cover image The Governesses

The Governesses

Anne Serre, trans. from the French by Mark Hutchinson. New Directions, $13.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2807-7

Serre’s first work to be translated into English is a hypnotic tale of three governesses and the sensuous education they provide. Roaming the country estate of a staid married couple, Monsieur and Madame Austeur, Inès, Laura, and Eléonore are not exactly Jane Eyre types. Prone to Dionysian frenzies, they lounge naked in the sun or bound about like deer. Should any passerby fall “into the trap of their vast, lunar privacy,” they pounce upon, seduce, and devour him (“in a ladylike manner”) to sate their ungovernable desires. This could be the setup for a neo-pagan farce about the battle between Eros and civilization, but as Serre delves into the three women’s existence, the novel taps into deeper, quieter waters: the Keatsian twinning of joy and melancholy. “It was life itself advancing,” Monsieur Austeur thinks upon witnessing the governess’s mysterious arrival, while sensing that each of these hedonistic women harbors an unknowable secret and ineradicable sadness. He provides a sense of order to counterbalance their chaos, and indeed, the same could be said about the work’s steely prose. On the neighboring estate, an old, solitary man watches the voluptuous displays through a telescope, his omnipresent gaze at once leering, reverent and affirming. Serre’s wistful ode to pleasure is as enchanting as its three nymph-like protagonists. (Sept.)