Monday, September 14, 2020

Making an Echo: the essay writer as receiver and transmitter in the works of Nathalie Léger by Jay Ponteri

French writer Nathalie Léger has written a triptych of books, and thankfully, Dorothy Project has published English translations of all three works. In 2017, the press published A Suite for Barbara Loden (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), and this week they have released Exposition (translated by Amanda Demarco) and The White Dress (translated by Natasha Lehrer). This is a gift to the English-reading world! This is a gift to the Essay Team Members! Go Attempters!

In each book, Léger considers the work and life of a woman artist. In Exposition she explores the life and photographic works of Countess de Castiglione (1837-1899), an Italian woman who moved to Paris where she lived and worked till her death. Suite for Barbara Loden tells the story of American actress and director, Barbara Loden and her 1970 Independent film Wanda. The third book, White Dress, considers the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca who wears a wedding dress and films herself hitchhiking around the vestiges of war-torn Europe (“Venice, Gorizia, Ljubljana, Banja, Luka, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Sofia, Burgas, Istanbul.”), meeting up with midwives and washing their feet, all in an effort to practice and promote peace. At the very end of the trip, a man picks up Bacca then kidnaps, rapes, and murders her, so Léger’s juxtaposing Bacca’s loving intentions with male sociopathic violence. What begins to materialize in the first work (Exposition) and takes up more space as the three books unfold is Léger’s relationship to her mother and, more specifically, to her mother’s disappointments around her marriage. The three books are slim, the length of novellas, and as in the form of the novella, paraphrasing Debra Spark's cogent lecture on the novella, the dramatic focus is tightened, which then encourages vertical expansion, a kind of philosophical depth that exhibits nicely through Léger’s prose style of ornate, stretchy compression. 

Amid patriarchal cultures—crossing three centuries—diminishing and limiting female experience, these women make innovative and revelatory, healing in Pippa Bacca’s case, art works. Léger is an archivist, so she is often in search of documents, interviews, memoirs and diaries of those who once knew these women, their photographs and films, and of people who knew these people. In Suite for Barbara Loden: “I know from experience that to gain access to the dead you must enter this mausoleum that’s filled with papers and objects, a sealed place, full to bursting yet completely empty, where there is barely room for you to stand upright.” It is bursting with voices, language, discernible and invisible gestures that exist in past, present, and future realms. The emptiness of the room allows Léger to listen more closely to what she has yet to hear. She visits the spaces, some ruins, others disappeared, these women once inhabited, from Countess of Castiglione’s building at Place Vendome and the Tuileries, both in Paris, to the now abandoned Holy Land theme park in which Loden filmed a beautifully strange extended scene. 

One essential way we relate to the beings surrounding us—relation is the volley of connection-disconnection, of touch and hold and retreat—is to listen to their stories by retelling them. To better convey this process, I shall borrow from the language of radio. Nathalie Léger is both receiver and transmitter. She works from a decentered space, unplanned and deeply perceptive, wide open ear h(ear)ts—alive shells, as Emily Kendal Frey says—making the prose capable of expressing an inclusive and meaningful relational awareness. Léger is not a nonfiction writer who explores the lives and works of others as a means to catalyze her own self-exploration. She’s using the present moment of composition to conjure these women, to slip inside their skins, to relate to and with them, collaborate with them, live with and apart from them. She’s conducting a haunting in which us readers become the ghosts. She’s connecting to these women by inhabiting her curiosity for their inner lives. Her relationships to these women are predicated on receptivity and reciprocity, on understanding filled with cacophonous contradictions and blended nuance and unanswerable questions. 

She positions herself as a receiver-transmitter. She opens her being to those around her, within and beyond her perceptual field, not with the hope of “finding herself” or “encountering the other,” but to fill herself with layers of connection. A spider spins a single thread of silk into a structure we call a web. A receiver takes in radio waves and converts this information into audible forms. The writing, her thinking on the page, Léger’s consciousness (also the consciousnesses of Lehrer, Demarco, and Menon!) transmits this multiplex of waves changing forms. Exposition opens up with a brief section that could be construed as a receiver-transmitter manifesto for Léger’s compositional process: 

Surrender, premeditate nothing, want nothing, neither discern, nor dissect nor stare, but rather shift, dodge, lose focus—and slowing down—consider only the material that presents itself, in its disorder and even in its order. (7)

This is the essay noggin. This is, to quote poet Matt Hart, writing at attention. An archivist and curator, Léger has been charged to pick through a museum’s collection to find a piece about which to write, but what comes to her already exists within her private library: a catalogue of photographs of the Countess of Castiglione. She’s not just writing “about” this woman; she’s writing to absorb this woman:  

It was by coincidence, at the top of a small wooden staircase in the dilapidated bookshop of a provincial town, that I came across her. I was dumbfounded, but not by the image alone. A woman charging across the cover of a catalog. La Comtesse de Castiglione par elle-même. I was chilled by the evil of her gaze, petrified by the violence of this figure bursting forth. I thought without comprehending: “Myself by her against me” in a fit of mental mumbling that abated somewhat later when I overheard a woman on the 95 bus tell another woman a long, doleful story of jealousy. Just as she was getting off, she said, “You understand, my problem isn’t him, it’s her, it’s the other woman.” On the winding path of femininity, the loose stone you stumble over is another woman (l’autre—that’s what we called the woman my father left my mother for—Lautre became her name, a name that allowed her no identity of her own, connecting only to her function; Lautre, illegitimate, not the mother; Lautre, whatever she might do, you hate her, you want her). (8-9)

“Myself by her…,” her standing in for me—not the opposite, me standing in for her—which suggests Léger’s impulse is to position herself at the edges, not to disappear, to better hear, to be in community with, to receive and transmit all of its tangled pathways. This passage displays Leger’s associative thinking, how swiftly she shifts prose modes, swinging from anecdote to meditation to different anecdote to language inquiry. What emerges—the material that presents itself at the paragraph’s end—is the other woman, the not-her-mother from the narrator’s childhood, her mother too, a present absence. Léger has no endpoint in mind. Her intention is to commune with. 

I have been thinking a lot about how we relate to one another, how relationships form, strengthen, weaken, rebound, fall apart, lie dormant, recombine, all at once or something else. So much of my own struggle originates from this conditioned mindset, prevalent in white supremacist culture, that relationships are meant to fulfill my needs, my wants, which are, problematically so, fixed to the stories I tell myself about myself. And part of growing up, part of making whiteness visible, means redefining relationships to integrate the needs of the whole community. Another way to put it—in a strengthening and thriving bond, something happens beyond my own needs and wants that breathes in awareness of the larger community that holds in place that bond, that my connections to others link to the needs of the larger community, needs for growth and inclusion, for breath and beat. This awareness can be cultivated, I believe, by repositioning oneself as a receiver-transmitter. 

In Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger receives-transmits an entire web of relationships: her relationship to Barbara Loden, Loden’s relationship to her character Wanda, Wanda’s relationship to the real-life woman who inspired Loden, Alma H. Malone. And you also have Loden’s relationship to her husband and film director Elia Kazan along with the others Loden and her creative works have impacted. Here is a fragment describing French writer Marguerite Duras speaking to widower Kazan: 

During a conversation in the lounge of one of the grand Parisian hotels, after Barbara Loden has died, Duras said to Kazan, “Wanda is a film about somebody. Have you ever made a film about somebody? When I say somebody, I mean somebody whom you’ve singled out, whom you can see for who they are, detached from the social context in which you first came across them. I think there is always some trace of something in yourself that society can’t touch, something inviolable, impenetrable, determining.” She added: “There is an immediate and definite coincidence between Barbara Loden and Wanda.” (68-69)

Léger’s prose seeks out these connections of coincidence. A relationship may not have apparent causality, but perhaps it seeks that causality through its unfolding, through discrete acts of reciprocity and their accretion over time. Any act of reciprocity in love begins with receptivity and receiving the stories of others propels retelling. The fragment itself—a description of Duras’s relating with both Kazan and Loden, presence and absence—enacts this by holding then exhibiting to the reader this connectivity. 

In this second book of the triptych, Léger’s relating, almost simultaneously, with Loden and her character Wanda, relating with Loden’s relating to Wanda, relating with Wanda’s correspondences with Alma. What captures Loden’s imagination to begin with is a newspaper story about Alma H. Malone who, after being sentenced to prison for helping a man kidnap a bank manager then together commit a bank robbery, thanks the judge. 

Interviewed when the film came out, after it had been awarded the International Critics Award at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, Barbara would say how deeply affected she had been by the story of this woman—what pain, what hopelessness could make a person desire to be put away? How could imprisonment be relief? (10)


Our relationships do not build in isolation of but in accordance with one another. Relationships that include understanding and shared feelings necessitate reciprocity, give and take, receptivity that combines sacrifice or setting aside the individual’s needs and wants. These are the behaviors that help move any community to a space in which mutual aid and truth supplant selfishness and self-delusion. Léger engages a compositional process that combines rooted receptivity with intensive transparency.  (Imagine living in a cool basement with walls of windows through which dollops of sunlight and moonshine angle.) This is difficult, rightly so, to pinpoint as a writing tool, but perhaps we can call it making the echo. Daniela Naomi Molnar sent me this passage from the book, What Color Is The Sacred?, by the anthropologist Michael Taussig:

And if in this magical use of language there lies the power of fusing the speaker with the things spoken about, there exists nevertheless the equal and opposite force of repulsion and fear—the fear of losing oneself in the object, such loss being essential, as I see it, to scientific method. Empathy, we can call it, but also immersion with Otherness that makes you prone to metamorphoses of that Self you hold so dear. Walter Benjamin referred to this as the workings of what he called “the mimetic faculty,” meaning that desire, need, and even capacity to become Other, a capacity he saw as at the root of language as much as dance. (100)

With ferocity and pathos, Léger enters into a standing-with relationship with these other women only to realize she’s been in touch with herself the entire time. This feels to me like the natural movement of the most revelatory art criticism—to move close to the work, to ride along then pierce the work’s textured surface into its mysterious netherworld then looping back out (through innards) towards these words you hear out there in the private distance only to find them coming from your own mouth. With all of these women—Countess of Castiglione, Barbara Loden and Wanda (and Alma H Malone), and Pippa Bacca—Léger comes to know them as women who lived rich lives, artists’ lives, intensely felt. 

What does it even mean to be a receptive writer? How can one listen and speak at the same time? Brandon Shimoda, via G-chat, comes to the rescue, sending me this passage by Anne Anlin Cheng in her book The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Cheng’s in consideration of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée:

Since listening remains one of the only physical activities of the human body that occurs simultaneously inside and outside the body, we might understand listening here to be initiating a boundary contestation. The sound that penetrates the infant is also the sound after which the infant fashions him / herself; the moment of shattering retroactively constitutes the possibility of boundary not experienced before. The infant mimes the sound he/she hears and, in the act of mimicry, experiences him/herself as at once possible and other—what Lacan calls the loss of self to self. Coming to listening and the speech condition coming-to-being. The speaking subject serves as, and is conditioned by, the dictaphonic structure, a voice relay: “She allows others. In place of her… [t]he others each occupying her” (3). So there is no speaking subject as such that is not already an echo. (162)

Léger works through a dictaphonic structure. She’s listening closely to what’s passing through her, to the visual works she’s encountering, to other archival materials, and she transmits through her own voice an echo. She makes an echo. She allows the world to fill her and speaks. She writes from a porous and adaptive space, highly perceptive, her ear just as central as her capacity—which is profound—to write with specificity and nuance. Here I present to thee three prose blocks from Suite for Barbara Loden, the first one describing a scene (in present tense) from Loden’s incredible film Wanda:

She sits up and gently strokes his forehead until he cries out. She pales, but I only wanted to be nice. Silence. It’s two in the morning, the exhaustion from the lack of sleep is palpable, but more than anything we sense the weariness, the bitter taste of not being loved. She scratches her arm just for something to do. In the middle of the night he tells her to go out for burgers, no garbage, no onions, no butter on the bun! He hits her when she gets back, reproaching her for not getting what he asked for, etc. There is nothing easily recognizable between them; neither lust nor passion, no exchange, no offering. In this hotel room, with its green walls and flowery curtains, on this bed with sheets rumpled from heat and mutual incomprehension, a hackneyed scene of humiliation and submission is being played out, the silent withdrawal of one into another.

Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men. We were in the kitchen having breakfast: he told me that he was afraid of that habit particular to women in general and me in particular, in his opinion,  of being either unable or unwilling to resist uninvited male desire, of the madness of giving in whatever they asked of us. He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it—how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it! 

Sylvia Plath writes in her  journal: “For instance, I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump  blindly into the waters of some man’s insides, submerging myself until his purpose becomes my purpose, his life, my life, and so on. One fine day I would float to the surface, quite drowned, and supremely happy with my newfound selfless self.” (40-41)

Léger’s description of the film is concrete and spare. When she adds to this description her ideas, she remains close to the textual surface. This allows her to delve into the drama’s ineffable underworld—“There is nothing easily recognizable between them; neither lust nor passion, no exchange, no offering.”—and her own anecdote shows not so much her projecting herself into Wanda’s situation but relating to Wanda, expressing empathy and, at the same time, adding depth to the conversation, adding another piece of herself to their collaboration while returning to this place of listening, naturally extended by her quotation sans commentary of Plath’s experience. The blank spaces clear space for us readers to join the collaboration, to feel the echo pass through our chests. 

Léger’s using words that listen to other words, a kind of paradox all of us writers have to navigate. For a writer to find the depths, one must find a way to tune up and turn up and amplify a variety of listening modes. We have to stop being the experts of our own hearts because this expertise is simply an illusion. Our hearts beat in accord with one another.

Right now might be the moment to announce that as a reader of lots of creative nonfiction, no books have excited me more than this triptych by Léger. Sebald’s sequence—Vertigo, Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz—comes to mind. As do Lia Purpura’s books and Jenny Boully’s books. Leger’s three books are master works that deserve multiple readings.

In the first two books—Exposition and Suite for Barbara Loden—Léger’s relationship to her mother materializes gently and accretes in sporadic, revelatory fragments in dispersed correspondence with her reception of the lives of Countess of Castiglione and Barbara Loden while in the third book, The White Dress, Léger’s consideration of her mother’s marriage that ends in betrayal and divorce is given much more space and dramatic weight. Her understanding of her mother’s unhappiness hinges upon her receiving-transmitting Pippa Bacca’s life and works. The two seem to enter Léger’s mind’s bloodstream at the same time, which she allows. By describing Pippa Bacca’s desire for  kindness and service and spiritual connection in the aftermath of (and run-up to) violence, Léger comes to more fully receive her mother’s story. Here is a passage in which the consideration of Bacca’s work bends to consideration of Léger’s mom:

In the images that remain of this journey she often appears haloed by light: it was the white of her enormous gown, backlit, it was the entire purpose of her journey, an idealistic cloud, the urge to repair, the desire to spread goodness, not goodness itself, but the idea of goodness—and it is unclear that it was enough, or rather what is clear is specifically that it was not enough, but perhaps conversely goodness cannot be anything but an idea, and it is impossible that this idea matters a great deal, it may be that it is not always necessary for facts to confirm an idea for the idea to be true, and the opposite may also be true. I would have liked to discuss all this with my mother in the blue evening mist that was descending on the garden as, through the thicket of perfumed trees and half-closed shutters, the distant lights of the living room gave off the blinding illusion of happiness. I would be wrong, moreover, to say that it was Pippa’s goodness that drew me to her story. It was not her intentions that interested me, nor the grandeur of her project, nor her candour, her grace or her foolishness, it was what she wanted, by making this journey, to mend something that was out of all proportion, and that she did not make it. (37-39)

There’s so much to say about this book. There are narrative threads so surprising towards which I don’t want to even gesture so as not to spoil anybody’s reading experience. Any creative nonfiction writer serious about collage work should pore  over all of these books. Léger has evolved the collage form of the essay by placing total  trust in the methods the form offers to the writer—especially associative thinking, the use of dream (dream as a form of persuasion), and trust in fragmentation, specifically in the way fragments accrete meaning through varying degrees of incompletion and interdependence. 

Perhaps the best way, the most suitable way to end my reception-transmission is to think about—and praise—the translators. It makes total sense to me that multiple women are translating Léger, that the creation of Léger’s voice in English translation is a collaboration dependent upon relational awareness, that this work, any work of translation, means achieving the deepest reception of the work in a single language and expressing that reception in a second language. Natasha Lehrer, Amanda Demarco, and Cécile Menon together capture in English Léger’s deft combination of lyric prowess with incisive intelligence and crisp storytelling. The prose, like Sebald’s, slides mid-sentence from one mode to another, one register to another, one contradiction to another. Here is Lehrer’s translation of Léger’s description written in French prose of her dream of Pippa Bacca’s journey. Here is art as relational growth. It seems right to leave the reader with this passage:

So she left. Broad swathes of sky made way for the density of cities. There would have been moments of dazzling joy. Some mornings, absolute confidence in everything, a perfect grip on the world; and others, muffled disaster, the landscape so vast, the breadth of the sky disorienting. Joy will have passed over things, the light breath of happiness. The world is made of abandoned feelings, sweaty bodies, derelict concrete with a soundtrack embedded in its cells, ruins, stories, an inventory of functions, the sun leaking, dirty, insinuating itself inside the whole collapsing lot of it. Now the sound of the flawless thrust of a twin engine high in the sky, a note, a shuddering, and sometimes the rattling of stones. Ruined hangars merging with piled-up cars, layers of scrap, alignments broken up, continuity thrown off course, rails, runners, sloping lines of spray-painted concrete, a flood of writing caught in the dragnet of cities, blocks, cellars, river banks, then it contracts, the suburban house, the pathetic luxury of the bungalow, a back garden, the sudden appearance of an orchard, then more wasteland, burnt grass, the sudden muffling of a tunnel, it passes, you can make out the ghost of a blurred parking lot as it speeds by, the clammy concrete underbelly  streaked with garbage, then the unexpected geometry of a field of rape, and again a road as it  slices through the chilly spring, the shaft of a lamppost emerging from a thicket, a slope of dormant grass, suddenly the orb  of  the sky looms over a man walking, alert, his shadow growing smaller, we are not going to make it, we’re going to keep going round in circles, we will walk the length of the sky, stumble on the pebbles  where the light is fading, we will keep turning, drift, weep. There will have been the tiny syncopation, the  hollow around the stones, the dissonance when everything is in harmony. There will have been ecstasy, foolish to say it, pitiless. There will  have been effort, boredom, the desire to return. There you have it. The journey in a nutshell. (32-34)


Other Works Cited

Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Taussig, Michael. What color is the sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Jay Ponteri directs the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Northwest College of Art and is the author of Darkmouth Inside Me and Wedlocked, which received the 2013 Oregon Book Award. LOBE is forthcoming from Widow+Orphan House, spring 2021, pieces of which have appeared in Ghost Proposal, Gaze, and Knee-Jerk Magazine.

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