Anne Serre is a remarkable and unusual writer; her pen a scalpel dissecting the human condition with painful precision. The Fool & Other Moral Tales – three novellas – is lyrical and disturbing, wonderful and terrible, arousing and devastating. The hallucinatory, and at times nightmarish quality, is beautifully rendered by translator Mark Hutchinson.
All three tales adventure through the multiple guises and meanings of The Fool. Is he a fallen angel, a grotesque carrier of vice and folly bringing wisdom in his wake as a consequence of blind faith, hopeless romance and reckless desire, or is he an abortive saint, a mistaken revolutionary? The ultimate shapeshifter, he can lead you to Heaven or Hell or, if you get stuck, into the abyss.
“The image of the vagabond was one I’d long been familiar with; it was taking shape, but very slowly. Things need time to take shape, especially if you’re burdened with a neurosis” (p.6)
The Fool is one of the most well-known tarot cards. His radiant, childlike creativity and often misunderstood genius can flip into the dark side of dangerous fantasy, illogic and misdirected instincts. Anne Serre blurs the lines and evokes the way in which literature and life are entwined, as she deals with the intrusive thoughts he brings in his wake.
“In life [. . .] you have to be both extremely vigilant and in a state of intense reverie in order to take in all the clues which later, assembled, examined and studied, will enable you to progress a little” (p.15)
Her reflections take in the figure of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the painting of a baroque angel in court dress, the children in The Turn of the Screw, Madame Bovary meeting a grotesque blind man on the road to Yonville, among others, leading towards the realization that “recognizing the fool in the man I loved gave me quite a start.”
In a modern, materialistic, utilitarian world run by philistines, and dominated by commercial imperatives, there is no place for The Fool’s genuine creative genius and his poetic vision.
The Narrator lives freely. He spends the winter in a chalet in the snow with woods behind it that are full of wild animals. He is installed in the “red room — the one with the cherry-red curtains and matching bedspread.” He reads and goes for walks and “decides to spend not only the winter there, but the following summer, too. Lodgers of all sorts come and go, since the house, which is run by Madame Saintier, takes paying guests. And as it’s pretty and nicely situated, people turn up all year round to spend a weekend or a week there.”
A youthful, cheerful forty-year-old loner, he does not follow the rules that others follow. A dreamer, he is a man of speculative mind, obsessed with language and storytelling. He feels a particular sympathy “for the lunatics with their astonishing speech, yet in their company he throws off his oversize narrator’s outfit like a coat that is much too heavy, and only then does he have the impression of belonging to the human race.”
Madame Saintier finds excuses to go walking in the hills with him: she is puzzled by this unfathomable, charming guest who is not remotely interested in politics or worldly matters, and has the air of a misfit; an outcast. Their walks in nature, talks about literature and her probing manipulative questions are juxtaposed with his mysterious, at times almost comical, imaginings, and inner darkness troubled by ghostly apparitions and nocturnal erotic encounters in the in the red room, creating a disorienting effect. These dreams are also the main source of inspiration for the narrator.
There’s a confusion to this world, of life lived, of shifting perspectives, the trickster playing havoc in the mind, and real-time experiences. Alongside life death is everywhere present.
Les Parents terribles could be the title of the last tale, The Wishing Table, the title of which references a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. The monstrous perversion of the parents who indulge in erotic games day and night with their three daughters – reminiscent of the Fritzl case – is recounted in a tone of sugar-coated, wondrous, naïve delight by one of the girls looking back as an adult.
The daughters naïvely consent to the demands of their parents, and certain visitors to the house, with inventive skill and needy appetite. The girls are too young to know that loving is one thing, and seeking to please another. The bacchanalian goings on are recounted in the first person, heightening the already voyeuristic, shocking intimacy of the narrative. Even the social workers allow themselves to be drawn into the parents’ unbridled freedom and licentiousness which transgress moral laws and legal imperatives. Manipulation is what toxic parents do, it is not love. The words “paedophilia” and “incest” are never used.
“For many years, I had no real feelings” (p.135)
In the last part of the tale, there is a change of tone as the daughter has left the family home. She hears about the death of her parents which leaves her cold. Her past is buried within herself as a cruel yet bewitching childhood dream that is difficult to escape from as it is a part of her being; her identity. The most disturbing truth of all is that sometimes the girls liked the perversion.
Jacques Maritain: “Authority and power are two different things: power is the force by means of which you can oblige others to obey you. Authority is the right to direct and command, to be listened to or obeyed by others. Authority requests power. Power without authority is tyranny.”
The Fool & Other Moral Tales is a variously comic and tragic narrative that heads into an explosive finale. A radioactive short book, it gets under your skin in a disturbing and most peculiar way. Les Fugitives consistently publish beautifully translated and produced books that are chiselled works of art – and guaranteed, thought-provoking good reads.
Jacques Maritain, Art et Scolastique (Art and Scholasticism, 1935): “The modern world which had promised the artist all things, will scarcely leave him the bare means of subsistence. Founded upon the two unnatural principles of the fecundity of money and the finality of the useful, multiplying its needs and servitudes without any possibility of there ever being a limit, ruining the leisure of the soul, withdrawing the material factible from the control which proportioned it to the ends of the human being, imposing on man its puffing machinery and its speeding up of matter, the modern world is shaping human activity in a properly inhuman way, in a properly devilish direction.”
READ the BookBlast review of The Governesses by Anne Serre. Mark Hutchinson’s translation was shortlisted for the 2020 Scott Moncrieff Prize.
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