A Leopard-Skin Hat
(New Directions, 2023)
Anne Serre, the story goes, wrote her first novel in an effort to seduce a teacher of hers—whether this is true or just a tale she likes to tell is somewhat beside the point, this being the perfect creation myth for a writer supremely attuned to the things fiction can and cannot accomplish. A Leopard-Skin Hat, the fourth book by Serre to be translated into English by Mark Hutchinson, is, like Serre’s other work, exuberantly anti-realist and avowedly fictional. It is a story about the stories we tell, revolving around the relationship between the character of the Narrator (not to be confused with the narrator of the book itself, who occasionally interjects— “I wouldn’t count on it”) and his friend Fanny. Serre makes use of fiction to question what fiction does: to question the relationship between a person and a character, a narrator and their creation. “Fanny’s actual life,” we are told, “probably bears no resemblance to what the Narrator writes.”
Fanny is the Narrator’s oldest friend and his fundamental narrative problem. The novel is full of remarkable details about Fanny, with her “long eyes,” ” her “way of standing in her swimsuit in a mountain lake, up to her knees in water, like a question.” The Narrator’s relationship with Fanny, his care for her in her neediness, his careful observation, is:
basically no different to the work of writing. … It was like telling a story: you had to be extremely focused in order to piece the elements together … Like the profuse material of life to which a text gives form and meaning, the turmoil and mystery of Fanny’s emotions demanded to be worked upon. She was the living example of what a Narrator has to confront every hour of every day. She was a book from before the book.
But all this detail the Narrator pieces together does not resolve the crucial question of who Fanny is or how to understand her. She is full of contradictions, described by turns as frail and strong, hopeful and despairing, charming and off-putting, needy and aloof. The Narrator, who loves literature, “knew so little about himself and, more importantly, so little about others. He would,” as is to be expected of a Narrator, “invent them. Or rather he would regard them as fictional characters. He had no idea other people could have a heart and a life of their own,” and if he eventually came to know it, it was only too late. In The Hour of the Star, which also takes as a central character an equivocal narrator, Clarice Lispector writes in her author’s note that “You can’t show proof of the truest thing of all, all you can do is believe. Weep and believe.”
To the Narrator, Fanny’s very non-narratability looks like disease. “Perhaps,” he thinks, “it’s mental illness that transforms you into a landscape.” It’s a telling comparison: when they walk in the countryside together, the Narrator is amazed by details, by “the coppery breastplate of a beetle crossing the path, the tint or shape of a stone, the color and position of a flower in the meadow.” Fanny, in contrast, “seems to view the scenery in broader terms, without bothering about details. She moves through the landscape, it seems, not in order to read there like the Narrator, but to live.” For the Narrator, “a good book is put together in exactly the same way—down to the tiniest detail—as a happy expanse of untamed countryside.” Fanny’s sickness is rooted in the inability to capture her likeness through an accumulation of detail, illness as the opposite of narrative convention. Fanny, for her part, “thinks her friend is a bit silly for wanting to understand everything and going to all this trouble to avoid falling ill and thereby be prevented from exercising his favorite activity.”
But Fanny’s resistance to narration is also what makes her such a fascinating narrative problem, the story the Narrator keeps trying to tell. Other friends of his, the narrator thinks, are so simple, “the whole thing would be wrapped up in ten pages.” They are barely a story and certainly not a good book. They are so unlike Fanny, with her multifaceted personality and his inability to fully understand her. In Fanny, the Narrator glimpses multitudes, which is to say he glimpses a foundational challenge to his vocation.
Basically, the Narrator said to himself, the idea we form of others comes solely from their relationship with ourselves. Seen through their relationship with someone else, they are necessarily slightly different. And should we catch a glimpse of them in the privacy of their own self (which is impossible without spying on them or rummaging through their papers) they are someone of whom we know strictly nothing.
Moreover, it might be exactly this inherent fiction in all relationships that leads us to try to understand one another at all. “Perhaps,” his relationship with Fanny leads the Narrator to reflect, other people “have lives we never even suspect? Perhaps we all have lives the person closest to us knows nothing of? And perhaps this is what really attracts us to each other: the presence of this secret life which, from time to time, is revealed to us through a gleaming, narrow slit.”
“Existence,” Serre writes, “which is strange and complicated and has more than one trick up its sleeve, sometimes insists on adopting forms so contrary to the truth that a holy man will look like an assassin.” This is a kind of thesis statement for Serre’s project, a commitment to reality’s unreality. Fictional forms can reveal truths in glances; fiction can also deal death blows. Fanny and the Narrator are caught in a “dance of death,” a two-step between explaining and extinguishing, halfway between the damned and the divine. The Narrator, who presses his life-affirming love of books onto Fanny, is shocked when, “in Fanny’s case, the more she read, the more she seemed to fall apart. He had no idea such a thing was possible: he hadn’t read about it anywhere.”
The story of Fanny and the Narrator is a story about our impulse to understand one another and about the way in which unknowability is what makes someone interesting; it is about, in fact, the relationship between unknowability and the desire to know, neither existing without the other, as a narrator does not exist without a story nor a story without a narrator. Fanny remains mysterious to the Narrator until the end, and this mystery is precisely what is absorbing about her. Fanny is, it seems, the void that makes storytelling impossible and necessary; she has “a piece of eternity clinging to her.” And the Narrator, “so enamored of this perpetual back and forth between edification and composition”—a description that hints at something that slips away between understanding and telling—insists on “toiling away,” trying to understand.