Troubled Voices

Best-known in the English-speaking world for her 1992 debut The Governesses, a frenzied modern-day conte of female appetite translated in 2018, the French writer Anne Serre says she has little time for the vogue of fictionalised autobiography. ‘It’s not enough to write in your own voice, come to the page with what you have to say, and call it a novel’, she has argued. ‘The whole point of a novel should be that we don’t know who is speaking’. In a mannered, highly controlled style – her surname resembles the verb serrer, to ‘tighten, wrench or clamp’ – Serre has spent her career troubling the boundaries between author and narrator, fact and fiction, realism and fantasy.

In A Leopard Skin-Hat, published in France in 2008 and now the fourth of Serre’s fifteen works to appear in English, the question of who speaks is muddled by the presence of a character called ‘the Narrator’. Such metafictional ploys can be found throughout her oeuvre: a 2004 novel is titled Le Narrateur, as is a novella included in her 2021 collection A Fool and Other Moral Tales. In this case, ‘the Narrator’ is a middle-aged male writer, struggling to make sense of the abbreviated life of his childhood friend, Fanny, who dies by suicide after suffering from schizophrenia. An extended rumination on her life and death, the novel resembles a ballad, comprising a wistful effort to index everything remembered about a loved one and lamenting its failure to provide a cohesive portrait.

Raised in a ‘very decent’ and conventional bourgeois Catholic family, with literature-professor parents who ‘bathed’ their children in fiction from an early age, Serre insists that she began writing in order to charm her secondary school philosophy teacher (Anglophone critics have made much of her professed conviction that literature is invariably written to ‘seduce’ someone). She lost her mother when she was ten and her sister in 2007 from ‘probable suicide’ related to struggles with mental illness. Her sister was 43, the same age as Fanny when she dies; A Leopard-Skin Hat is arguably Serre’s most autobiographically inflected work to date. In an unusual disclosure of her intentions, Serre has said that she conceived the work as a tribute to a life which resisted interpretation.

Serre’s books unfold from striking, enigmatic images which ‘foist’ themselves upon her in dreams, or during walks in the countryside. This latest work is ignited from the ‘elegant leopard-skin hat’ that Fanny ‘pilfers’ during one of her more ‘light-hearted’ phases. As her illness worsens, the hat functions as a cruel measure of her decline. The novel opens with the Narrator’s fond, generic recollection of his friend in her youth: ‘Oh, how pretty she was, Fanny, back in the days of her childhood.’ The reader may suspect a Proustian set-up – a hapless, Marcel-like character mooning over his Albertine – but this is quickly disrupted. The portrait soon grows more complicated: ‘One summer, a child from next door asked her if he could use her piano and Fanny refused, saying quite simply, “No”. There was nothing gracious about it, no attempt to soften the blow. It was No. The child was taken aback and hurt, and went off looking distinctly sad.’

The Narrator’s fixation with Fanny is more intellectual than erotic; the bond they develop is not romantic but a ‘gruelling’ friendship. In contrast to the trademark eroticism of Serre’s other works, A Leopard-Skin Hat is a para-philosophical reflection on intimacy and the opacity of other people. Visiting Fanny’s bedroom after her body is taken away, the Narrator is confounded by its neatness, so at odds with Fanny’s public dishevelment: ‘he discovered, with a lump in his throat, all her papers carefully arranged and annotated and filed away like those of a fantastically tidy person, the official documents of her life meticulously ordered. You never know who your loved ones are or what they are capable of.’

The portrait represents something of a departure for Serre, whose characters have tended to resemble what she describes as ‘ghosts, masks, dolls, theatre figures and vignettes’ rather than full-dimensional people. Along with her next novel, The Beginners, published in France in 2011 and translated in 2021, A Leopard-Skin Hat was an experiment in applying her favoured modes – sly, oneiric, sometimes farcical – to a more realistic world. Serre did not judge either book successful, deeming them unsatisfying ‘one-offs’ that reaffirmed her antic taste for whimsy and surrealism, not the travails of everyday intimacy. Yet the works are among her most affecting. The Beginners, the story of an art critic, Anna, who, though in a contended long-term relationship, becomes infatuated with a researcher spending the summer in her countryside town, may be prosaic, but it is also tender and often riveting. Like A Leopard-Skin Hat, the novel chimes with elements of Serre’s own tragically inclined biography (Anna is also motherless, and has lost a sister to suicide). Its portrayal of how Anna ‘catches’ love for Thomas, like an illness, fatally contaminating her well-established partnership, vividly showcases the unsparing side of romantic life. For all the novel’s abstract talk of love and existential pondering, few others have registered the fraught experience of being in love with more than one person so well, nor articulated the dilemma as precisely.

It is a shame therefore that some of the sharpness of Serre’s prose is lost in translation. Her long-term translator Mark Hutchinson has rendered the crisp plainness of A Leopard-Skin Hat in an idiomatic English that is at times a little cloying and cumbersome. In a passage in which the Narrator questions whether Fanny ‘really wants to live’, for the expression ‘sortir de sa cachette’ (‘to come out of hiding’), Hutchinson has ‘to come out of her hidey-hole’. His rendering of Serre’s plain description of Fanny’s relationship to alcohol is similarly obtrusive. For ‘Lorsqu’elle a été ivre’, instead of ‘When she was drunk’, we have the old-fashioned ‘When she was in her cups’.

For a writer fond of ‘cruel irony’ (a term she has used to praise the work of Elfriede Jelinek), we should not exclude the possibility that Serre is sometimes poking fun at her Narrator. On occasion, a winking authorial voice intrudes: ‘Fanny’s actual life probably bears no resemblance to what the Narrator writes’. These metafictional flourishes would be more agreeable, and the sudden instalment of ironic distance more effective, if the reader were invited to care about the Narrator as a stand-alone creation. Yet he is pompous, inordinately occupied by his own genius, tediously adamant that the demands of long-term friendship are akin to those of writing books. Perhaps this estrangement is a further defence against the conflation of literature and reality, against approaching any settled sense – anathema to the novel, in Serre’s view – of who is speaking. But by leaning into the more parodic aspects of the Narrator, A Leopard-Skin Hat risks satirizing his struggle to say something fair and true about a loved one in distress, and rendering the central question ‘Who is speaking?’ a pantomime.

More than a meta-fictional hall of mirrors, however, A Leopard-Skin Hat is perhaps most potently about the limits of literature when confronted with something as obliterative as schizophrenia. Fanny’s life is portrayed as one of perpetual self-estrangement and fear. Calling herself ‘Felix’ as a child, she become a ‘social outcast’, unable to hold down a job. Her body is consistently ‘alien’ to her, an ‘enemy about to pounce’; she ‘scared of herself’ – ‘scared of hurting someone else.’ ‘The more she read’, we learn, ‘the more she seemed to fall apart’. As Serre has reflected elsewhere: ‘anything that’s unnameable is terrifying; and for a writer, perhaps even more so. Naming things is comforting. If you can’t name something (Is he a vagabond? A murderer? My loved one? Death? A ghost?), the world will disintegrate, and if the world disintegrates, you will too.’ The Narrator, for all his erudition, cannot ultimately find a way to define his relationship with Fanny: ‘Perhaps in the end it was more about love than friendship? What other name is there for this urgent, violent marriage of minds? Why did he accompany her?’

Serre, as we’d expect, leaves the question open. Definitively scotching this ‘one-off’ experiment in realism, she gives Fanny a celestial, surrealist send-off. ‘Over the rail she stepped, she who was such a powerful swimmer, and dropped into the sea’, from where she ascends to the heavens. ‘Truly, it’s a joy to have become a clock once more with a well-oiled, precision mechanism,’ she enthuses during her climb. From such heights, she can look down on the story of her life with, if not quite freedom, something like poise. She is still ascending in Serre’s final sentences. The Narrator is nowhere to be seen.

‘What distinguishes a novelist’, Serre has argued, ‘is having access to the imagination and knowing how to blend that in with their own experience. When the two currents merge (which is what being a novelist is all about), it reveals something, it tells you something about existence that is far more richly variegated, far more penetrating and arresting and impossible to pin down, than the story of a life’. In her latest novel published in France, Notre si chère vieille dame auteur (2022), she dispenses with her Narrator character and places the figure of a famous woman writer centre stage. The book unfolds around the latter’s death bed, thronged by journalists and critics who grill her about her latest text. ‘We are troubled by something,’ one reporter complains. ‘You are an old woman (our dear little old woman), but there is also an old woman in the story.’ They pause. ‘Is it not you?’ The question hovers unresolved. Serre’s preferred literary mode is enchantment. She does not break the spell. 

Read on: Emma Fajgenbaum, ‘An Aphorist of the Cinema’, NLR 104.