Debauchery and Delight
Mia Spence reviews Anne Serre’s The Governesses (trans. Mark Hutchinson)
There’s delightful and then there’s delightful. There’s the disingenuous compliment, the false reassurance through pursed lips, the way you describe a cup of cold tea when you don’t want to kick up a fuss, and then there’s the unrestrained, uninhibited, pleasure-seeking and pleasure-savouring delight of Bosch’s Garden: gluttonous, orgiastic, Bacchanalian. It’s a mistake to say that Anne Serre’s The Governesses (trans. Mark Hutchinson) is a delightful book. It’s a delightful one.
On a country estate in a fairytale France — verdant, breezy, soaked in sun — a wealthy couple, the Austeurs, are raising a brood of young boys. To help them with oversight and discipline, they take on a triumvirate of governesses who turn out to be less like Becky Sharp or Jane Eyre and more like those otherworldly triumvirates: the Fates, or the Furies, or the Weird Sisters of Macbeth. It’s clear from the opening pages that something is amiss with Eléonore, Laura, and Inès. Preparations for a party are underway. Or has the party already begun? “Eléonore who seems so strait-laced is laughing like a madwoman”, we are told. “Her cheeks are bright pink. She shakes out her wet hair and tosses her head back”, and in full view of her wards, the boys, she and Laura are “smoking sleek little cigarettes and playing cards.” This behaviour is clearly inappropriate, but Serre’s narrator — a very late-twentieth century sensibility, lightheartedly channelling the formality of its nineteenth century predecessors — cautions the reader not to judge the governesses too hastily:
Were you to base an assessment of the governesses professional skills on this particular evening, you would conclude that Monsieur and Madame Austeur had been most remiss in hiring the services of such a scatterbrained band of young women. You would even wager that there was something fishy going on.
In fact, there is. The governesses have a “gift” for orchestrating parties, we are told, and so, in acknowledgement of this, Monsieur and Madame Austeur have effectively relieved them of their duties and appointed them “to a more senior position, albeit one that has yet to be properly defined: ‘mistresses of games and pleasures,’ say, or something along those lines.” There’s a ribald double-entendre at the heart of that job title and in no time at all it rises to the surface of the narrative action. The governesses begin to “discuss men”: “It’s their favourite subject when they’re practising elocution.” They present themselves appealingly to male passersby at the gates of the estate. Then there are suggestions of infelicities in their conduct. One of the boys “claims to have seen the governesses’ undergarments” and recounts a tale of upskirting. The narrator protests in defence of the governesses, insisting that there’s nothing “venal or flighty” about their behaviour, “nothing in the least bit unsavoury”, and that “[n]o unfortunate rumour has ever tarnished their reputation” — but this is a textbook case of protesting too much. Just take a look at one of their parties in full swing. Here’s what happens when the governesses instigate a celebration:
Everyone will rant and rave, dash along the paths and throw their hands up in despair while spinning around. They’re allowed to bring sticks and thrash the air and the grass with a vengeance. They’re allowed to unhitch the horses and gallop through the garden clinging to their necks, to tear through the foliage, then fall in a heap and lie there in the horses’ hot breath. They’re also allowed to dance naked, drink naked and expose themselves all of a sudden on the front porch, flailing their arms and letting out hideous squeals that make everyone laugh.
When it’s just a hop, skip, and jump from an opulent party to public indecency, it’s safe to say that these governesses aren’t much interested in governing. What are they interested in, then? We’ve already been told, but it takes the arrival of a flesh-and-blood man to show us why men might be the governesses’ “favourite subject”. The governesses are sexual epicureans, relishing the delights of the male body so fervently that they bleed their lovers dry, ravishing them to the point of lifelessness. When a handsome stranger arrives at the estate, apparently having lost his way, the governesses pounce. “They’re not going to let him vanish”, the narrator says. “He has walked into the trap of their vast, lunar privacy; they get their nets out, they’re going to capture him and keep him there. … The hunt begins.” And it is indeed a hunt, reminiscent of ravenous lions on the heels of a bewildered impala:
Is he scared? You’d think he was being pursued by two wild animals. Is that him running now? Yes, there he is, breaking into a brisk trot, bounding across the meadow. They know all the short-cuts. There’s no harm in waiting, they tell themselves — take your time.
And their skirts catch on the brambles, tearing in places. Rainwater from the high bracken splashes onto their trim, polished shoes.
Their bare arms are covered with scratches, their legs streaked with rainwater, their skirts filled with odours.
This man, their “quarry”, “will be tackled head-on, licked, bitten and devoured in a ladylike manner. And once he’s exhausted and has nothing further to offer, they’ll leave him.” But this is all mere summary, describing the governesses’ intentions from a remove, and nothing as compared to the explicit account of their appetites that follows it:
Eléonore has pounced on him, seizing him from behind with both hands. They’ve laid him out on the ground and are unbuttoning his trousers. … Growing gentle again in the midst of their frenzy, they pull out a terrified sex. Eléonore has taken it in hand and is squeezing it, gripping it with her fingers and sliding it slowly, very slowly, up and down. Laura has hitched up her brown skirt and is seated on the stranger’s face. … His member is erect now, the plum-violet glans shining between Eléonore’s slender fingers. Pulling up her blue skirt, she squats down on top of it, gently impaling herself on the hot, hard, smooth, erect thing sinking inside her.
It’s six in the evening by the time they’ve finished. The man has been bled dry, his handsome, open hands lying lifeless beside his body. Because he’s cold and doesn’t move, they put his clothes back on.
Sensuality is the animus of The Governesses, far more so than a series of events: sensuality and the sensuous language that sweetens the pornographic incidents, tilting the text away from the titillations of erotica and towards an impish, self-knowing burlesque of sexual delight. Of course there are events, at least in episodic form — the governesses toy with the idea of seducing Monsieur Austeur, whose marriage has grown stale; their escapades are watched from afar by an old man with a telescope; one of them quite unexpectedly gives birth, without the reader having been aware of her pregnancy — but the pleasures of the book come from elsewhere.
Finely, very finely, Serre contrives happenstance occurrences, relays them in anecdotal form, and combines gossipy, faux-naïf constructions with copious rhetorical questions to give The Governesses a tone of childlike whimsy: “So where are they off to this morning? From the way they’re dressed, it looks as if they’re going to a party. Is someone getting married perhaps? Celebrating a first communion? Are the neighbours holding a reception?” But while this tone imparts an air of innocence to the overall proceedings — giving the book the feeling that it is “delightful” in the quaint jam-and-scones sense of the word — all innocence is traduced, time and again, by the carnal desires of the governesses, and aided and abetted by a narrator with a roving eye and a penchant for teasing anatomical descriptions. After all, the ravished stranger is not the only one to have his most intimate parts observed, right down to the colour of his genitals. When the children are nowhere to be seen, the governesses strip naked, lie back on the grass, and “surrender to the dragonflies who have begun their assault on their gleaming fleeces.” And while the euphemism at the end of that sentence might seem like an evasion, the narrator uses the next few sentences to zoom in closer and ramp up the sensuality:
Eléonore’s [“fleece”] is a bulge between two white thighs that will later turn pink in the sun. Curly and less matted, Laura’s is like a patch of lichen below the sweet-smelling belly.
The sun nestles between their thighs, warming the closed slit gorged with memories and expectation.
The memories of “the closed slit” are memories of the stranger, “his delicious mouth, his delicious sex”, and the expectation is that he will return to the governesses, will make a “homecoming”, “being tucked up [again] in their silky soft cocoons”. This is the language of Dick and Jane applied to a situation that makes its meaning quite distinctly not innocent.
Occasionally, the gothic undercurrent of The Governesses — most evident in the supernatural and predatory “devouring” of lovers — overflows the prose so that real darkness taints the cartoon luminosity of the country estate. “Monsieur Austeur’s task is not a simple one”, the narrator says: the master of the house is in fact terrified of the women he has hired to keep his own children in order. “He’s obliged to sit up late to keep order in the house”, we’re told: “otherwise, danger threatens”, and there will be nobody to “counter-balanc[e] the chaos” of the governesses. “The governesses”, he fears,
would appear out of nowhere in their yellow dresses, panting for breath, the maids would start howling, the little boys would fling themselves out of the windows and the ever so respectable Madame Austeur would rip open her grey dress and expose her skinny body naked on the porch…
But here, in Mark Hutchinson’s nimble, spirited translation, the gothic elements of The Governesses owe as much to the sinister situation as to the prevailing use of the subjunctive. The governesses would appear out of nowhere, the little boys would fling themselves out of the windows: this is all purely hypothetical, all an outgrowth of Monsieur Austeur’s irrational fears, and all the more unsettling for being worded so indecisively — not part of the reality of the narrative, but not ruled out either. In fact, but for the parties, the episodes of sexual frolicking, and the birth of a baby, much of what takes place in The Governesses is cast in the subjunctive mood, or else in language so artfully constructed as to transmute possibilities, intentions, and vague tendencies into courses of action that don’t actually eventuate. The prose throughout the book is as playful and capricious as its characters: as careful to make it known that there are things it could do, places it could go, if the narrator had a mind to pursue other possibilities. As a result, it feels like something fleet and spry, sportive and mercurial: intolerant of firm facts, wont to writhe free of the fixtures of storytelling, impatient with establishing the premises upon which narratives rise.
“From time to time”, the narrator says, “the governesses go off on long treks and disappear into the heather. … As we have seen, they do everything by fits and starts and never carry anything through to completion”, and so they go pagan — because why not? — jumping about in the gorse and happily bleeding, barefoot, among the blackberry bushes. To follow them in their frivolity is delightful. Look again at the figures in Bosch’s Garden: all of them nude, they cavort with beasts of burden, gorge themselves on grapes and berries, imbibe intoxicating spirits, cuddle and caress, fornicate and masturbate, perform cunnilingus and autofellatio, converse amiably, admire the scenery, dance, perform tricks, and even sit alone in despair. But what scope it has — the elevated perspective, receding and panoramic — and what ostentatious colours: deep blue, bright green, stunning pinks, livid reds. The wild debauchery of those figures is vibrant and liberated; the flamboyance and spaciousness of the painting they’re in is what makes the debauchery delightful. The same is true of The Governesses. Serre’s novella is as light and cool as a breeze on a summer’s afternoon and yet as dark as the soul of someone calmly intent on racking up all seven deadly sins. Every page brings with it something unexpected, exquisite, and perverse, more or less in equal proportions, producing a work that is by turns gripping, hilarious, and sometimes just flat-out gobsmacking. Delightful is what it is: a flowing font of pleasure — relentless, excessive, often grotesque, sometimes refined, altogether overwhelming — by which sensual experience, in language, is very nearly transmuted into a literal feast for the senses.