The White Dress

Author(s): Nathalie Leger (Author) , Natasha Lehrer (Translated by) , Cecile Menon (Edited by)

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Léger set out to write this book as an attempt to understand something of the fate of the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who set out to hitch-hike from Milan to Jerusalem wearing a wedding dress and recording her journey and encounters on a video camera, “To prove,” as Pippa Bacca said, “that when you show trust you receive nothing but goodness.” She was raped and murdered, and her body was found in a shallow grave in Turkey. Léger recognises that there is something inauthentic, something lacking, in Bacca’s artistic gesture, but wants to believe that “even when artists are heavy-handed, when their ideas are confused, when their questions fail in some way, their performances nonetheless stubbornly articulate something true.” But the more thought she gives her project, the further she gets from understanding, if there was even anything to understand. Léger bemoans her “heartbreaking inability to understand this girl’s story, [her] inability to grasp what was simultaneously significant and trivial in her gesture, and probably beyond comprehension.” Is it beyond naive to believe that art can ameliorate violence? “This foolishness, this over-the-top, sentimental gesture was without doubt a grand gesture, and a grand gesture might also be a failed gesture. Just because something has failed doesn’t mean that it was a good idea in the first place.” Léger travels to Milan intending to interview Pippa Bacca’s mother but has a crisis of purpose, and kind of breakdown, and instead returns to France to lie on her own mother’s sofa. As she lies there in a melancholy stupor, her mother brings her a dossier of papers and pleads for Léger to give her the ‘justice’ she has always been denied. At first this triggers a flood of unhappy childhood memories in Leger, of her father’s lovelessness and aggression, and of a mother whose “entire life was made up of the ordeal of her abandonment, and we were dragged along in the wake of her sadness.” Léger’s account slips from first to third person where her early trauma is still raw. But, she realises, her mother “was too kind, incapable of shielding herself from the most banal cruelty, incapable of getting over it, incapable of anything but crying, I never helped her, I never stood up for her.” What is it her mother is asking of her? “All you need to be is my seismograph,” her mother says, “you wouldn’t have to do much, just listen and describe, simply describe, capture the wave of a far-off disturbance before it gets lost in the dust, it would be so little to you and so much to me.” Gradually her mother’s trauma emerges from under the trauma of an unhappy childhood. We learn of her father’s infidelity and abandonment of her mother, and the dossier contains the proceedings of the divorce court that allowed the unjust denigration of her mother but disallowed her the opportunity to speak in her own defence. “Vengeance is not a straight line,” says Léger’s mother, “it is a forest. It’s easy to lose the way, to get lost, to forget why one is there at all.” But the mother’s vengeance now comes as words composed by her daughter, words that give the voice back to the mother, the voice denied her in court in 1974, the vengeance is Léger’s narrative, the many permutations of narrative, this book, the fugues of narrative arrayed on commas describing the fatal breakdown of her parents’ marriage. By failing, Léger succeeds. Trauma can only be overcome by failing to overcome it and being aware of that failure. Art only succeeds to the extent that it fails. Leger looks at photographs of Pippa Bacca’s murderer taken a few days after her murder, at his niece’s wedding, and is distressed to see no trace on his face of his violence. He is bland and ordinary. Pippa Bacca’s attacker used her video camera to film the wedding. “He raped her, he killed her … and finally he stole her gaze.” Léger watches the footage as he turns the camera on himself: “He’s laughing. He’s happy. Behind his smug face the sky is empty. All narrative is annihilated.” 



Description: 'She wanted to bring peace to countries that had known war. She said she thought she could do that simply by wearing a wedding dress. I wasn't interested in the grace or foolishness of her intentions; what interested me was that she hoped this gesture would be enough to mend something that was so out of proportion with it - and that she did not make it. Can a white dress ever be enough to make amends for the world's torments? Probably no more than words can ever be enough to do justice to a weeping mother.'- Nathalie Leger On 8 March 2008 the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca set out to hitchhike from Milan to Jerusalem in a wedding dress, documented with a video camera. On 31 March her body was found in woods on the outskirts of Istanbul. In telling the young woman's story, which overwhelms her and inexorably draws her in, Leger recounts the different stages of her research and the writing of the book. She strikes upon something fundamental within Bacca's performance: the desire to remedy the unfathomable nature of violence and war. Ultimately, she must face up to the failure of the young woman's endeavour. As she surveys the terrain of performance art and continues her examination of portrayals of the female condition, as in her earlier books, Leger explores the existential mystery and harsh truths expressed in Bacca's work, and that of other performance artists. The White Dress closes what is now regarded as a trilogy that begins with Exposition and is followed by Suite for Barbara Loden.




Author Biography: Nathalie Leger's first book under her name (she has published a previous title under a pseudonym), Les vies silencieuses de Samuel Beckett, was published in 2006. L'exposition (2008) precedes Suite for Barbara Loden (2012 Prix du livre Inter, 2016 Scott Moncrieff Prize) and La Robe Blanche (Gallimard 2018, Les Fugitives 2020) won French booksellers' award Prix Wepler. Leger is the Director of the Institut Memoires de l'Edition Contemporaine (IMEC), a unique organisation dedicated to the archives of 20th- and 21st-century French writers and publishers. She curated the 2002 exhibition on Roland Barthes and the 2007 exhibition on Samuel Beckett, both at the Pompidou Centre, Paris.

Promotional Information: - For fans of Suite for Barbara Loden (2015). - Similar books: My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman; Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson; In the Dream House (2019) by Carmen Maria Machado; The Years, and I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux; Paula Modersohn-Becker by Marie Darrieussecq. - Author event at the French Institute London on 12 May as part of Beyond Words Festival


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General Fields

  • : 9781999331887
  • : Les Fugitives
  • : Les Fugitives
  • : March 2020
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Paperback
  • : English
  • : Nathalie Leger (Author) , Natasha Lehrer (Translated by) , Cecile Menon (Edited by)