Review: David McCooeyon Nathalie Léger

The Irreparable, the Inconsolable

Shortly after reading the three books by the French writer Nathalie Léger that I discuss here, my mother passed away. My mother had lived in Perth and I live in Victoria. This meant, because Western Australia’s border was closed to Victorians during COVID, that I had to organise, participate in, and attend my mother’s funeral remotely. I did the last of these things via a one-way ‘live stream’. I had to pre-record my eulogy and then watch the recording of myself in the course of the funeral, which – I was told by the funeral director – was on a twenty-second delay, so not quite ‘live’.

In addition to the grief and guilt of not being physically present at my mother’s funeral, the mediated nature of the event was unsettling, since a funeral should surely be an immediate occasion, experienced bodily in real time. But the temporal and spatial distance implied by mediation also had an oddly (if fragile) calming effect, drawing attention as it did to the mediated nature of the funeral service itself, a social practice that employs ritualisation and stylisation ultimately to place a distance between the lost loved-one and her mourners. In being already-mediated, funerals, and other mourning practices, give form to the inchoate and often overwhelming feelings of grief. In that respect, the distancing and stylised nature of funerary rituals enables self-expression while producing a space – a liminal space between life and death – that protects the grieving self. ‘Attending’ my mother’s funeral via live-stream, while fundamentally painful, unexpectedly drew my attention to all funerals’ function as a consoling performance – a public exhibition of the reparative process of mourning.

Funerals, then, bring together the real and the factitious in a decidedly pointed way. Léger’s triptych of books about three historical women (an aristocrat central to the development of photography; a filmmaker; and a performance artist) similarly occupies the liminal space between the stylised and the real. Generically hybrid, the three texts are neither biography, memoir, nor fiction, though they employ elements of all three modes. In a review in the New Yorker, Richard Brody describes Suite for Barbara Loden (the second part of Léger’s triptych, though the first to be published in English) as ‘a work of surrogate biography’, replacing ‘the novelistic solidity of an extended biography with the lacunary lyricism of an array of resonant fragments’.

‘Resonant fragments’ are found throughout Léger’s triptych. The three texts – Exposition (L’Exposition, 2009); Suite for Barbara Loden (Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden, 2012); and The White Dress (La robe blanche, 2018) – are all comprised of discrete paragraphs that weave together the lives of the books’ subjects along with those of the author and the author’s mother (with the latter turning out to be as important to the three books as their ostensible biographical subjects). This weaving of fragments is profoundly literary, and consistent with the texts’ other literary aspects: their associative nature, their attraction to the epigrammatic, their heavy reliance on catalogue and digression, and their profound intertextuality. Regarding the last of these, the triptych calls upon – to choose more-or-less randomly – the works of Samuel Beckett; the oral histories of Svetlana Alexievich; a letter from Susette Gontard to Friedrich Hölderlin; a letter from Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet; Jean Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules of the Game. They also refer to photographs of the French actor Isabelle Huppert; the infamous performance piece Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramović; an interview with Marguerite Duras; the art of Louise Bourgeois.

Exposition, Suite for Barbara Loden, and The White Dress are literary works of research. Léger is the Director of the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine (Institute for Contemporary Publishing Archives), so it is unsurprising that archives and the figure of the archive should feature in her work. What is perhaps more notable is the way in which Léger sees the archive as a literary space. In a 2014 interview, in the French journal La Cause du Désir, Léger describes the archive as ‘a field of interpretation’ and therefore also ‘one of the favourite places of fiction’. (These are my translations of Léger’s responses. The original interview is here.) Of the astonishing object sometimes found in the archive, ‘if it contains information, it also contains a strong emotional charge…To speak that part of the real, to give it thanks and undo its hold, there is only literature’. As the constant return to the story of the author’s mother illustrates, the ‘strong emotional charge’ of an object can be one of unexpected, or buried, connections. Even if only subconsciously, what one searches for is inevitably personally informed. All of this suggests that for Léger the archive and literature are mutually informing. The neutral intellectualism of the former and the subjective affectivity of the latter exist in a dyadic relationship. This tension is a source of the great power of Léger’s extraordinary short books. Profoundly recondite, they are also deeply moving. Léger understands the literary power of the image and of narrative; the thing and its multiple renderings through mediation. This flickering between the real and its representation, between subject and object, is central to the effect of Léger’s triptych. It is not surprising, then, that the three subjects of her triptych are all associated with the representational power of the visual image and of (self-) performance. As becomes apparent, Léger’s choice of biographical subjects is intrinsically linked with a grief that she feels for her mother’s emotional wounding by her father. It is not accidental, then, that the women Léger writes about are only ambiguously successful in their attempts at gaining agency through self-representation.

The first work of the triptych, Exposition (translated by Amanda DeMarco),concerns the Italian aristocrat Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglioni (1837-1899), who was better known as ‘La Castaglione’. Famous in Europe as the beauty of her age, people ‘contemplated her beauty the way people enjoyed freak shows’, as Léger puts it. Remembered for having scandalously been the mistress of Napoleon III, which led her to believe that she had brought about the unification of Italy, she is also remembered for her role in the development of photography, creating hundreds of photographs in which she represented herself (over a century before Cindy Sherman) in staged tableaux – part performance, part self-portrait. She made these images with the assistance of the French society photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, described by Léger as ‘a third-rate photographer…who would create the most enigmatic photographic work of his time, a body of work at once secret and emblematic, by photographing this woman over the course of forty years, shooting without batting an eye her splendor and her fall’. The splendour, in Léger’s account of it, is hard-won and filled with a frozen ‘violence’, while the fall is equal parts pathos and grotesquery.

Léger’s ‘project’ is brought about, allegedly, by being given carte blanche by a government body to curate a series of projects ‘based on a landmark historical work’. It is suggested that Léger chooses a single work from ‘the museum in C***’. But, as with Léger’s other literary projects, there is a more mysterious, and deeply ambivalent, source of her attraction to her subject. Léger speaks of looking through a book of photographs of Castiglione that she had earlier purchased and ‘promptly put away’:

Immediately I sensed my old aversion toward the images, toward this ferocity, this melancholy without depth, this defeat. Nothing about this fleeting heroine of the Second Empire, nor the destiny of this woman who spent so many hours having herself photographed, was familiar to me and yet when I opened this book of images, I had the strange feeling of returning home and, although the house was destroyed, of returning in fear, in recognition.

The source of this recognition is never made explicit, but the figure of a woman being photographed by a man, and the figure of the destruction of home, are central to the familial autobiographical narrative in Exposition, in which Léger’s mother appears as the main character. Indeed, the shame and injustice of the story of Léger’s mother runs throughout the triptych, as if the three biographical subjects are mediums who allow Léger to tell the melancholy story of her mother, which is the story of a woman who was married to a man in love with another woman, who was subsequently abandoned by that man, and (as detailed in The White Dress) who was subsequently demolished by him (and a judge) in a law court.

The eponymous subject of Suite for Barbara Loden (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), while clearly very different from La Castiglione, was also a woman who sought to find a way to represent herself. Remembered for Wanda (1970), the one feature film that she directed (as well as wrote and starred in), Loden (1932-80) had an impoverished childhood, and was raised by her grandparents in the Appalachian Mountains. She left home for New York at the age of 16, intending to become an actor. She famously played a fictional version of Marilyn Monroe in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, and she had a ‘complex’ relationship with Elia Kazan, the Greek-American director, writer, and actor, whom she married in 1967. Wanda, while a critical success in Europe, was largely ignored in the United States, and was unpopular with a number of female critics who saw the passive, ‘loser’ character of Wanda as not offering a positive role model for women.

As with Exposition, Suite for Barbara Loden purportedly begins life as another, more ‘professional’, project. In this case, Léger’s brief is to write an entry for an encyclopedia, ‘une notice’, on Loden and her work. In serio-comic fashion, the project becomes overwhelming, such that Léger’s editor begs her just to write ‘an entry for the encyclopaedia, not a self-portrait’. Instead, Léger heads off to the coal mining country of Pennsylvania, the setting for the memorable opening scenes of Wanda. The self-portraiture elements of the book again largely concern the author’s mother, who is represented as showing a bemused interest in her project: ‘My mother finds it weird that I am interested in this film. Nothing happens, she says, clearing away our dinner tray. Then, from the kitchen: I wonder why you have a taste for sad things’.

Wanda’s story is indeed sad. It begins, in semi-documentary style, with Wanda – her hair in curlers – walking through a coal field, asking her father (who is picking over the mine castings for bits of coal) for money, and then taking a bus to Carbondale for a divorce hearing where she gives up her husband and children without a fight. The film then becomes a strange kind of heist movie, when Wanda falls in with Mr Dennis, a criminal who involves her in a bank robbery, which – inevitably – goes badly wrong.

At this point of Léger’s triptych, it is clear that Léger’s use of detail, of ‘resonant fragments’ (both material and discursive), as well as her mixing of biography, autobiography, and fiction, means that her mode of writing could be classified as the lyric essay. A hybrid form that combines poetry, essay, and memoir, the lyric essay is best known in the Anglosphere through the works of American writers such as Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, and Claudia Rankine. But the more I read of Léger, the less interested I became in tying her work to this emergent tradition. Autofiction, as a definitively Francophone genre, might be a more accurate category to generically place Léger’s triptych, since Léger’s work purports to be both autobiographical and fictional. However, despite a number of critics (Anglophone and Francophone) describing the texts that make up Léger’s triptych as ‘novels’/‘romans’, Léger’s interest in the biographical, in the archive that her projects rely on, means that this designation is only partially useful.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Léger’s triptych as a hybrid form of ‘ekphrastic memoir’ – literary works that engage in ekphrasis through the mode of memoir. Other examples of this subgenre include Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox (2017) and various books by Geoff Dyer, including Zona (2012). Though here again, Léger’s triptych seems to slip away from such taxonomic designation. Léger’s triptych, especially The White Dress (which I’ll get to shortly), engages more obviously with the fictional than Dunn’s and Dyer’s works. At one point in Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger – struggling to piece together the life of her subject – is given the following advice by the cinema verité documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman: ‘“Make it up. All you have to do is make it up.”’ Of course, this episode, as the reference to Wiseman (a man ‘who never works on anything that isn’t real’) humorously suggests, could itself be ‘made up’. Perhaps ‘ekphrastic autofiction’ might be a more accurate description of Léger’s triptych. Certainly, there is something impressively generative for Léger in bringing together the ekphrastic and the autofictional modes, especially since Léger’s subjects are themselves interested in the fictive potential of self-representation. (‘I feel very close to her emotionally,’ Loden once said of Wanda, a character who was based on a real-life woman who thanked the judge who sentenced her to twenty years of prison.)

In Suite for Barbara Loden an unexpected link is made between the defeated Wanda and Léger’s defeated mother. The latter, like Wanda, after her divorce hearing, spends vacant time aimlessly wandering through a shopping mall. The two stories of the defeated women briefly merge. Léger’s mother

just wandered around, for hours. From the outside, she says, I must have looked like a doctor’s wife doing some shopping, from the outside what can you see of the deepest despair? We see nothing on Wanda’s face as she drifts around town; all we see is a woman waiting, killing time. I ask my mother whether she met anyone. No, whatever do you mean, no, no one, nothing to write home about, no story, really nothing, no one.

A more purposeful wandering, which proves fatal, is at the heart of the last part of Léger’s triptych, The White Dress, in which the truly traumatic effect of the divorce hearing on Léger’s mother is also made clear. The White Dress is a sadder, more shocking, and more angry work than its predecessors. Its subject is Giuseppina Pasqualino (1974-2008), an Italian performance artist known as Pippa Bacca who, in 2008, took part in a performance work in aid of world peace. Bacca (along with fellow artist Silvia Moro, who is not mentioned in Léger’s account) planned to hitchhike, with a video camera, to Jerusalem across the Balkans, wearing a wedding dress, and engaging in ritualistic acts, such as washing the feet of midwives. Less than three weeks into her performance, having parted ways with Moro, Bacca’s body was found in a shallow grave. She had been raped and strangled on ‘her unusual quest to pay tribute to love and peace’.

Writing about this shocking event – especially in concert with writing about her own mother – occasions a crisis in Léger’s project. Léger represents herself as unable to meet with Bacca’s mother, for instance, since ‘I had nothing to offer a mother in mourning, I was only going to take something from her, devour her heartlessly’. The question of what Léger has to offer Bacca’s mother is central to the narrative as a whole. In a more clearly autofictional style, Léger represents herself staying with her own mother, who is a more active, if more fictive, presence than in the previous two books. Placing a ‘dossier’ on her daughter’s chest, Léger’s mother demands that she ‘avenge’ her for the wrongs done to her. In a dream-like sequence, Léger’s mother makes the following demands:

‘I’ve thought a lot about it, our two subjects are exactly the same, so you can help me, support me, assist me in my project at the same time as you’re pursuing yours, because,’ she said, ‘the violence is the same, great or small; whatever form it takes, the fight to denounce it, wherever you are, is the same, you can act in my name, you can speak for me, you can’ – she cleared her throat – ‘defend me or even avenge me.’

This is a striking moral claim on behalf of the (imagined) mother: ‘the violence is the same, great or small’. One of the extraordinary achievements of The White Dress – which meditates on performance and risk; memorialisation and justice – is the way it represents the violence done to both women, Bacca and Léger’s mother, without sensationalising or confusing either event. And when, near the end of the book, Léger outlines in seven furious pages the events of her parents’ divorce, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the injustice of the events narrated – the symbolic destruction, via the law, of Léger’s mother. ‘The legal system is a great purveyor of fiction,’ Léger writes in a space where fiction can be an appeal for justice, rather than the machinery for its dissolution. Léger shows, too, that while the wrongs done to the two subjects of this book – Bacca and Léger’s mother – are not commensurate, neither does the one injustice invalidate the other. And as if the triumphant sculpting of ‘a little memorial in words’ (as her dream-mother says of her account of the divorce hearing) seems insufficient in the face of a woman’s murder, Léger presents us with one more performance, a wedding no less, that shows the poignancy, and fragility, of such a ‘memorial in words’. Léger describes video footage of a wedding attended by Bacca’s murderer. The footage is taken with Bacca’s video camera, which was stolen by her murderer. ‘The camera tilts. He turns the lens on himself. His face appears. He’s laughing. He is happy. Behind his smug face the sky is empty. All narrative is annihilated.’

The White Dress ends, then, at the limits of any literary expression, fictive or otherwise. This tragic limit is the extreme instance of a negativity present throughout the triptych, with its emphasis on failure. In Exposition, for instance, regarding a photograph of her mother as a child (in the shadow of her mother), Léger writes of ‘This woman, my mother, or someone else, at the threshold of her life, slight, timid, bowed under the body of another. And me, I want to write about joy, the deluge within, the rustling there, up high, taking hold of the throat, a rapture, happiness, once again failed.’

This passage seems to be ghosted by a passage in Suite for Barbara Loden. Léger contacts Loden’s son about Loden’s archives. Léger cannot, she reports, ask what she wants to ask: ‘I can’t tell him that I am desperate to find Barbara Loden’s journal. I can’t tell him that what would interest me in the journal – if it even exists – is not joy, enthusiasm, happiness or fulfilment, but grievance, powerlessness, strange lists, scorned emotions.’ In other words, Léger is after the emotions of failure. Failure is ‘baked in’ to the project of writing, and not just because failure is at the heart of Léger’s mother’s story. Failure is also found in the archive, that overwhelming collection of objects upon which Léger’s literature relies, in which is collected the following: ‘Boxes, scraps, fakery, piles of things sweating excess and incompleteness and, in spite of brief triumphs, defeat’. The archive is always too much or not enough when it comes to rendering the autobiographical experiences of others and of oneself.

In a 2020 interview, Amanda DeMarco (one of Léger’s translators) asks Léger how she handles ‘the anxiety that comes with telling other people’s stories, real people’. Léger replies by saying that she 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.’ The resistance of ‘the real’ is thematised throughout Léger’s triptych – the difficulty of dealing with the potentially endless strands and connections of her subjects – and it doubles the resistance of her medium: language itself. The real’s strangeness is ‘precious’, it is clear when reading Léger’s books, in part because of its aesthetic power. The importance of strangeness is further articulated in the 2014 interview with Léger when she is asked another question on writing about people who ‘really existed’ (‘réellement existé’). Léger states that ‘It is thanks to their strangeness, their distance that I can take shape and place myself, for example, in the middle of these words: the irreparable, the inconsolable – these and a few others’.

We all engage in fictions and simplifications. Contrary to what I wrote at the beginning of this piece, I had only read two of the three books that make up Léger’s triptych when my mother died. It was only after the strangeness and distance of my mother’s funeral that I read The White Dress, with its breathtaking staging of material loss and symbolic reparation. Léger’s extraordinary books placed me in the middle of the words ‘irreparable’ and ‘inconsolable’ – those and a few others. And the liminal space of literature that she created for me, made those words, if briefly, both more beautiful and more bearable

Works Cited

Works Cited

Richard Brody, ‘Barbara Loden: “A Woman Telling Her Own Story through That of Another Woman”’, The New Yorker, November 1 2016.

L’objet même de la fiction: Cinq questions à Nathalie Léger’ (‘The Very Object of Fiction: Five Questions for Nathalie Léger’), La Cause du Désir 87 (2014): 34-37.

Nathalie Léger by Amanda DeMarco’(2020).