Earlier this year, Les Fugitives published the final book in a trilogy of studies by Nathalie Léger. The first, Suite for Barbara Loden, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, marked the launch of Les Fugitives in 2015 and became the cornerstone of their publishing identity. Exposition, translated by Amanda DeMarco, was published in December 2019, and The White Dress, translated by Natasha Lehrer, in March 2020.
Exposition, translated from French by Amanda DeMarco (Les Fugitives, 2019)
Nathalie Léger is a museum curator, and her published works blend biographical study with personal reflection. In the opening pages of Exposition, Léger recounts her decision to curate an exhibition on the Countess of Castiglione, a young and beautiful Italian aristocrat who was a sensation at the French court of Napoleon III. Léger’s determination to curate an exhibition that focuses on a subject rather than on objects is a pattern of hers, and reflects her belief that there are far more stories to uncover about a person than an object. Her exposition of La Castiglione constitutes a discovery of the other that offers a path to discovery of the self, albeit an uneasy one: Léger is progressively consumed by her own project, noting that it has “already surreptitiously gobbled me up,” to the point that towards the end of the text when La Castiglione is imagined as saying “c’est moi,” this could also be Léger’s own voice.
La Castiglione is a figure onto whose countenance is projected the image that others have of women, imprisoned in her beauty and the role it forces her to inhabit. Having herself photographed was, Léger suggests, not a vanity project, but a means to “construct, under the guise of frivolity, what Poe called ‘the chamber of melancholy.’ To hold on, to silently hold on.” The photographs are an attempt to take control of a life shaped by others, and so the photographer’s studio becomes “a mythical space in which her empire silently expanded and where her legend was written.” Léger’s goal – at least in part – is to give La Castiglione her own agency, a legend in which she is the subject controlling her image rather than the object reflected in that image.
The translated title is well chosen by Amanda DeMarco: the French exposition means an exhibition but also an exposing, a laying bare, and this is the more important of the two meanings in Léger’s narrative: the exhibition is a means to an exposition. She muses on what a photograph can achieve – does it capture an essence, or just a moment? The countess, Léger concludes, is just “a mass of absence” behind the lifelong tableau vivant of her captured image. Imprisoned in other people’s perceptions of her, la Castiglione exists only for the gaze of the other, and so her only victory can be that she is not truly there, forever absent from her own image. Léger also lingers on representations of women through literary and visual history, and on what it is to be a woman. We witness her reflections on her own relationships and intimacies with women – particularly her mother, another woman about whom she knows little and who she wants to discover through photographs of times past.
The White Dress, translated from French by Natasha Lehrer (Les Fugitives, 2020)
Is it a coincidence that the first photograph of La Castiglione was entitled The Black Dress? Perhaps. But it is a fitting coincidence, as Léger ends her triptych with The White Dress. This takes as its subject Pippa Bacca, an Italian performance artist who undertook a hitchhike from Milan to Jerusalem wearing a wedding dress. Her journey was part of a “beautiful, and a little mad” performance for peace in countries affected by war or conflict, Bacca “a bride setting out beneath an overcast sky on an improbable journey to save the world.” Pippa Bacca never finished her journey: she disappeared in Istanbul. She was raped, murdered, and left naked in some bushes, her body already decomposing by the time she was found. Pippa’s story is entwined with a deepened reflection on Léger’s fragile and strained relationship with her mother, and the responsibility that Léger feels to both women to tell their lives. Pippa’s voice was cut short by her violent end, her murderer even appropriating her gaze by taking her video camera and using it to film his own life; Léger’s mother is similarly voiceless, having “never known how to say what she wanted, rendering daily life an endless struggle.”
Léger plans to interview Pippa’s mother, but struggles with the ethical implications of her own quest, turning back because “I had nothing to offer a mother in mourning, I was only going to take something from her, devour her heartlessly.” Instead she shifts focus from a mother who has lost a daughter to another – her own – who sacrificed hers on the altar of her marital abandonment (“we were dragged along with her in the wake of her sadness.”) For both Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother, the wedding dress symbolises their own personal misfortune, the burden and perils of womanhood, and the pressures of conformity.
Léger struggles with the weight of all this sorrow, as she tries to navigate the horror of Pippa’s final journey and the responsibility of her mother’s never-ending one. She claims that “my feeble heart means I can’t carry more than one pain at a time,” and yet she manages to achieve just that: Léger not only immerses herself in her quest, but in so doing creates a symphony of Pippa’s story and her own life, examining the symbolism of the white dress, and the fate to which the actions of others (usually men) condemn women. Does Léger’s mother, denied “words, attacks, justice” in her divorce case and left with only tears, have any more control over her life than Pippa did? Like La Castiglione, Léger’s mother is imprisoned in the way others perceive her, but not truly there: as Léger reminded us in Exposition, “you can die a hundred deaths from not being loved.” And is it better to die believing in freedom and peace than to live consumed by resentment, frustration and regret? Léger does not offer answers, but rather a meditation; in this respect, The White Dress is a culmination of both Léger’s project and her pensive style, which is rendered by Natasha Lehrer in a graceful and attentive prose that shifts unobtrusively from the meticulously objective to the intensely personal. The tension between the story of the mother, confined to an unfulfilled life in a stifling home, and Pippa’s fateful wanderings in a dangerous outdoors, shows that women are still not free in any sphere, and makes a quietly valuable contribution to literature, biography and feminism.
Review copies of Exposition and The White Dress provided by Les Fugitives
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