Nathalie Léger’s Exposition is the first in a loose trilogy of books published in French between 2008 and 2018. Formally they mix essay, criticism and memoir. In each of them Léger focuses on the work of a woman engaged in making art in some way either provocative or running counter to the prevailing cultural mood, and each of them pulls back from that woman to consider the art form in which they’re working, and then to reverse, as it were, into the author’s own life.
Although Exposition (2008) opens this trilogy, it was not the first to appear in English. That was Suite for Barbara Loden (2012), about the film actor and director of that name. (All three books are or will be published in the UK by Les Fugitives. I wrote about Barbara Loden here.) Loden’s sole film as writer and director, the American new wave landmark Wanda, remains a cult favourite, though hopefully she will in future be better known for that than for being Elia Kazan’s second wife.
The third book, The White Dress (2018), treats Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who in 2008 hitchhiked from Milan to Jerusalem wearing in a wedding dress to promote world peace; she was raped and murdered in Turkey.
(The White Dress is forthcoming from Les Fugitives and I will be talking with Léger about it at the Institut Français in May.)
What follows is some thoughts on Exposition, following an event last week at The Photographers’ Gallery, at which I discussed the book with its translator, Amanda DeMarco.
Exposition takes as its subject the Countess de Castiglione, Virginia Odioni (1837-1899), an Italian aristocrat who took Paris by storm in the 1850s – though see how young she still was! – and was briefly mistress of the French Emperor. (Again, how young.) She was famed for her beauty and her narcissism, and was later rejected by the court, and ended her life more or less in squalor. Through all this she was obsessed with having her photograph taken, returning again and again to the same society studio, in good times and bad, for elaborate photographs – in costume, role-playing with props and accessories – taken to her own specification. (Shades of Cindy Sherman, as Léger notes in her book, and also of selfie-culture, though Léger doesn’t mention that: the iPhone 4 with front-facing camera wasn’t released until 2010, two years after Exposition‘s original publication.)
Exposition is partly a book about ideas of beauty, then, and partly about photography. It pays homage to classics of the genre such as Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, without particularly seeking to insert itself into that genealogy. Léger turns away from Castiglione to write about photography, turns away from photography to write about writing, turns away from writing to write about herself – and her mother.
This aversion to straightforward narrative is played out through Léger’s loyalty to the fragment as form. She constructs her books from island-paragraphs that float unmoored on the white space of the page, with little attempt to make meaning or argument flow between them. You have to hop from one to the next. Which is not to say that there is no order to what is presented; the links are there to be made by the reader. What narrative flow there is works slowly, and at depth. Continue reading
Going out to sit in a doctor’s waiting room I picked up Lars Iyer’s Dogma to keep me company and, in the few minutes the sadly super-efficient NHS kept me waiting, I was reminded quite how enjoyable it is. Just pitched in to the middle and came up with stuff like this:
What is it that keeps him from cutting his own throat?, W. wonders. What is it that keeps me from cutting mine?
We want to see how it all ends, he says. We want to see how it will all turn out. But this is how it ends. This is how it will all turn out.
Wonderful, beautiful stuff, that sticks its neck out, then pans back to see what the rest of the body is doing – it’s twitching convulsively, of course – and to show how much further out the rest of the body is than the poor old neck and head.
When I covered Dogma briefly in my January reading round-up, I said I thought it worked better as tweets or blog posts than a novel. Now I’m not sure. I think it benefits from being on paper – the veneer of respectability it gives – but I still don’t rate it as a novel particularly (though I doubt Iyer is aiming for it to be that kind of novel). It works best as a book picked up and “dipped into” (in that godawful phrase) and put down again. The tantalising thought that all these bits and pieces might coalesce into some kind of fulfilling, developing narrative is present on every page, and is rewarding as such even when you know that no such thing occurs. Continue reading