BookBlast’s 2BooksReview recommends two superb novels in English translation published by Les Fugitives: The Governesses by Anne Serre (trs. Mark Hutchinson) & Now, Now Louison by Jean Frémon (trs. Cole Swensen).
The Governesses by Anne Serre
“Experience had shown you, however, that no pact lasts forever. You knew that the members of the household would once again be shuffled together like playing cards, and that when the next hand was dealt the alliances would fall out differently.
The Governesses is a most unusual erotic fable about sex and power, illusion and eroticism, beautifully translated from the French into supremely elegant, languid prose. Its atmosphere is reminiscent of Alain Fournier and Julien Green.
Inès, Laura and Eléonore are governesses, responsible for four boys. The “mistresses of games and pleasure” they radiate a wild and frisky innocence, and have the run of the upstairs salons in the country house of Monsieur Austeur and his wife, Julie. “The excessive silence of the households they wait upon” may be “conducive to reading thinking and raising little boys who are champion hoop rollers, and to the elderly gentleman’s repose, and the waning love of Monsieur and Madame Auster,” but it is stultifying. Their employers’ home is “a boundless void.” The young women have nowhere to go, and there are no distractions.
Sex and the Maiden
“They’re like queens at this time of the year. The house is empty and they’re preparing for a ball, it seems, the poor little fools – a ball in their own honour, and in honour of the little boys rolling hoops.”
Their party will be held on the evening of the return of the Austeurs from the seaside. But the family does not return. A young man slips through the golden gates of the estate into the vast parkland. He is chased through the woods: hunted and snared. The young women ride him, and are satiated. The young man is left lifeless, the worse for wear. “They’ll love him, yes, but only while he’s inside them. The moment he’s outside, they’ll hate him.”
And so, a stranger occasionally walks into their “silky trap that was the secret of his own desire.” He is devoured and leaves. The elderly gentleman who lives across the road enjoys staring through his telescope at the episodic peep show going on over his garden wall.
In the big house full of women and little boys, Monsieur reigns supreme, invigorated by the youthful chaotic feminine energy, as he despairs of his faltering marriage, even though he remains faithful to his wife.
A Treasury of Kate Greenaway for Grown-ups
The three graces flit about in red or yellow dresses and spend much of their time fussing over their charges: a flock of little boys, most of whom are utterly smitten.
“They sit themselves down in a meadow for lunch. The governesses let out a yawn and lower their guard. They unlace their boots. They even strip naked sometimes, and the little boys gaze at them in silence, petrified. For the rest of their lives, they will love only governesses naked in a soft green meadow, their long thighs in the grass, the gleaming thatch of hair where pale yellow butterflies alight, their tender, dreamy breasts.”
Civilised domestic life is contrasted with the voluptuous, feral antics going on out in the woods and meadows, described in beautiful, distinguished prose. I was reminded of one of my favourite reads by a member of the Bloomsbury Group: Lady into Fox by David Garnett, about a 24-year-old wife who turns into a fox while out walking in the woods with her husband.
Will the governesses be married off? Will they stay or will they go, ending their caged idyll?
The simple, sensual writing and nineteenth-century Charles Perrault atmosphere are strangely contemporary, with their underlying frisson evoking the dangerous power of insouciance and open sexuality. Anne Serre is a discovery: more in translation please!
Now, Now Louison by Jean Frémon
“We’re all stories, layers of stories, the interwoven stories of others, of parents, of elders. They see themselves in what they tell you, thanks to the enormously devastating good faith of those who pride themselves on having been there. We are what others say we are. Our name accumulates little by little from shards of being.”
Now, Now Louison reads as a mosaic of memories strung together like worry beads, beginning with the death of the father and the emptying of the family house in Choisy-le-Roi. The subject of the monograph, (published in French as Calme-toi, Lison), is Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010): one of the most original and disturbing sculptors of the twentieth century.
It is written by her old friend, Jean Frémon, the director of Galerie Lelong & Co. He conjures her voice and gives us insights (real and assumed) into her mind and vision through a shifting kaleidoscope of words like poetic chansons on the page that recreate people (husband, Robert Goldwater; assistant, Jerry Gorovoy; Leger, Brancusi, Giacometti and Duchamp; Marguerite Duras and Gaston Bachelard), places (Choisy, Manhattan, Brooklyn) and spaces (private/home and public/galleries); and the violence and tenderness of her inner world.
Frémon is the narrator looking in, using the second person: “You’ve become a spinner of yarns. They call them sculptures because they’re made of marble or iron or wood, but they’re really yarns, brief stories from the past that got stuck in your throat, pills that wouldn’t quite go down; you blurt them out, mumble them, ruminate over them. And then they show them in Paris.”
The significance of the memories carried by the bric-à-brac of the dear departed, as family things are dispersed, cannot be underestimated. Especially not in the case of Louise Bourgeois who was marked for life by the emotional abuse endured during her childhood. “All fathers are vain braggarts and vacillators, particularly mine, and all presidents of absolutely anything . . .”
Louis Bourgeois, had an explosive temper. He dominated, preached at, mocked and bullied the household, and was serially unfaithful to his wife, Joséphine. The nanny, Sadie Gordon, “the pearl” who taught the Bourgeois children English, slept in his bed for a while. He’d return from his travels finding tapestries to repair, or selling restored works to clients in Europe and the US, his need to fuck assuaged.
Once seen never forgotten: the spider in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, London
Louise Bourgeois’ long-suffering mother ran the family business restoring and repairing tapestries, spinning and weaving, all the while protectively keeping watch over her family, hence the recurring, iconic spider in her work, (best-known for her sculptures, she also created prints and fabric pieces). One of her most prized possessions was an encyclopedia of spiders of the world, published by Boubée & Co, cataloguing behaviours not only their appearance.
“She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.”
Her giant arachnid sculptures evoke the dangerous power of the devouring mother’s maternal love that can be over-protective and controlling, engendering maladjustment and extreme anxiety.
“The subject of pain is the business I am in,” Louise Bourgeois
Although she studied mathematics at the Sorbonne Louise Bourgeois existed largely in a world of emotions. She fled to America in 1938 with her Jewish husband, putting an ocean between herself and her family; and took US citizenship in 1955.
“Her range of formal invention, and her ability to handle any material and express her emotions, were a gift from the gods,” her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy stated in an interview published in The Guardian in 2010.
Haunting and mischievous, paradoxical and illuminating: Now, Now Louison is a concise and perfectly-formed small masterpiece.
Frémon portrays the contradictory and fragmented nature of an extraordinary woman terrifically well in this touching, unusual, deliciously unconventional meditative portrait of an artist.
Nowhere is the name ‘Louise Bourgeois’ actually mentioned, giving the narrative a universal resonance.
READ the BookBlast review of The Fool by Anne Serre, translated by Mark Hutchinson.
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