An Interview with Anne Serre: “The importance of literature in my life? It is my life.” — Tobias Ryan

Anne Serre is the author of fifteen novels and story collections, three of which have so far appeared in English: The Governesses (2018), The Fool & Other Moral Tales (2020) and The Beginners (2021). Last year, her short story collection Au cœur d’un été tout en or won the Goncourt de la Nouvelle, and she published Grande tiqueté, a novel written in an invented language. Our exchange took place over email, aided by Serre’s long-time friend and translator, Mark Hutchinson.

The Beginners, originally published in 2011, is the most recent of your books to be translated. Do you feel that your writing has changed from the time of The Beginners to your latest work? 

No, it’s not that my writing has changed, it’s more that, in The Beginners, I tried to use my own language differently. Just to see what happened. And I found that it worked for that particular book. In Voyage avec Vila-Matas, I also experimented in one of the three chapters with ‘switching languages,’ by using his, pastiching it. They’re experiments. Your own language isn’t so set in stone that you can’t play around transforming it sometimes.

In Grande tiqueté, you push this transformation to its extreme by writing in an invented language. How did this come about? And where do you go next? 

I explain in the book’s foreword how I came to invent a language. In the last days of his life, while I was with him, my father started speaking in an unknown tongue. That language, and the circumstances in which it emerged, naturally made a powerful impression on me. Another unknown language (different from the one used by my father) started taking shape in me, and I wanted to write a story in this strange language. Since it’s based on French, you can understand it, more or less, because although I invent and deform words, I respect the syntax, rhythm and tone that I normally use in my books. I never know in advance what I’m going to do in my next book. All I know is that I’m always on the look-out for a new doorway into a book. There are any number of such doorways. What’s exciting is finding a new one.

When one of your novels is translated, do you revisit it, or do you consider it a completely separate text?

I consider a translation to be as much the translator’s work as my own. Moreover, I think the translator’s name should appear alongside the author’s on the cover. Unfortunately, I don’t know English, Spanish or German well enough to be able to read my books in translation.

In a recent interview you mentioned that one of the pleasures of a novel (compared to autofiction/autobiography) is the mystery of who is speaking. Do you assume a persona when you write? Is it consistent or does it change from book to book?

I’ve long been fascinated by the question of a novel’s narrator. A lot of readers confuse the author with the narrator, which is understandable given the vogue in France for ‘autofiction’ (fictionalised autobiography), where you’re being sold a lemon: the story of someone’s life, or of an episode in that life, passing itself off as a novel. What distinguishes a novelist is having access to the imagination and knowing how to blend that in with their own experience. When the two currents merge (which is what being a novelist is all about), it reveals something, it tells you something about existence that is far more richly variegated, far more penetrating and arresting and impossible to pin down, than the story of a life.

Your recent prize-winning short story collection Au cœur d’un été tout en or has been described as an ‘autoportrait’? Was that the intention when you started, or did that element emerge through writing the stories?

At the beginning, I thought I was writing a mishmash of little stories. Then, as I went along, I realised they were nearly all bound up with my life between the ages of roughly twenty and thirty, a period that had never turned up in my other books. What I find interesting about this is that, to gain access to that period in my life, I had to make this unexpected and rather complicated detour: beginning a story with a sentence taken from another writer.

What inspired that decision? Did you consider it an ‘Oulipian’ game or something less schematic?

No, it wasn’t a game. Since I couldn’t find any opening sentences that made me want to tell a story, I decided to take a look at other people’s opening sentences and realised that some of them not only made me want to carry on from there but enabled me to write things that were very much my own.

Do the writers whose first lines you have used have particular significance to you?

The fact that their books are on my shelves means they are important to me, since I don’t keep books that don’t move me or interest me. The ones I keep are the ones that have had a big impact on me or have simply delighted me with this or that detail.

You have said that you don’t consider writing as work because it is a pleasure. With Au cœur d’un été tout en or, at what moment did it become a book? Which is to say, at what point did it change from texts written for pleasure to texts written with the intention of forming a collection?

As always, Au coeur d’un été tout en or started to become a book when I got past the first twenty pages. And the pleasure one feels as a text advances, far from fading away, only grows.

Can you describe your writing process? 

For months, I’ll regularly start a story either with a sentence or with an image that pops up and seems to contain a story. After two or five or sometimes twelve pages, the story ceases to interest me and I bin it. Then I start over again with another sentence. One day, a story I’ve begun continues to interest me after twenty pages or so, and generally speaking, if I get past that milestone, it will work all the way to the end. Once the story is properly underway, the only real problem I encounter is forks in the story. Certain images or sentences will call up two or three or a whole array of sentences or images, and I have to choose just one in order to continue. I generally choose the right one (I think I can tell it’s the one with the most life in it), but sometimes I get it wrong and come to a dead end. At that point, I go back to the fork in the story and choose another image. In reality, though, I think that when I start a story that will carry on all the way to the end, it’s already fully composed in my head, thanks to the work done over the previous months. All I have to do is set it down on the page, as it were, while paying close attention to its shape and contours and unfolding.

So are there texts which didn’t make it into the final collection? 

I abandon a text the moment I no longer feel a thrill carrying on with it. For the stories in Au coeur d’un été tout en or, there was another factor involved in deciding what to leave in and what to take out, and that was the overall composition of the book. I’d written about fifty finished texts, I kept only thirty-three of them because the others seemed to me to have a different sound. I also spent a long time shuffling the various texts about, putting them in this order rather than that, and some of them I left out because they didn’t fit in with the overall composition of the book. Wherever I placed them, they seemed to jar somehow.

You appear to approach writing with a lightness that is unusual in discussions of craft (e.g. the tortured artist, the terror of the blank page, art as therapy, etc.). How would you describe the importance of literature in your life? And how do you balance its importance without succumbing to the pretentiousness and melodrama that devoting one’s life to writing is often associated with?

The importance of literature in my life? It’s my life, that’s all. There’s no reason to be pretentious or melodramatic about it. There are lives without literature far superior to mine.

The character of the narrator in your novel of the same name, an ambiguous outsider figure who can be read as representative of the writer, is described in moments of intensive creativity as being ‘alone in the world . . . overjoyed’: do you consider solitude a prerequisite for writing?

For me it is. And it’s only very recently that I’ve begun to feel less need of solitude. When I was young, the need was intense: when I was about twenty, I went off on my own, three summers running, to stay on the shores of the Italian lakes. Today, I think that was where all my work fell into place. I would spend my time reading and walking and gazing out over those magnificent lakes: Lake Maggiore, Lake Garda and Lake Como. I hardly spoke to anyone. In those days, you didn’t have mobile phones or the internet, you were free to spend your time thinking, day-dreaming. I used to stay in little guest-houses, pensione, and I remember how astonished the other holiday-makers were by how solitary I was. People clearly thought I was a bit odd and that something had happened to me: a bereavement, an upheaval of some kind. The upheaval, as it turned out, was the one I was going through at the time: I think that, in a way, I was sorting out in my mind which images I wanted to keep and which ones I would turn my back on forever. It was there that I laid the foundations for my work, which was just beginning: swimming, reading Rilke’s letters and Kafka’s letters, and listening to the beautiful Italian language, which I couldn’t speak but could understand a little, absolutely alone in the world, cut off from my family and friends. 

I’ve previously heard you discuss your decision to remain single and not have a family. Would you describe this choice as political in any way? 

No, there’s nothing political about my choice. It’s simply that I’ve never wanted to get married, never wanted to have a child, never wanted to live under the same roof with someone. I’ve fallen in love and had long and happy relationships. The men I’ve fallen in love with would have liked to have lived with me, I think. But I couldn’t, I wasn’t able to. It may be that I needed total independence to write in the way I wanted to write, but I think the explanation for my single status has more to do with a large part of me being perpetually the age of twelve, and at twelve, you don’t get married, you don’t have children, you don’t live as a couple. Having said that, I may one day write about the only kind of couple I’m capable of forming, and do in fact form. But it’s still too early to talk about that.

A common thread throughout your writing seems to be a sense of humour, which, again, is something not always associated with literary fiction. Do you consider humour a key characteristic of your work?

Have you never burst out laughing or had a huge grin on your face while reading Beckett, some of Kafka’s diary entries, the writings of Gertrude Stein, the enormities of T. F. Powys, Robert Walser, Don Quixote, or Thomas Bernhard even, with his whirligig of words? Granted, it’s a type of literature that has a sense of the absurd. It’s also, I think, a type of language that flirts with the language of madness, the language of delirium. I can readily believe that of my own use of language.

It’s interesting that you mention being ‘perpetually the age of twelve’. In addition to the absurdist, mordant humour of your language, your characters are often playful, even in dark or challenging situations (such as in The Wishing Table). Perspectives rooted in childhood innocence are also a recurrent theme. How much does the idea of play influence your writing?  

When I start out on a text, one component that suggests to me the text is alive and is going to relate something interesting and mysterious is when I hear a certain type of child’s voice in the story I’m telling. A child who’s merry and brave and at the same time a bit cruel. But I have to be very careful that the child’s voice is genuine. Nothing could be worse than an imitation of that voice. I’m reminded here of another little girl narrator I’m very fond of, the one used by Gertrude Stein. Stein’s little girl isn’t cruel, she’s incredibly determined and single-minded, forthright. Whenever I read Gertrude Stein, I always feel I would love to play with that little girl. That if we actually came face to face with one another, we would be two great friends of ten or twelve.

Your relationships with other writers and their books is clearly fundamental. Who are the contemporary authors whose writing you feel a particular kinship with or love for?

Enrique Vila-Matas, of course. When I discovered his books about ten years ago, I was so taken with them that I wanted to imagine travelling about and conversing with his character—which I did in my book, Voyage avec Vila-Matas. Shortly after my book came out (which he had read), Vila-Matas came to Paris to give a lecture at the Collège de France, and we met in person for the first time. We both found it rather amusing and at the same time were at a bit of a loss. Our two narrators had struck up a friendship, but we just peered at each other without knowing quite what to say. It was one of the most amusing encounters I’ve ever had. I also like Patrick Modiano’s books more and more, and I’m a big fan of Elfriede Jelinek. I love her calm violence and her terrifying irony. With some of their books, there are even times when I wish I’d written them myself. More recently, there was a masterpiece by Joyce Carol Oates that I hadn’t read: First Love: A Gothic Tale. I would love to have written that.

Returning to The Beginners, it is a book about love: falling in love, moving between loves, examining the experience we call ‘love’. Love is also intimately connected to literature: ‘No, she thinks to herself, apart from my caresses and kisses, apart from contact with my body, only literature can treat this disease.’

I have heard you talk in terms of love when it comes to discovering writers, showing fidelity to the books you have enjoyed, and understanding why a certain author or novel resonates with you. This often relates to the experience of the reader, so my question is: do you consider writing itself an act of love?

No, I wouldn’t say that. As a reader, I do feel genuine love for the authors of books that have delighted me. A kind of unconditional brotherly love. When I write, I’m looking to establish a dialogue. I don’t want to be speaking exclusively to the dead (however much I might enjoy that conversation). I’d like to find an interlocutor in each reader.

Tobias Ryan: is a writer and interviews editor at Minor Literature[s]. Twitter: @tobiasvryan.