share


Interview with Anne Serre

I met Anne Serre on the shelves of a Parisian bookshop. She was very slim, of a golden yellow, and her title, Petite table, sois mise!was as enigmatic as her first sentence: ‘The first time I saw my father dressed as a girl, I was seven years old.’ The text that followed (translated as The Wishing Table) [1] did not dissolve any of the mystery, but made it deeper with various family-related, erotic and cheerful scenes. I would never have thought these words could go together, but with her joyful freedom and very unusual sense of poetry, Anne Serre showed me that literature has the power to combine elements that ordinary life keeps apart. I was hypnotised, and have been reading her avidly ever since. Each time I open one of her books, I open the door to a mysterious place, a secluded family house or an infinite landscape, and when I have finished, I close that door behind me, I put the book away and I know the place I have discovered will stand there, on my bookshelf, patiently waiting for me to come back. When I do, its enigma remains intact, yet it is a little more familiar.

 

Anne Serre’s texts are short. They are not carved with a chisel but sharpened with a knife, which is much better. They are worlds of their own, moving miniatures that do not look like anything else because Anne Serre does not belong to a movement or a genre, and that is also why her books are important. They remind us that the novel must continue to invent its own territories, and that while some authors keep cramming fully packed rooms with more objects, others go on exploring and compose fictions that can open doors we did not even feel could exist. This interview is about the doors we open and the lands we explore by writing, reading and living.

 

[1]  The Wishing Table is published in English in The Fool and Other Moral Tales (New Directions, 2019, and forthcoming in 2021 from Les Fugitives. Translated by Mark Hutchinson.)
 
Q

The White Review

— At the moment we had arranged to meet for the interview, the lockdown started. This set me thinking about the importance of houses in your books: the big house surrounded by a gated garden in Les Gouvernantes (The Governesses, published by New Directions in 2018 and Les Fugitives in 2019), the island home the narrator announces she is leaving in the opening lines of Au secours but fails to do so, the family homes of Petite table, sois mise! (The Wishing Table) and Eva Lone. . . . What role do houses play in your work?

A

Anne Serre

The house is the family, of course, and the family that has withdrawn into itself. After my mother died during my childhood, my own family became withdrawn. My father sank into a depression, and my sisters and I, like the children in Eva Lone’s house, tried with all our might – like all children in this type of situation, I think – to protect him, resuscitate him, keep him alive. For that reason, I think of the home as a place filled with very powerful emotions: fear, dread, love. Thanks to that tragic situation, however, it’s also the place where a writer is born, the cradle out of which she arises, as I show in The Wishing Table. And, as in Au secours, it’s also a place you have to break away from at some point to avoid being swallowed up by whatever it is – grief, fiction itself perhaps…

Q

The White Review

—  Grande tiqueté, on the other hand, is a novel without a home, a tale of the open road in which plot and language roam through the countryside, continually on the move.

A

Anne Serre

The other thing you need in order to write or to survive a surfeit of emotion is to get out into the countryside – not too far away, but out of your own ‘home’. During my formative years, I was fascinated by the Wanderschaft of the German Romantics, as well as by Robert Walser’s endless ‘promenade’, which is another version of this. The characters of my first books, like those of Grande tiqueté, need to get out and walk, and they find in walking a freedom to think and love and enjoy life that they wouldn’t find at home. Walking in the countryside has always played a very special, very precise role in my life: it’s on such occasions that I ‘measure’ my books, their construction as well as their qualities and flaws. I’m not quite sure how this is done. I think I compare my stories to the presence and lines of a landscape, as if I were laying a sheet of tracing paper over a drawing. I can then see where I’ve gone wrong and where it’s fine.

Q

The White Review

—  You were talking about the ‘birth’ of a writer. How did you begin writing, and how did you go on from there to write your first novel, The Governesses, published in France in 1992 and recently translated into English?

A

Anne Serre

I began with imitation. I had read a lot since childhood and reading was what I most enjoyed doing. I was a big reader of The Famous Five, and when I was about twelve or thirteen I wrote two ‘novels’ largely based on that series. I sent them to the French publisher of Enid Blyton – I’m not sure where I got that idea from, but I think I probably already thought of myself as a writer – who was kind enough to write back, not to accept them but to urge me on. I carried on reading and imitating. When I arrived in Paris at seventeen to go to university, I discovered Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James and a host of others, and started to write short stories that were certainly inspired in large part by my reading. Most of my material came from the books I had read, rather than my life. I started publishing some of these short stories in magazines I’d come across. Someone then encouraged me to write a novel, so I decided to continue one of the short stories I’d just published, Les Gouvernantes, and turn it into a novel.

Q

The White Review

A short story might be published in a magazine and later become a novel, and you’ve also published short stories and excerpts from novels in magazines. What are your thoughts on magazine publication?

A

Anne Serre

It was mostly at the beginning that I published short stories in magazines, before the publication of my first novel in 1992. Magazines were a good place to practise, and I considered these short stories as exercises, like doing scales, not as fully-fledged texts. Nevertheless, my first publisher collected some of them in a volume, Un voyage en ballon, which was published in 1993. As I see it, these early stories are the ‘infancy’ of my art. Today, they feel as remote from me as childhood memories, which isn’t the case with my first novel. After that first novel, I didn’t want to do scales any more; or perhaps it was simply that the time for doing them had passed. At that point, novels took over – though they’re not really novels in my case, more like novellas – and whenever I started a text, it was with the intention of making it into a book. I still publish sometimes in literary magazines, but nowadays it tends to be excerpts from my notebooks or talks I’ve given, like the one that appeared (in translation) in the TLS last March. 

Q

The White Review

—  Your books are short, you use the term ‘novellas’. What attracts you to brevity?

A

Anne Serre

If you were to ask me that while I was with my old friend, Mark Hutchinson, who’s also my translator, we would burst out laughing because it’s a running joke between us. I’m doomed, it seems, to write a hundred and twenty pages—no more, no less. If I occasionally write a bit less (as in The Fool, The Wishing Table or Grande tiqueté) or a bit more (sometimes as much as a hundred and sixty pages!), it’s because I’ve made a huge effort to rid myself of this magic number, a hundred and twenty, which seems to be the exact measure of all my books. When I’m working on a new book, Mark will sometimes ask me if I’m going to write a bit more than a hundred and twenty pages this time. Yes, yes, I reply, and write about a hundred and fifty or a hundred and seventy pages. Then I make cuts, removing large chunks wherever it seems needlessly long, and in spite of myself, as if by magic, when I’ve decided that the book is well and truly finished, I look at the page numbers and there are a hundred and twenty pages! That said, apart from this bizarre, comical aspect, I don’t feel capable of writing a big novel. It’s a matter of capacity. When I’m writing, I need to have the whole thing present in my mind, at all times, down to the tiniest detail. My maximum capacity, it seems, is a hundred and twenty pages. Anything more than that and it starts spilling over, I lose control of the text as a whole. 

Q

The White Review

How do you feel about your books once they’re finished?

A

Anne Serre

—  I tend to forget them as they recede into the past, and I’m only really attached to the one that’s just been published. Not only am I incapable of working on two books at once, I also can’t start working again until my latest book has had a public life of its own for a few months. I need to forget it before I can start on the next one. This usually takes a year or two. What can sometimes happen is that I will sit on a text that’s almost ready, but lacks some detail needed for me to feel that it’s finished. For example, it took me years to separate out The Wishing Table in its current form from a much longer text. I had stopped working on it and was just letting the manuscript lie, until one day I had a feeling I should separate out a particular piece of it, and that piece was the book. I also held onto Grande tiqueté for a few years before giving it a foreword and an afterword, at which point I realised it was finished. Likewise with Au coeur d’un été tout en or, which I came back to after a one-year break. I changed the order of some of the texts (it’s a collection of short texts), removed a few, added a new one, at which point I felt it was finished. Which means that the book is still being mulled over even when I’m not working on it. But if it’s still being mulled over, it’s precisely because it’s not finished yet.

Q

The White Review

In Dialogue d’été, the writer says that she introduces characters into scenes written by others. They then drive out the original characters, ‘kill them, devour them’ and take their place. Is literature also a form of mutual cannibalisation?

A

Anne Serre

The material accumulated over years of reading I’m talking of impressions and images, of course, not allusions and quotes is volatile, taking now one form, now another, and getting mixed up with events in your life, which in turn transform it, until there comes a point where there’s no substantial difference any longer between what you’ve experienced and what you have read. Intertwined, as it were, the two materials become one, and you get fiction.

Q

The White Review

You’ve mentioned Walser, Kafka, Katherine Mansfield and Henry James as influences. Another form of story-telling whose presence I think I detect in your work is the fairy-tale. Is the fairy-tale form one you consciously draw on?

A

Anne Serre

—  I’ve actually never been particularly drawn to fairy-tales! When I was a student, I wrote my master’s thesis on Madame d’Aulnoy’s fairy-tales, but that was my professor’s choice. I was mainly interested in seventeenth-century literature at the time, and later in the eighteenth century. I loved reading Boccaccio and Marguerite de Navarre, as well as all manner of Renaissance and classical authors. I do think that what you read between the ages of twenty and twenty-five counts for a lot, and, as a student, I think I hardly ever read anything contemporary. After gobbling up the French, English and German eighteenth century, I finally arrived at Rilke and Beckett, but I was also reading writers like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly at the time. I remember, however, that the first modern works to make a strong impression on me, when I was sixteen, were Gide’s Les nourritures terrestres (‘The Fruits of the Earth’) and Paludes (‘Marshlands’). And yet how are these books to be defined? They’re not novels. They’re more like contes philosophiques in the tradition of Voltaire, which I also liked a lot. In that sense, maybe some of my books could be related to philosophical tales rather than to the works of Perrault or the Brothers Grimm.

Q

The White Review

What reminds me of fairy-tales in your books – in The Governesses, for example, or in Au secours or Eva Lone – is your way of composing striking, mysterious, unexplained images which stay with the reader once the book is finished.

A

Anne Serre

—  I wonder if the images you mention aren’t like the images we see in dreams. That’s why they seem so striking and enigmatic, since dreams always appear to be telling us something in the form of a rebus, don’t you think? There’s nothing willed about their composition. I guess I just think that way, in images. Yet I’m neither a filmmaker nor a photographer: I only know how to compose images through writing. When I see the dream images in a Fellini film, which are often apparitions, like the marvellous image of a liner in Amarcord, or the enormous psalm-singing giant or the head emerging from a canal in Venice in Casanova, I sometimes regret that I don’t have sound – Fellini’s sound, which often as not is the sound of the wind blowing in a great silence. When the wind starts blowing in a Fellini film, you can be sure you’re about to witness something astonishing, something inexplicable and poignant. Yet that inexplicable image also seems to say something essential about your own life. It’s an image that fills you with a sort of great sadness and calm. It’s an image that has to do with death, I think. As if something about death had been revealed to you.

Q

The White Review

Do these images serve as starting-points for your writing?

A

Anne Serre

Practically all my books, I think, began with an image that foisted itself on me, an imaginary image that came out of nowhere: the three silhouettes of The Governesses in the grounds of a mansion, the small, dark island of Au secours, the house with the orange-tiled roof in Eva Lone, and so on. For me, these images are as detailed and precise as if they were memories of paintings I had scrutinised at length. They’re still images, and it’s up to me to impart movement to them. If I start a novel with an image of this kind, it’s because the image seems to me to contain one. It’s as much of an enigma to me as it is to you, the reader, but to me, it has something special: it’s alive, it resonates. Basically, the novel will consist in exploring the image to find out what’s contained in it, what it says. I don’t know how these images which foist themselves on me are formed. I suspect they’re probably a mix of a thousand things I’ve seen and read and dreamed, which come together to produce a very distinct small image.

Q

The White Review

These images, which conjure up stories that, though not precise descriptions, couldn’t exist without them, remind me of the images orators would use in antiquity to memorise their speeches. Like the images you describe, the imago agens (an active image, an image capable of moving) is always situated in space and is often strange or bizarre, because it’s easier for the memory to retain things when they are wonderful. One of the things I find moving about your images, I think, is that when I read them, I feel, I know for certain, that their strangeness has nothing whimsical about it, that the images are meaningful and necessary, even though no explanation will be given for them. The images will remain enigmatic, as you say.

A

Anne Serre

The imago agens is a beautiful notion. You could apply it to Proust’s ‘little patch of yellow wall’, right? I remember (I’m associating freely here, like in psychoanalysis!) a detail from a famous Lorenzetti painting where you see a small boat on a lake and it looks like a mouth. The boat’s incredible, it’s signalling to you, saying something you’ll never be able to define, yet in itself it’s a long and perfect speech.

Q

The White Review

The enigmas in your texts are always laid out with great simplicity. Nothing is hard to understand – sentences, words, syntax – yet everything remains mysterious.…

A

Anne Serre

Jane Austen said that the narrator of a novel is always describing a mystery. I think that’s a perfect definition of the novel. Especially if you write, as I do, to uncover, or to bring into focus (since you never uncover anything), something that’s eluding you. When you say ‘mystery’, I’m also reminded me of the mysteries of antiquity, which were secret religious rituals. And I remember that whenever I was being interviewed about my book The Wishing Table, which describes a family’s outlandish erotic life, I would always say that the scenes in question reminded me of the ancient mysteries and the initiations performed there. What you say about the simplicity of my vocabulary and syntax reminds me of a remark I was very struck by, long ago, about Hölderlin’s work. Someone was underlining its simplicity, and because I was very young at the time, I remember being surprised that such a great poet could have such a limited vocabulary. I have to be careful sometimes about my own penchant for simplicity, as I tend to use generic terms. For instance, I’ll write house, tree and flower instead of manor, oak and iris. A bit like in a child’s drawing.

Q

The White Review

At the opposite remove to this simplified vocabulary you have Grande tiqueté, a book for which you invented an imaginary language. And yet the reader has no difficulty following the story. How did you achieve this?

A

Anne Serre

Like you, I think this invented language is actually very simple, maybe the simplest I’ve ever used. I don’t know how I did it. It came about of its own accord, as it were. The starting-point, as I mention in the foreword to the book, was hearing the incomprehensible language my father began speaking a few days before he died. Given the circumstances – his imminent death, my love for him, the feeling that these were his last words I was hearing – I listened to that language very closely, I imagine. I didn’t replicate it, however, when I was writing the text. Another language, conjured up by the situation, sprang up. And this language struck me as my original tongue – as if all my previous texts up until that point had been French translations of this language. I think I was so enthralled and enchanted to have discovered my original tongue that the language I had been using up until then suddenly felt rather crude. This, too, I think, was an illusion – and long live illusions! as Peter Handke says in a book of interviews, since without them we’d never get anywhere. Discovering your own language (or what you imagine to be your own language) and writing in it is good, it’s an incredible experience, but that’s not to say we should look down on everyday language. It can be right on the mark, too. As a young woman, I was friends with an elderly French actor called Alain Cuny, who had been very close to Paul Claudel and part of the original cast for many of his plays. Cuny was a sort of spiritual master to me at an age when I was passionately looking for one. One day, amongst other valuable teachings, he told me: ‘Watch out now, you can’t achieve transparency through transparency.’ That sentence made a deep impact on me, I’ve never forgotten it. I can remember exactly where he said it to me: it was outside the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, where we’d gone to look something up.

Q

The White Review

Is the language you found in Grande tiqueté still part of your life?

A

Anne Serre

Fortunately, it left me once I’d finished the book. While I was writing, it came so naturally I thought I’d never be able to get rid of it. But once I’d written the final words in the book, it was over. It just fell to the floor like a coat.

Q

The White Review

Perhaps we could talk here about other forms of language with which you might or might not be familiar – namely, the foreign-language editions of your work. This interview will be appearing in English, and several of your books have already been translated into English and Spanish. How do you feel about this transition from one language to another? Are you involved in the translation process at all, or are you not particularly interested in it? And what kind of relationship do you have with the books once they’ve been published?

A

Anne Serre

The translation of my books into English is a rather special adventure for me because my translator, Mark Hutchinson, has not only been my best friend for more than thirty years, but is also the only person I really discuss literature with, my literary companion from the beginning. I can’t say we work on the translations together because he has no need of my help. But because we’ve been talking to each other almost every day for the last thirty years, we do sometimes discuss them. I’ve never met, nor had any contact with, my Spanish translators, on the other hand. I’m interested, of course, in the life of my books, both in French and in translation, and especially in any questions or comments they elicit, because, as in this interview, I learn a lot from the questions and viewpoints of others. They can sometimes alter the way I write slightly, opening a door for me which I hadn’t even noticed was there. 

Q

The White Review

You published Grande tiqueté with Champ Vallon in January and Au coeur d’un été tout en or, a collection of short stories which won the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle, with Mercure de France in May. You work with both of these publishers, as well as with Verdier. Do you work on specific texts for each publishing house?

A

Anne Serre

I’m very loyal, as in love. Patrick Beaune at Champ Vallon was my first publisher and I’m very grateful to him for publishing my early books. Writers always leave the publishers of their first books for bigger, more prominent ones. When I left Champ Vallon for Mercure de France, which is part of Gallimard, I told my publisher I’d return to him the day my books had a measure of success. It’s what I decided to do with Grande tiqueté. I’m also loyal to Mercure de France because my publisher there, Isabelle Gallimard, has trusted me from the beginning (I published my first book with her in 2002), even if it’s only recently that she has started making any money out of my work. She publishes me anyway. When Verdier asked me to write a book for them – what in 2005 became The Fool (Le • mat) – I was touched that such a remarkable publisher should ask me for something, which is why in 2012 I sent them The Wishing Table, which I guessed would get some attention. And I will offer them other texts. I move back and forth between loves, then, but try to remain loyal to each of them, thinking about which text fits best with which publisher, according to their rather different editorial temperaments.

Q

The White Review

The way you talk about your publishers – about the people rather than the houses themselves – and your translator, Mark Hutchinson, but also about the writers who are important to you and other people who have been present in your life, like Alain Cuny, gives me the impression that, for you, writing – or literature at least – is also a matter of friendship. What role does friendship play in your life as a writer?
A

Anne Serre

—  It’s a very important part of my life (which is just a writer’s life, since I have no other) and always has been, I think. Friendship, conversing with people I trust and feel comfortable with, is one of the great riches of my life. During these conversations we talk about all sorts of things, but not necessarily about literature – I don’t really like talking about literature. It’s a great support for me, a great cradle. When it comes to friendship or love, I think I’m only drawn to people who don’t prevent me from writing. Those who don’t prevent me from writing are those who like me. The power of affection on a poor narrator is quite incredible. It enables him to actually get down to work. I must admit that, nowadays, most of these conversations take place via email or over the phone, rather than face to face. In the past, I would dine out with friends more. In recent years, I’ve preferred to spend my evenings at home. But thanks to these exchanges, the old friendships endure and new ones are born.
 

share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Nina Leger was born in 1988 in Antibes. Her first novel, Histoire naturelle, was published in 2014. Her second novel, Mise en pièces (published in English as The Collection), won the Prix Anaïs Nin.

READ NEXT

feature

February 2011

Novelty and revolt: why there is no such thing as a Twitter revolution

Nadia Khomami

feature

February 2011

The world is seeing an increase in the use of social media as a tool for mobilisation and protest....

Essay

Issue No. 20

Notes on the history of a detention centre

Felix Bazalgette

Essay

Issue No. 20

Looking back at Harmondsworth as he left, after 52 days inside, Amir was struck by how isolated the detention...

Interview

March 2014

Interview with John Smith

Tom Harrad

Interview

March 2014

In 1976, whilst still a student at the Royal College of Art in London, John Smith made a short...

 

Get our newsletter

 

* indicates required