DECEMBER 6, 2020
IN THE OPENING to The White Dress, Nathalie Léger’s third in her transcendent triptych of books about fallen-off-the-path female artists, she wonders if everything in her life goes back to the large tapestry hanging over the dinner table of her childhood home. The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, a 15th-century work by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli, is violent and surreal. The background features a terrified woman running from a pack of howling dogs and an armed man on horseback. The foreground: That same woman’s already broken body on the forest floor, the man leaning over her and pulling out her innards with his bare hands.
Léger writes that inevitably and at least on a subterranean level, her family never stopped identifying with this grotesque scene. “Identifying or mimicking — the difference isn’t clear,” Léger writes about her shuddering household, her mother desperate for reconciliation with her husband, that husband for a different life.
Whatever you might think, you cannot help but copy every gesture, including the most destructive. That’s what scientists claim: the brain of the person looking cannot help but internally mimic all the gestures of the person facing them. You might think you are barely paying attention, but in spite of yourself you copy them.
These Léger books are lush, obsessive, and self-reflective, and in each one she studies a different haunted woman caught in the riptide of cultural history. The White Dress (translated by Natasha Lehrer) focuses on the 2008 death of Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who was raped and murdered while hitchhiking from Italy to the Middle East in a wedding dress to promote world peace. Exposition (translated by Amanda DeMarco) features the countess of Castiglione, one of the most photographed woman of the 19th century, and the long decline of her fame and beauty. The first in the trilogy, Suite for Barbara Loden, features the book’s title actress and filmmaker of the 1970 American indie movie Wanda. It was the first and last film Barbara Loden ever directed, and it won the International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
These are layered obsessions, all of them featuring curatorial focus that continually drills deeper and also often inverts to become auto-criticism. Léger drops anchors and drags tethers across each story and throughout the books and winds her own trajectory through and tight to her subjects. Each book is a self-contained singular and innovative mode of cultural criticism on its own terms. Taken together, the layers grow unnervingly deep, linking, among so much else, the filleted woman in the painting again and again to Léger’s mother and then, reflected again, by Léger watching her mother. In each book, Léger’s mother acts as a pulsing voice in her daughter’s ear, often saying demoralizing things. Léger’s mother continually returns to how Léger’s father left them. She keeps a literal dossier documenting all that happened. “Between our two subjects,” she says in one scene to her daughter,
Mine is more real than yours, mine, you lived through it too, you’ve got evidence, I mean memories, whereas you have no experience of your subject, the fact that it really happened doesn’t change anything you didn’t live it so it’s just fiction, your subject is no more than wishful thinking.
It was 1974 when Léger’s mother was legally left by her father. Léger writes in The White Dress, “It was a straightforward divorce during an era that predated divorce by mutual consent, an era when one party had the means to demolish the other party, the other party being, in general, the wife.” Léger notes that her father felt he inherited wounds from childhood that in his adult life left him frustrated and impatient, that he found his life unbearable, he was thirsty for pleasure and he wanted to change everything; as Léger explains to her mother, “he just didn’t love you anymore, that’s all.” She writes, “He’s just a man who wanted to escape from his life and went about it in the most banal way.” Léger says that her mother, a discreet and anxious woman who was almost comical in the way she put her own desires last after everybody else’s — she didn’t just have to endure her husband’s betrayal, but also a long procession of witnesses who attested that she was demanding of her husband and lacked affection. The judge that day found ample evidence of the grievances described by the husband. “Ample,” Léger writes. “She had, I think, committed just one error, though it was perhaps an important one, which was that of not being happy.”
The shape-shifting mode of Léger’s trilogy — part memoir, biography, anecdote, history — amplifies the experience of mirroring and mimicry, the murdered woman in the Botticelli painting, like the eviscerated mother in the courtroom, like the performance artist Pippa Bacca raped and murdered in her wedding dress. “It was not [Bacca’s] intentions that interested me, nor the grandeur of her project, nor her candor, her grace or her foolishness,” Léger writes, “it was that she wanted, by making this journey, to mend something that was all out of proportion, and that she did not make it.”
Not making it is an obsession of this trilogy. Take Suite for Barbara Loden, a book Léger wrote that stemmed from a simple assignment: write a short entry for a film encyclopedia about the 1970 film Wanda. It turned out to be no simple task for Léger. The movie is about a housewife in rural Pennsylvania running out of luck — leaving her husband, losing her children, losing her job, getting robbed. Then she finds and desperately clings to an older abusive man who gets her to be the lookout for his bank robbery. The robbery goes wrong. Later, her accomplice dead, she appears in court alone. “Sentenced to twenty years in prison,” Léger writes, “she thanked the judge.” Barbara Loden not only directed this groundbreaking independent film, she also starred in it. When she was asked why, for her first film, she chose to cast herself — wouldn’t it have been easier to focus on either being behind or in front of the camera rather than both — she would answer that only she could do it. She saw herself in the role. “I was the best for it.”
Léger’s mother struggles to understand the film encyclopedia assignment itself as well as her daughter’s struggle to complete it. Her mother says it should be simple: “[I]t means a beginning a middle and an end, especially an end.” But the mirrors in these books abound, reflecting the cultural voyeur both forever outward and always back upon itself: everywhere Léger looks, she sees herself but from yet another new angle.
Which brings us to the second book in the trilogy, Exposition, featuring the countess of Castiglione, one of the most photographed woman of the 19th century. “They contemplated her beauty the way people enjoyed freak shows,” Léger writes. Like Suite for Barbara Loden, Exposition stems from a straightforward assignment to select an item from an unspecified museum’s archived and “elaborate on its theme.” Contemplating the countess of Castiglione’s face in Portrait with Lifted Veil from 1857, Léger says, “This woman’s sadness is frightful, a sadness without emotion, a true self-defeat, an inner collapse, desolation.” Léger writes, “From July 2005 to December 2007, as a response to a carte blanche about a ruin, I tried to exhibit a life: the life of this woman, Castiglione.” As with the encyclopedia assignment, she turns the modest curation project into a book.
Exposition documents the destructive effect of worship upon a subject, an occasional relative of misogyny in its transformation of a person into something other than human. Léger writes about “the perpetual work of beauty, all of this work for a glance, the afternoons spent dreaming up an outfit for the evening.” To become one of the most photographed woman of the 19th century was a project that took decades; when she was young, Castiglione’s haunting beauty came easily, but time and exhaustion take their toll. In youth, those who knew the countess said that everything was plunged into “a half-twilight of violet perfume.” When she was older, the smell of dead dogs. As she aged, she wore black down to the bedsheets so that her poverty would be less visible. “I look at the photographs again,” Léger says. “They show a woman in mourning for her own body.” Léger notes the “humiliation of no longer being the favorite, the humiliation of no longer being desired.”
The humiliation of no longer being desired. Léger writes that she’s never been left by a man but because her mother’s entire life was made up of the ordeal of her abandonment, it was impossible to escape it. Léger says she thinks of her mother as a humiliated figure:
[S]he seemed to have shrunk from the shame of having been left, the horror of finding herself alone with four children, no money, no job, more than anything no power, nothing, and bullied by a man who was not content with having left her, who felt happy and guilty at having left her, but who insisted on doing so on a grand scale.
Botticelli’s painting hangs on the wall of Léger’s childhood home as a mirror to all of it. The painting is based on a 14th-century Italian story about a man spurned by the woman he wants to marry. He commits suicide and both are eventually condemned to eternal punishment and, in the afterlife, are bound to each other in a traumatic cycle. On a regenerative loop, the man chases and kills the woman, rips out her organs, and throws them to his dogs. The humiliation of no longer being desired as a violence, the way that abandonment cycles forward so that the violence doesn’t merely happen, isn’t merely witnessed — but like the tapestry on the wall over the dinner table — is forever experienced, remembered, and reflected forward.
Now fully translated into English, Léger’s trilogy sets yet another transcendent mark for Dorothy, the feminist indie publisher based in St. Louis and curators of a delectable catalog largely made up of translations, debuts, and reissues. These Léger books provide another ballast (alongside Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series) to a collection that’s packed full of singularities. With these books, Dorothy has demonstrated a near-incomparable commitment to compression and speed and achieving an impact in a single sitting that other texts might crawl toward over the course of hundreds of pages.
In The White Dress, Léger’s mother reads about a “vindex,” a third party who stands in for the victim and demands justice, someone who acquires compensation for reputational damage. Léger’s mother says, “Why do you think you write, if it’s not to bring about justice? Defend me or even avenge me.” She twists her face in supplication to her daughter: “You could be your mother’s vindex.”
Léger’s trilogy deftly observes how we are all often absorbed into the wave of our own familial and inherited traumas, and how we might resist them. Pippa Bacca’s mother in The White Dress offers an alternate view of the burden of responsibility to legacy. Léger writes that many people asked Pippa’s mother how she could have let her daughter go on such an uncertain journey, that wasn’t it her duty to persuade her to stay? “All mothers are anxious, we’re always anxious, but we must not transmit our anxiety to our children,” Pippa’s mother replied. At 33, she said, her daughter was beyond the age where she could tell her what she should and shouldn’t do. “It’s not enough to give them life, we have to give them the courage to live, to live intensely, to live, not merely to survive.”
Nathan Scott McNamara is a nonfiction and fiction writer whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and more.