Translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2018)
In Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon offers an extraordinary homage to French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, weaving together fragments of her life and her art from his own experience. However, it would be false to describe this short, lyrical book as either a biography or art criticism: although Frémon offers glimpses into the life of Louise Bourgeois (which was also, as Frémon reminds us, “the life of the century”), and further insights into how many of her famous works originated, it is more in the style of a memoir. This is not Frémon’s memoir, though, but rather a memoir by Bourgeois via Frémon: Frémon shifts between the first and second person in his narration, sometimes speaking to Bourgeois as a real “you”, and sometimes as her, as an imagined “I”, writing Bourgeois in “his words that are also her words” (Siri Hustvedt).
Yes, “his”. This is an interesting case study that pushes at the boundaries of how we might understand “translating women”: publisher Les Fugitives released it yesterday with the tantalising question “Can a man write a feminist book?” (my instinctive response to this is “yes” since, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I believe that feminism is for everyone – but that’s a debate we can continue another day). Written by someone who knew her well, Now, Now, Louison is a unique insight into the world of Louise Bourgeois – her upbringing, her decisions, and her art. Though famed throughout the world, it was only towards the end of Bourgeois’ life that her work was celebrated (a point eloquently made by Frémon: “You can’t make a move these days without someone’s interpreting it in his terms. Above all, the French. They ignored you for fifty years, and when they finally noticed you existed, they couldn’t wait to tell you what you’d been doing”). Now, Now, Louison avoids the temptation to explain Bourgeois and her work in this way, and instead offers snapshots into the paths that brought her to fame. This is an intimate and emotional book, and above all a very beautiful one. The translator, Cole Swensen, is a poet, and this shows through in the translation. I ached with a kind of nostalgia while I was reading this book, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on why – the nostalgia often hits me when I read in French, or about Paris, which was once my home – but this was in English, and not focused on Paris (indeed, much of the book is set in New York, where Bourgeois lived as an adult). About a third of the way through my reading, it hit me: the reason I felt this nostalgia was because reading Now, Now, Louison was like reading in French. And this is not because of what you might call “literal” translation or anything clumsy like that, but rather because the syntax and some of the vocabulary mirror the French in a way that is not “English” but yet does not feel “foreign” in the translation. And yet there is nothing odd or affected about the translation: it’s simply an immense achievement on the part of the translator, that the translation communicates the language as if through a lens. I’m aware that this might seem as though I’m advocating an “invisibility” of the translator, so let me be clear: I am not of that school of thought. I see the translator as a co-creator, and Swensen is certainly not invisible here. Nor is the French book invisible beneath the translation – and that’s why I loved it. But it’s also why there was the occasional detail that didn’t sit too well with me, words that have a reduced field of usage in English (such as “parturient spider at the bottom of the garden”), a slightly odd use of syntax that mirrors the French (“there would reign a sepulchral silence throughout the house”), even my own bête noire for translation into English (using “the latter” too liberally). The “Frenchness” of the text is not hidden, and apart from these few details, this was a good thing in my view. Sometimes the original French language is explicit: there is analysis of a French phrase “made of marble” and its English equivalent “poker face”, there are French song lyrics that remain untranslated, and French cultural references that are unexplained (from Charcot and the Salpêtrière to Varda, Sagan, Duras and the Récamier) – these add to the feeling of “Frenchness” that pervades the translation.
The “spider woman”
I couldn’t write about Louise Bourgeois without mentioning spiders. They feature heavily in all of her exhibitions, and I was fascinated to learn how she became so obsessive about them. Frémon speaks as Bourgeois, explaining that they represent her mother: “She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.” The spiders take on a form of feminist resistance, instilling fear into other women and inciting men to crush them self-righteously, but Bourgeois made them ever bigger, stronger, and, crucially, pregnant, ready to give birth to more like them. The maternal image is present throughout: her own mother, weaving, attentive, and her female spiders, heavy with the life they will bring forth (or “immoderately maternal”, as Frémon puts it). Spiders are observed, catalogued, praised, and then sculpted into her “family”, with an attention Bourgeois does not seem to extend to her own children – or perhaps this is simply not where Frémon’s focus lies. Indeed, on the book jacket, Now, Now, Louison is described as exhibiting “elusive, haunted excess”, and I thought for a while about what exactly this meant. Haunted, because it is lyrical, philosophical, almost ethereal, Bourgeois appearing almost as a spectre; excess, because this is a big story in a small package, a story of the fragility behind the indomitable force; elusive, because there is so much that is not told, because Louise Bourgeois herself is always just out of reach. Her drawings “scream in silence” while she remains mute; she is likened to an “empty house” that she wanders through; the art she made is an expression of pain, love, and the questions she never articulated; her sculptures are “self-portraits”. Yet there is rarely any more detail than this: Frémon describes her sculptures as an equation with, on one side, “pain, anxiety, and frustration” and, on the other, “wood, marble, bronze”, and then, speaking as Bourgeois, offers the following realisation: “Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? Lovely sculptures, gratuitous, idiotic, vain, and useless if they don’t say what you have to say.” Frémon, or Bourgeois-through-Frémon, seems to be saying that the key to understanding Bourgeois is in understanding her sculptures, and yet he avoids the temptation of telling us how to understand them. That is not to say that there are no revelations at all (there is a very interesting insight into the hanging headless figure of “Single II”); rather, there is an acknowledgement that “we are what others say we are.” Neither Bourgeois nor Frémon tells us directly how to interpret her work, and this elusive understanding is deliberate: “You’ll never know if it was ecstatic. I have my own ideas on the subject. And I will continue to have them.” If there is one key to understanding how Bourgeois worked, and what her work “means”, then perhaps it can be summed up in my favourite excerpt from the book:
“Aim for beauty, and you get the vapid; you get fashion, beribboned cliché; aim for something else – encyclopaedic knowledge, systematic inventory, structural analysis, personal obsession, or just a mental itch that responds to scratching, and you end up with beauty. Beauty is only a by-product, unsought, yet available to amateurs and impenitent believers.”
Neither Bourgeois in her work nor Frémon in his homage have “aimed for beauty”, but rather, just as the personal obsession Bourgeois had with spiders gave way to knowledge and analysis, which resulted in beauty, so Frémon’s obsession with giving Bourgeois a voice has given way to knowledge and analysis of his own, and he has ended up with beauty. A beauty that will always be incomplete and unsought, but that is there nonetheless, “available to amateurs and impenitent believers” in the pages of this book. It may have imperfections but, as we are told, “perfection masks feelings”, and if this book is anything, it is a book of emotions: this poignant tribute is just as it should be.
Les Fugitives have a very exciting list of titles forthcoming in 2019, that will probably be of interest to blog subscribers. You can browse the catalogue here.