coinciding with the publication of Anne Serre’s fourth novel translated in the United States, A Leopard-Skin Hat, her first book, The Governesses, is being adapted for cinema by American director Joe Talbot. We spoke with this discreet writer, who was awarded the Prix Goncourt in the short story category in 2020.
© PatriceNormand/Opale.Photo

Since the publication of the English translation of The Governesses in 2018, enthusiasm for Anne Serre’s work has been growing in the United States. The book, in which three young women wreak havoc at the home of their employers, the bourgeois Austeur family, was described by The New York Times as “a John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale.” Since then, filmmaker Joe Talbot has begun working on a movie adaptation with poet Olivia Gatwood. Filming has started in Spain, and the production will feature Lily-Rose Depp, Jung Ho-Yeon (Squid Games) and Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World). “Joe Talbot is a fascinating director,” says Anne Serre, still surprised by the adaptation. “I have spoken with Olivia Gatwood by email. We talked about the book. But I want to be surprised; I’m not getting involved at all.”

A reader of Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, and an admirer of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, Anne Serre loves “the freedom and the health” of Henry Miller, the economy of means of Raymond Carver’s short stories, the “unique tone” of Gertrude Stein and the “sophisticated imagination” of Djuna Barnes. A big part of her work has been translated into English by Mark Hutchinson, her best friend, and published by New Directions, but the author confesses that she has only been to the United States once – to New York City with her father some 20 years ago. “I was amazed by the beauty of Manhattan. But my father mistakenly took a double dose of his anti-anxiety medication because he had forgotten about the time difference, and was wandering around half asleep. I spent three or four days guiding him around New York City like Antigone!”

© Léa Chassagne

To meet this discreet writer, you have to walk up five flights of stairs in a building located on a quiet street in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, between the Luxembourg Gardens and the Val-de-Grâce church. Among the furniture brought from her home in the Cantal département, the “magic land” where she spends all her summers, we notice several details and objects that have found their way into her books, such as the yellow armchairs where we sit to have tea (something she only drinks while entertaining). On the wall of the bright living room, which is also her office, she points out a small, naive painting, unearthed at a flea market, featuring two gardeners with a rake, the steeple of a village church in the background. “My inner world is made up of images,” she says, drawing our attention to the bottom shelf of her bookcase, lined with art books and painters’ monographs. “Both images seen [paintings, films] and images read [novels] or experienced. It’s like a deck of cards that I am constantly playing with, turning them over, moving them around, to discover something about my destiny or to organize it. As I write, I create other images, which are like the result of the shuffling of all these images seen and experienced.”

The Other Side of the Mirror

Reading a novel by Anne Serre is like stepping into a painting, a fictional territory where nothing is precisely located, where the past exists alongside the present and the future. The narrator is far from being an invisible, omniscient voice. In fact, since the aptly named book Le narrateur (2004), they have rather been a truly independent character in certain novels, a kind of “ideal company.” In A Leopard-Skin Hat, published this month in the U.S., the narrator forms a friendship with a psychologically fragile young woman, Fanny, whom the reader knows is dead from the start. “Just like The Beginners – and I have only written this sort of novel twice – it is a book of circumstance. A Leopard-Skin Hat came about after my younger sister’s probable suicide when she was 43. I wrote this book to make a tomb for her, so that her whole body and soul wouldn’t completely disappear. The only way I could express her struggle to live, her unhappiness, and also her unique genius, was to step out of my position as her sister and put myself in the place of a narrator who knows how to tell stories.”

© Léa Chassagne

For as long as she can remember, Anne Serre has always written. After the trauma of her mother’s death when she was 12, she buried herself in fiction and wrote stories inspired by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, which her father, a literature professor, had bound in a book. “I knew that this would be my life, because it made me feel perfectly happy.” After high school, she took the entrance exams for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, failed, and instead pursued a literary degree at the Sorbonne. While completing her preparatory classes, she sent a letter to author Julien Gracq, having loved his novel The Castle of Argol. This led to regular meetings every other week, always at the same time. “He would invite me into his living room and sit in his armchair. He was slightly worried about me, asked me about my studies and what I was reading, but also about my life in general, what I was eating, for example. He spoke at length about the Surrealists, but let me talk a lot as well. After two years, we both agreed to part ways. It was like finishing a psychoanalysis!” What happened next could have been taken straight from a novel. After Julien Gracq, Anne Serre frequented French actor Alain Cuny and Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi in the same way for several years. She actually met the latter in the gardens of the Villa Borghese in Rome. “I was so lucky,” she says. “For me, these three men were the spiritual masters I was so desperately searching for at the time. When they died, I felt like I had learned everything I was supposed to learn from them.”

Anne Serre has written some 15 novels and short story collections. Every two years, she publishes another slim book, generally around 120 pages. “Sometimes, I think I’m outsmarting fate, like Oedipus, but I always fail – like Oedipus.” While it is easy to recognize her singular literary world, it can be challenging to summarize the overall theme of her sophisticated writing. In The Fool and Other Moral Tales (2012), her most brazen work, a young woman remembers her chaotic childhood in a family with no taboos – not even incest. In Voyage avec Vila-Matas (2016), the writer ploughs the metaliterary furrow of her work by adopting the style of Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas. In Au cœur d’un été tout en or (2020), which won the Prix Goncourt in the short story category, she borrows the opening words for each text from the authors in her library, including Raymond Carver, Dino Buzzati, Robert Walser, and Lewis Carroll, whose influence permeates the entire collection.
And in her endless literary pursuit, she even invented a language in Grande tiqueté (2020). “What probably means the most to me, both in my reading and in my writing, is the narrator’s tone,” she says. “In my books, I think there is a slight irony, a smile in the way the narrator tells the story. And this narration always evokes, in one way or another, the strange life of a writer who plays with reality and fiction as if they were two bullets.” In Anne Serre’s world, everything is upside-down; reality is fiction, and vice-versa. To enter, you must be willing to step through the looking glass.

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.