The Merry Murderer

The Beginners by anne serre, translated from french by mark hutchinson. new york: new directions. 128 pages. $15.

The cover of The Beginners

WHEN SHE WAS SIXTEEN, THE FRENCH NOVELIST Anne Serre set out to induce her high school philosophy teacher to fall in love with her. Her strategy was unconventional: “I thought that writing a book, which I would then ask him to read, was the only possible way of seducing Monsieur Rebours,” she recounted in the Times Literary Supplement last year. Though Monsieur Rebours did not succumb, Serre, now sixty-one, remains convinced that books are instruments of seduction. “Fiction, realist or not, doesn’t try to convince but to seduce,” she explained in a recent interview. “A writer’s only responsibility is to seduce without cheating.”

By her own measure, Serre is successful: it is difficult to refrain from falling in love with her dreamy, erotic fables, which are as much playful philosophical meditations on the nature of fictionality as they are exercises in deliciously wicked debauchery. In The Governesses, her 1992 debut, three governesses working in a country manor descend upon passing men like wild animals; in The Fool and Other Moral Tales, a collection of three novellas released in English in 2019, one character reflects on his vocation as a narrator, while another reminisces fondly about growing up in a household where incest was the norm.

A fixture in France, where she has won a number of prizes, Serre is still something of a novelty in America, almost certainly because she is so refreshingly anathema to the squeamish sensibilities of the Anglophone mainstream. It is both regrettable and predictable that, of her fourteen attempts to ravish her readers, only two have been translated into English to date (both by her longtime friend and interlocutor, Mark Hutchinson).

Happily, this year brings a third, The Beginners, a slim and unassuming volume that is markedly unlike its predecessors. Where they are pointedly fantastic, packed with provocations, The Beginners is almost staid. It takes place not in a reverie but in a world continuous with the real one, and it treats a relatively common if turbulent occurrence: a romantic partnership of twenty years dissolves when a woman is captivated, for reasons she cannot adduce, by a man she meets on the street. In contrast to Serre’s earlier translated fiction, her latest contains no talk of authorship, no self-aware narrator discoursing on his addiction to narration, and while there is sex, it is not especially depraved. Yet in its own quiet way, The Beginners is as much a celebration of the dizzying excesses of female desire as Serre’s other work. Even in comparatively realist mode, Serre is a seductress.

IN THE PAST, SHE SEDUCED with novels that are conspicuously fictional: even for the inhabitants of her work, there is no world beyond the bounds of their native books. The Governesses, for instance, is set not in a place but in a genre. There are no landmarks, only hallmarks of a certain kind of familiar tale, among them the country estate, the implacable male employer who lingers over cigars in his study, and the swarm of unruly boys rolling hoops around the grounds. The governesses inhabit a “vast, lunar privacy,” a trope transformed into a territory.

For the most part, The Governesses is a book bereft of characters. Instead, there are classes or choruses, avatars of the stock figures that populate traditional governess fiction; few of the children—and few of the governesses’ male consorts—are named. Eléonore, Laura, and Inès, the three governesses, are briefly individuated, but it is also clear that they are no more than constructs: “they have no family or parents, and not much of a past either.” They exist only on the page, and only so long as we are witnessing them.

In this respect, we, the readers, are like the mysterious voyeur who gazes at the governesses through his telescope from nearby. Knowing the old man is watching, they “part their buttocks for the figure observing them.” The world acquires a patina of thrill precisely because their every action becomes an occasion for performance. But the old man’s function is also more serious, for it is he who endows the governesses with reality. When Serre asks how the three of them could “fail to enjoy being seen by at least one eye,” she is in effect asking how the denizens of a fiction could survive without a reader to sustain them. And, indeed, as The Governesses approaches its end—as the old man turns his telescope elsewhere and we prepare to stop reading—the governesses begin to feel “queasy.” “We’re fading,” one of them exclaims. “We’re melting away,” another replies. On the final page, the world as we know it is annihilated. The house loses its walls, and all that is left in the final line is a “lizard darting away.”

John Currin, The Owens, 1994, oil on canvas, 34 x 26". © John Currin/Courtesy Gagosian.
John Currin, The Owens, 1994, oil on canvas, 34 x 26". © John Currin/Courtesy Gagosian.

Sometimes Serre’s mischievously metatextual interrogations are satisfying, but occasionally they yield thin postmodern ploys. Several of the characters in The Fool are so patently figurative—so hyperconscious of themselves as fictions—that it is impossible to care what happens to them. “The language of poetry,” the narrator of the titular story reflects, “is a medicine, and because, like every narrator in the world, I need to look after myself, I take a regular dose.” The protagonist of The Narrator (“the narrator,” who does not in fact narrate) represents the logical endpoint of Serre’s most indulgent self-referential tendencies. “I can’t seriously wish to be anything but a narrator, because I simply don’t have the means,” he laments.

Still, fiction that grasps its status as fiction can be titillating, for it takes place in the voluptuous realm where the usual rules are suspended, where fantasy reigns supreme. “As for the scandalous passages in my books,” Serre once told an interviewer, “they’re not scandalous to me because they’re like dream narratives. And in a dream you can be a merry murderer.” It is because the governesses reside in a fiction that their lusts can go unchecked and their outlandishly lavish appetites can be gratified. They plan parties featuring “a journey in a hot-air balloon” and descend upon the men who attract them with feverish fervor. When they catch one, “they want him all to themselves. They want him with no past and no other life than the love they feel for him.”

And in a novel, their wish can come true. The men they seduce have no past and no future, no life beyond the sensual one Serre has invented for them, no identity beyond desire and its fulfillment. Only in fiction can possession ever be total: only in a fiction can we be merry murderers without a twinge of guilt.

THE BEGINNERS IS PERHAPS THE LAST BOOK WE MIGHT EXPECT from a murderer and pervert as merry as Serre. Resoundingly absent are the decedent degradations, the fabulous flights of unreality, and the devious narrators who announce their status as fictions at every turn. At least on the face of it, Serre’s latest is a conventional, even vaguely classical, love story.

One day, Anna, a forty-three-year-old art critic, and Thomas, a fifty-six-year-old scientist, encounter one another on the street in the fictional town of Sorge—and just like that, “the space around Anna had changed.” Her passion comes as a shock, a shattering: for twenty years, she has been living in near-total accord with Guillaume, a vivacious architect to whom she is effectively (albeit not officially) married—and whom she still loves.

Why, then, is Anna so catastrophically susceptible to Thomas? Their joint derangement defies explanation. Never before in Anna’s “rather settled existence” has she felt so disastrously infatuated, while Thomas experiences ardor he cannot reconcile with his heretofore “quiet, dispassionate” mode of being. Ultimately, Anna is compelled “to step into a different world,” and The Beginners documents her fraught and at times unwilling passage from one life to the next. Guillaume’s decision to leave her is the immediate catalyst for the affair’s consummation—but Anna and Thomas’s eventual union always loomed, inexorable and inevitable, over all of their ostensible hesitations.

Though The Beginners is not quite written in a realist register—it is lightly nonlinear, and its knowing and bemused narrator is prone to addressing both Anna and Thomas directly—it is nonetheless an excruciatingly realistic depiction of the folly and bumbling that overpowering love can spawn. First come the blunders: when Anna and Thomas part after their first exchange, they shake hands “in the most peculiar fashion, a bit like the way you make a seat for someone by locking your arms together: fumbling about, but quite obviously searching for each other.” Then come the attempts to communicate surreptitiously, by way of signs and symbols. Terrified of outright declarations, Anna and Thomas resort to signaling “with their bodies and clothes,” yielding a flirtation that is “like one of those conversations where you can always deny having said any such thing and pretend that the other person has misheard you.” Bouts of internal resistance ensue. For months, both parties demur. Anna texts Thomas, and he

replies with a rambling, half-hearted email, to which she replies with an email that’s even more rambling and half-hearted, whereupon, as luck would have it, he flips over like a carp, furious all of a sudden: if she’s that half-hearted, she can go to hell, to which she replies that she’s not half-hearted at all and tells him how miserable she’s been these last few days, whereupon he tells her how fortunate he is to love her, and away they go again.

These are just the sort of ripostes and reversals that are unimaginable for so many of Serre’s protagonists, most of whom are too self-consciously slotted into archetypes to behave much like real people. Yet The Beginners has more in common with Serre’s earlier work than it appears to, for every romance is shot through with fiction, and Anna’s love, in particular, is emphatically literary. Thomas fascinates her in large part because he reminds her of someone or something she cannot place definitively—because he vaguely invokes Jude the Obscure, Hamlet, and “that famous Russian poet familiar to us from black and white photos.” He is even redolent of “a language; the language of an author she had loved.”

At times, Serre seems to cast implicit judgment on Anna for failing to conceive of Thomas as “a real human being.” As much as a year into her infatuation, the critic still regards her lover as a “fictional character, someone to be looked for in a book or in the recollection of a book.” Though there are moments when she briefly appears to have “emerged from the realm of fiction”—when she realizes that Thomas is not “in a film, he’s not in a novel, and he can’t really be said to be in a painting either”—she always relapses, giving way once more to referential pathology. “She can see it’s not Jude the Obscure,” but then she backtracks: “Though, come to think of it, isn’t this how Jude the Obscure behaved when he was in love?”

But then again, Anna is right to regard Thomas as a character, for he does live in a novel, as does she, and he does sweep her off her feet because he “leaves a bit of fiction between them.” As Serre notes in her TLS essay, the erotic takes hold when “anything can happen. Even a huge surprise. And that is perhaps what Eros is: a huge surprise.” Seduction, even seduction enacted not by an author but by a scientist who runs into a woman on the street, requires a whiff of the novelistic. How else could it jolt Anna out of her quasi-marriage and into a new life? What else but a novel can reimagine and thereby remake the world? And where but in fiction can anything happen, even a merry murder?

Becca Rothfeld is working on an essay collection to be published by Metropolitan Books.