Nathalie Léger by Amanda DeMarco

BOMB 153 Fall 2020
Bomb Magazine 153 Cover
Nathalie Leger Triptych Revised 2

I recently translated Nathalie Léger’s Exposition (2008)—the first in a triptych of books the French author and curator wrote weaving together her mother’s story, and particularly the failure of her parents’ marriage, with the stories of three female artists, all public figures.

In Exposition, Léger examines the life of Virginia Oldoïni, the Countess of Castiglione, possibly the most photographed person of the late nineteenth century. After a brief moment of glory at the French court, Castiglione sank into depression and isolation, nevertheless asserting her presence in hundreds of carefully posed photographs.

Léger’s follow-up, Suite for Barbara Loden (2012), focuses on the director and actress Barbara Loden and her film Wanda, about a woman who leaves her family and drifts around ’60s Appalachia, eventually getting caught up in a failed bank heist. Both Wanda and Loden’s own life story raise troubling questions about women’s possibilities for self-determination.

The final entry in the trio, The White Dress (2018), follows the performance artist Pippa Bacca, who was hitchhiking from Milan to Jerusalem in a wedding dress to promote world peace when she was raped and murdered. The book is an unflinching investigation of what is left of a woman’s life and work when the woman herself is violently destroyed.

Léger’s writing is unrelentingly smart and shockingly freewheeling. Tracing her intuitive turns in translation was a great pleasure and challenge for me. The research-driven nature of her work gives it an organic complexity that has to be approached with care. Progress came bit by meticulous bit. I would live inside the prism of a sentence for five or fifteen or sixty minutes, trying to get it right. And so I was excited to talk to Léger about her oeuvre, to pull back and look at the themes that run through the larger world of her work.

—Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco Did you envision writing a triptych when you began working on Exposition?

Nathalie Léger I began Exposition in total darkness. How to give a form to a series of impressions, intuitions, and obsessions? How to tie together stories, notations, works, and reminiscences in order to unravel something else totally unknown? I stammered over each word. And so, you can imagine, the thought of a triptych… frankly nothing was further from my mind. Once the book is written, you forget, but to start, you must manage to find the voice and tone of your story. You have to get through—how to put it?—shame, essentially, yes that’s it—the shame and boredom of talking about yourself. I had to concede to explore a childhood sorrow that I found horribly banal—and yet I didn’t have any choice, I had to find a form for it. It was retrospectively, after Suite for Barbara Loden, that the idea of a continuity asserted itself. That said, one can consider a writer or artist’s oeuvre as a polyptych, with each new book rounding out, articulating, or shifting what couldn’t be said in the preceding work. I’m not very interested in the virtuosity of those who claim to explore a new kind of writing for each new subject. I like the idea of the writer as recidivist: they constantly return to the same cramped territory; they knead together a few ideas, not many; brood over them; turn them over in the dark; and something takes shape, little by little. It took three books for me to finish saying more or less what I needed to say about the suffering of a woman who had been humiliated, about the rage of a couple tearing each other apart, about the powerlessness of women, their waywardness and their courage.

AD The books were not translated into English in the order in which you wrote them. Does it seem strange to you that Suite for Barbara Loden was the introduction to the triptych for English readers?

NL No—there are very strong formal and narrative ties between these three books, but fortunately they don’t really have an order. Each one exists for itself. I like the idea that you can take something from the middle, return, advance, go back again. That’s what we do in conversation with what we love.

AD In a radio interview with France Culture, you said that the idea of redressing wrongs is very important for all three books. You said it in connection with wrongs done to your mother by your father, but each book is also a revindication of a woman whose artistic career was misunderstood or underestimated during her lifetime. Are these two goals connected for you?

NL There is a woman who remained silent. She was humiliated without the ability or knowledge to defend herself. I wrote for her. As if the words she couldn’t say to me as a child remained in my throat. One book wasn’t enough, it took another and then another. To speak out against an injustice, to cry out on someone else’s behalf: it may be that language was invented just for this purpose—and then it proved useful for a few other small things… 

In any case, it is one of literature’s most powerful motifs, not the only one of course, but recall that Marguerite Duras’s first novels were written to make up for the injustice done to her mother, a sort of rage to return to the fate that had been handed to her; she said this very explicitly in interviews, particularly regarding The Sea Wall.

The examples are numerous. To speak for someone who couldn’t or didn’t know how to speak. It doesn’t matter if she was an artist or not. To redress, that is, to recognize pain which was once met with nothing but indifference. To redress, or better: to recognize. It is undoubtedly the same thing. To push through this lack of understanding, this anguish. These words may be grandiloquent, but nevertheless, if I had to sum up the intention that runs through these three books, that is the word I would keep in mind: recognize. But I only want to enter into this risky territory (speaking for one’s mother, for what one believes she couldn’t say, for what one imagines her suffering to have been) on the condition that I depart from our grueling and perhaps fallacious face-to-face encounter. And so I had to leave the terrain of biography and mix the novelistic with her story, shifting the narrative tension, increasing it by giving it other objects, other bodies. I had no choice. Without this madwoman Castiglione, who exposed herself to the camera until her death and whom I place at the center of Exposition; without Barbara Loden, who introduced an uncertain heroine into American cinema and whose journey I trace in Suite; without this young Italian artist Pippa Bacca and the destiny of her White Dress, I wouldn’t have been able to tell my mother’s story. And the inverse, moreover, I wouldn’t have been able to lock myself inside of a story as sad as Pippa Bacca’s without going to look for something altogether outside of it.

AD It sometimes seems to me that your subjects’ failures and defeats are the most important parts of their stories. What is it that interests you about failure?

NL Oh, if I remember correctly, that’s all that The Iliad is about, and some even say that Ulysses’s return to Ithaca in The Odyssey was not entirely a success. But I prefer to speak of defeat rather than failure. The writer tries to grab onto something defeated. The social sciences analyze it; the writer grabs it on the fly, the vibrations, the gaps, a collision, a slowing down. At heart, the challenge isn’t so much to describe a failure, a crisis, or a defeat, but to grab onto the very material of existence, its trembling. I always look at my library with a sort of befuddled amazement: every book, every oeuvre, does something crazy and miraculous with this material: Beckett, Faulkner, Sarraute, Sebald, Kertész, Ernaux, Michaux, Kafka, Roubaud, Aïgui, Chekhov… I mumble some names; it’s absurd—I would have to say every one in the entire library.

I’ll return to your question. The women I am attached to know a great deal about defeat, it’s true. But above all, I am interested in their capacity to convert their suffering—into photos for Castiglione, into film for Loden, into performance for Bacca—to subvert the state of things. In The White Dress, yes, she fails: Bacca was murdered in 2008, three weeks after her departure, and it was her killer who continued the work in which she was engaged, stealing and using her camera, as if in spite of himself. But this young woman’s intent remains intact, her desire and her idea are larger than her defeat.

AD I’m always impressed by how organic and flowing your books seem to be, but I also know that this kind of naturalism of the mind wandering is often carefully structured. Can you tell me about the role of planning in your process?

NL I can describe a process. But I’m not sure I can speak of planning. The only thing I plan—and this takes fifteen seconds—is to write a work that says everything, absolutely everything, about the world, its beauty, its cruelty, its indifference, in an absolutely new form, economical, dense, et cetera. Suffice it to say that the plan is immediately thrown overboard. Then I get to work, where I am occupied by recalcitrant objects, time spent on nothing, failed intuition, endless discouragement, and so on. My process is a stumbling one, but I know that it exists: Mix together some documentation; drift in associations of ideas, in the convergence of forms; lay out the fragments; give them rhythm; lock yourself in the minuscule detail of a sentence. Yes, I have the impression that it happens like that. And as for the structure, you’re right, I am careful, of course, like someone building a house of cards.

AD At a certain point in The White Dress, your mother says “you have no experience of your subject”…

NL The mother wants to convince her daughter to devote the book to her [the mother’s] story, to be the scribe of her suffering and powerlessness. It is also her [the daughter’s] story, says her mother. A story that she has experienced. “Experience” as certification of truth. And filiation as the transmission of unhappiness. Whereas the daughter just wants to get out of it. She thinks she can find the truth, if it exists, in what she hasn’t experienced but approached, projected, invented—why not?—starting with what others have experienced.

AD How did you handle the anxiety that comes with telling other people’s stories, real people? 

NL I would speak of attention rather than anxiety, perhaps. These women existed: You have to take some precautions; it’s not enough to “slip into their skin,” as people often say of characters. The real is demanding; it resists, and its strangeness is precious. This power of the real sometimes modifies the project. And so it was impossible for me to actually meet the mother of Pippa Bacca, the murdered Italian artist who is at the center of The White Dress. I wanted to, but I couldn’t do it: how could I question the mother of a young woman who had been murdered? If she were meeting with a journalist, she could expect to get something useful in return: further investigation into the death of her daughter, progress in the case, the mobilization of public opinion. But from a writer coming to ask questions ten years later in order to create her own little project, to illuminate her own affairs? Frankly, this woman’s suffering isn’t a tool. What could have been the point of that meeting? To get some grief out of her? I often think of what [Krzysztof] Kieslowski said of tears: he left documentary filmmaking because a boy he was filming suddenly began to cry. He had the feeling that he was burglarizing his intimacy. And so he moved on to fiction. To represent tears seemed more just than stealing them.

AD That’s an interesting distinction, particularly since fictionalizing things is often a way of making them one’s own. Your approach seems like a hybrid, committed to the difficulty of reality but approaching it obliquely. Since you do draw your subjects from reality, they come with idiosyncrasies and aren’t necessarily likeable, particularly the narcissism and gloom of the Countess of Castiglione. What is it like to write about a difficult subject?

NL When I was just getting interested in Castiglione, a friend said to me: “But really, you’re not going to dedicate two years to that horrible woman!” An impassioned appeal. But the fact of whether she was nice or not isn’t what makes her journey fascinating; it’s this woman’s relationship to her body and to her own image that kept me there. The relationship of authority that this woman maintained with her own body puzzles and worries me: How can you be so sure of yourself, so triumphant? She allowed me to reveal other bodies, other destinies, in particular that of my mother, without speaking of my own. She allowed me to explore something that is always enigmatic: What is this ideal of woman, of which Castiglione is a sort of nonce construction?

This woman used photography to record the splendors of her great beauty—it was said that she was “the most beautiful woman of the century”—but she also very carefully recorded the torments of her madness and the disasters of her rancor, her solitude. Beyond the bounds of all of the obligations of her rank and all of the conventions of her epoch, on the photographic stage she converted the frustrations of failed ambition and a sort of rage toward her own image. This interrogation allowed me to carry out, in the form of a novel, an intaglio questioning of the uncertainty of being a woman. When I say “she allowed me to explore…” I give the impression that it was all planned and under control, but I must acknowledge that, from start to finish, I was led by an intention that escaped me and driven by images that touched me though I didn’t know why. It’s only after the fact that something holds in the writing.

AD When we read Exposition, it’s thrilling to watch you draw these timely, personal conclusions—about our bodies and femininity, about your mother—from a historical figure. Was Castiglione’s remoteness in the past somehow liberating for your imagination?

NL I don’t know what happened. One day I noticed the cover of a large catalog that collected the photos of this woman in a complete and well-annotated way for the first time. I saw her violence, her desire to play with her own feelings, and immediately a phrase sprang to mind, nailed down between her and me: “Myself by her against me.” The book is a way of unfolding this inaugural formula. My mother lived in the shadow of a woman who resembled her. I know that my mother’s body was molded by the fear of this woman who didn’t love her, by her mad desire to be loved by her. Everyone contains all of these collisions of bodies. Liberating? Yes, undoubtedly.

AD In Exposition, you mention that others who have written about Castiglione tended to focus on her life at the French court, as the mistress of Napoleon III, “whereas I would gladly reduce this woman’s life to her sittings at the photographer’s.” When did you understand that your version of Castiglione was a new and different one?

NL At that point in the book, I was talking about the innumerable commentaries focused on her in the newspapers of her era. Everyone scrutinized her beauty, evaluated the effects of her seduction, commented on the stages of her decline. The splendors of the Second Empire court, the intrigues, the decor—of course, all of that is thrilling and it has been the object of kilometers of studies and books, but it seems to me that the interest of this figure predominantly lies in a single volume of 600 images whose creation she organized beginning in 1860, and which continued until the end of her life, or at least until the death of her dogs.

I’m not trying to promote a new version of her life. This woman allowed me to understand something about femininity, about women, and undoubtedly about myself. I look at what she’s left behind. I look at what she dreamed of and what she lost.

AD I find you have a remarkable capacity for turning personal obsessions into works that are meaningful for a large audience. Do you think much about your readers as you work? I suppose the question is: How does one turn an obsession into a book?

NL It’s precisely because an obsession is personal that it can say something to others. I don’t have much of a liking for discourse on the “purpose” or “necessity” of writing, but I must admit that there is something essential about it, and that you don’t really have a choice. Etymologically, an obsession is a state of siege. One is under siege in oneself. What are you going to do, aside from trying to lend a form to what is happening? That is what we all try to do. That is, to transform an obsession into a book.

Some people think that writing a book is above all a construction, an architecture. The other day, a writer was talking to me about turning points. Turning points are part of the architecture; they’re very important, but I have the feeling that writing is above all a material. When I write, I am in the material of words; it’s very physical; it is chewed; it expires. A poem would be the first response to a state of siege. But I want to be prosaic. I want to be under the skin and, at the same time, view the figure from a distance.

As I try to respond to your question, I notice that when I talk about obsession or material, the work of writing seems very abstract. That’s good. It says exactly what happens. When we write—and undoubtedly when we film, dance, or paint—we are at once completely physical and absolutely abstract. Meanwhile ideas are finding their embodiment. And they do it clumsily, secretly.

AD A reviewer noted in Le Monde that your work “proceeds by juxtapositions.” You’ve said elsewhere that fragmentation is a method for gaining distance. Could you explain?

NL To try to respond, I’m going to take a quick detour through my very first book, Les Vies silencieuses de Samuel Beckett (2006). Ultimately, I never was able to understand why I could start writing by taking Samuel Beckett of all people as my subject. Beckett is a literary absolute. It would be difficult to find someone more intimidating—even Kafka is friendlier. Of course, I was immersed in Beckett’s work, in his life, in his archives, because I was co-curating the exhibition Samuel Beckett at the Centre Pompidou (2007), so some of it was self-evident. But one never writes because it’s self-evident. Something happened that I still don’t understand, I imagine it’s called acting out…

In any case, I remember very well not being able to grasp this difficulty except by staying in the interstices of his life, searching for angles, edges, by shattering any idea of unity, of pseudo-continuity. Juxtaposition, fragmentation are both methods—and very distinct ones at that—for distancing oneself. Why distance oneself? Because when we approach someone else’s life, we must slow down and put into practice the “art of nuance” that Roland Barthes spoke of so adeptly. Breaking continuity is a form of thoughtfulness. When you prepare to plunge headlong into emotion, into feeling, you have to disseminate, pivot, combine things, break them. When you are in the realm of nuance, you have to be rigid, brutal. The more you are in the realm of feeling—and I want to be there, it’s the very place of literature—the less you can be in pathos. Juxtaposition is an art of dissemination. Fragmentation is an art of arrangement. That’s the least it could take to dry all the tears.

AD Your books contain many brief descriptions of contemporary artworks alongside your own story and those of your main subjects: Loden, Castiglione, Bacca. For me, these little inclusions sometimes act as warped mirrors or portholes. How do you choose them?

NL Windows or mirrors. Yes, you’re right. These detours through other works are essential, but I don’t know how to explain why. It really is a part of my life. During lockdown, it’s what I missed the most: going to see art, going to the Louvre, standing on the threshold of an exhibition.

In any case, fragmentation permits these inclusions—it’s very welcoming as a style. For me, it’s completely linked to the concept of an exhibition: to arrange a very diverse group of objects in a way that best unfolds their subject; to create intervals, silences. To include something in order to gain distance from it. And then to distance myself from myself, that’s not bad. How do I choose the artworks? Well, I believe I choose them like the words in a sentence.

AD In the New Yorker, Richard Brody called Suite for Barbara Loden “a work of surrogate biography that replaces the archival material and the interview answers that [Léger] can’t get with the work of implication and imagination, replaces the novelistic solidity of an extended biography with the lacunary lyricism of an array of resonant fragments.” In Exposition and The White Dress, you also note that you sometimes don’t have the access or materials you would like. Do you think the term “surrogate biography” can be applied to all three books?

NL Brody’s analysis is totally correct. How to grasp the meaning of a life if not indirectly, from below, by multiplying its axes? “Surrogate biography” precisely describes the supplement that is at the heart of what I do—and which gives my book about Barbara Loden its name. [Translator’s note: The French title of Suite for Barbara Loden is literally Supplement to the Life of Barbara Loden.] To supplement a lack, to create brutal proximities, make the facts tremble, arrange voids and silences. The supplement is writing itself in relation to life. I believe Rousseau said something important about that. He must have called it nature instead of life, of course. It’s important, but I’ve forgotten the quote.

AD Each book in the triptych begins with a quiet moment of observation or contemplation: carefully watching Loden pick her way across the open-pit coal mine; observing how in a moment of boredom, attention shifts to a nagging question; how the mind concentrates itself while examining photos of Castiglione. It seems to me that these hushed moments serve a sort of consecrating function: the lowered curtain in the moment before the performance begins. Do they have the same significance for you?

NL I’m touched that you noticed that. Until the writing is finished, I never stop shifting the fragments around. I’m attentive to attacks, downfalls, rhythms, and of course I never hesitate to move everything. But each of the openings, on the other hand, is set—sometimes long in advance. The sentences come all alone, all at once. I myself am astounded by the obviousness of it (and obviousness isn’t really the mark of my writing practice). I rely on it. In any case, for me, each of these openings is like a dream that condenses, shifts, and prepares what is to come.

The English translations of Exposition and The White Dress will be published by Dorothy, a publishing project, this September. Exposition was first published in English by Les Fugitives, London, December 2019

Amanda DeMarco is an American writer and translator based in Berlin, translating from French and German.

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Originally published in

BOMB 153, Fall 2020

Our fall issue features interview with Erica Baum, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Carolyn Lazard, Nathalie Léger, Martine Syms, and Rufus Wainwright; fiction by Kevin Brockmeier and C Pam Zhang; poetry by Yi Sang and Vijay Seshadri; nonfiction by Lorraine O’Grady and Paula Mónaco Felipe; a special project by Garrett Bradley; and more.

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