Author(s): Nathalie Leger
Film | Read our reviews!
‘Brilliant little book’ – Valeria Luiselli (winner of the 2015 LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd)
‘An extraordinary book. It reads compulsively and is unlike anything else I have read.’ – Selma Dabbagh
‘Immensely readable, extremely thought-provoking and really quite haunting […] And best of all, it achieves that most elusive feat of never reading like a translation.’
– Lydia Syson
‘This beautiful book is striking for its echoes of artists who are either quoted or (never gratuitously) emulated, including Godard, Fred Wiseman, Sebald and Perec.’
– La Quinzaine littéraire
‘Beautifully translated’ – David Collard, Times Literary Supplement
A writer commissioned to pen a short entry on Barbara Loden for a cinema encyclopaedia embarks on a trip to America to expand her research. How to paint a life, a personality? Loden’s sketchy biography draws the narrator to Duras, Perec, Godard, Plath, Kate Chopin, Melville, Beckett, Sebald and also a handful of ordinary people, each shedding light on the topic in the making: a singular homage to the 1960s American actress famously married to Hollywood giant Elia Kazan, and to her one and only film, Wanda (1970), hailed a masterpiece of early cinéma vérité – an anti-Bonnie-and-Clyde road movie about a young woman adrift in rust-belt Pennsylvania. As scenes from Wanda punctuate the pages, elements from the narrator’s own life and her mother’s start forming a fragmented mirror image. First published in France to enormous critical and popular acclaim, this is the first book about and inspired by one of the greatest, most unconventional actresses of her time.
‘It is a real gem of a piece of writing. Highly original and very powerful. And so well translated!’ – Jenny McPhee
‘Léger jump-cuts through time and space with the expertise of a movie director’
– Joanna Walsh
‘A moving, subtle novel about the need to create’ – Le Monde
‘A truly remarkable book. I love Leger's obsessive circling, the connections she draws in and through the Loden/Wanda narrative, some deeply haunting images ...’
– Anna Zalakostas (Green Apple Books, San Francisco)
Léger was commissioned to write a short biographical entry on Barbara Loden for a film encyclopaedia but ended up writing an interesting, unusual and very satisfying book. Loden directed just one film, Wanda (1970), about a woman who leaves her husband and who, passively and therefore pretty much by chance, attaches herself to a man who is planning a bank robbery for which, following his death in a police shoot-out and despite her lack of initiative and her not even being present at the robbery (she took a wrong turn in what was supposed to be the getaway car), she will be sent to jail for twenty years. The book operates on many levels simultaneously: it is ‘about’ Léger’s attempts to excavate information about Loden, principally beneath the ways in which she has been recorded by others, notably her husband the Hollywood director Elia Kazan, who also wrote a novel in which Loden features, thinly disguised; it is ‘about’ Loden’s making of the film Wanda; it is ‘about’ the character of Wanda in that film, a character Loden played herself and with whom she strongly identified personally; it is ‘about’ the tension between the “passive and inert” Wanda character with whom Loden identifies and Loden as writer and director, and about the relationship between author and character more generally in both an literary/artistic and a quotidian sense; it is ‘about’ Léger’s search for and discovery of the true story that inspired Loden to make the film, a botched 1960 bank robbery after which the passive and inert Alma Malone politely thanked the judge for handing her a twenty-year sentence; it is ‘about’, therefore, the relationship between inspiration and execution, and between actuality and fiction; it is ‘about’ portrayal and self-portrayal and ‘about’ who gets to define whom (“To sum up. A woman is pretending to be another, in a role she wrote herself, based on another (this, we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.”); it is ‘about’, cumulatively, the way in which, as she delved more deeply into the specifics of another whom she sought to understand, Léger come up more and more against the unresolved edges of herself so that the two archaeologies became one (she also ended up learning quite a lot about her mother and the imbalanced mechanics of her parents’ relationship). When Wanda was released in 1970, it was disparaged in many feminist circles for its portrayal of a passive woman. Léger shows the film to be a useful mirror in which to recognise passivity as not only an impulse for self-erasure on a personal level but as part of the wider social mechanisms by which women are erased and colonised by projections, and in which the feminist critique and frontline necessarily become internal and self-reflexive. There is also in this book a strong sense of the inescapability of subjectivity, that in all subject-object relationships the subject perceives only and acts only upon a sort of externalised version of itself (the object being passive and without feature (effectively absent, effectively unassailable)); and also that when attempting to be/conceive of/portray oneself one has no option but to use the template of that with which one identifies but which is not in essence (whatever that means) oneself (except to the extent that one’s ‘self’ perhaps exists only in the mysterious act of identification).