How does one begin to write the history of a woman whose narrative has been submerged, both beneath that of her husband and beneath time itself? How does one set about reconstructing a life from scant fragments, oral histories that carry with them their own subjective—and often biased—versions of the “truth”? Is it even possible to excavate a female artist from obscurity when most artists often inadvertently and unwittingly take part in their own self-erasure?
These are some of the questions Nathalie Léger considers in Supplement à la vie de Barbara Loden, her widely-acclaimed and prix-winning 2012 book. Freshly translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon as Suite for Barbara Loden and published this month by the new London-based publishing initiative Les Fugitives, Léger’s Suite raises resonant points about the nature of influence upon artistic creation, the thin and often tenuous line between fiction and reality, and the impossibility of building biographical pictures without a visible (and wholly participant) narrative voice balancing truths and half-truths, all the while applying the lessons learned from sifting through buried archival materials to one’s own experience—what Léger describes aptly as “my dream of a fictional archive.”
Such an enterprise of scrutinizing the historicity of subjects and places is well-trodden terrain in many writers’ work; Léger explicitly channels literary and cinematic influences such as Emily Dickinson, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Luc Godard, Sylvia Plath, and W. G. Sebald to fathom the relationship between author and subject. As much as Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden is focused on Loden herself—the actress, the maverick filmmaker, the forgotten artist subsumed beneath the achievements of her husband, Hollywood director Elia Kazan—so, too, is the text an intertextual dialogue among other writers and filmmakers:
While I was telling the story [of Loden] I was thinking of Georges Perec: “To start with, all one can do is try to name things, one by one, flatly, enumerate them, count them, in the most straightforward way possible, in the most precise way possible, trying not to leave anything out.”
And yet, after recounting the very minimal facts about Loden’s life which are extant, Léger wonders more tellingly: “How to describe her, how to dare to describe a person one doesn’t know?”
Suite for Barbara Loden began as a notice: “It seemed simple enough. All I had to do was writer a short entry for a film encyclopaedia.” However, Léger soon finds she is unable to stick to the brief word count assigned by the encyclopedia’s editor, “convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal.” This leads her to explore numerous subjects in depth, many only tangentially related to Barbara Loden and her 1970 art-house film Wanda, but nevertheless an immersion crucial “to nam[ing] things one by one” as truthfully as possible, as she attempts to write the history of a woman and of a film forgotten for forty-odd years:
I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinéma vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theatre scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining . . . I knew everything there was to know aboutthe invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war.
Faced with a dearth of concrete information about Loden’s life—and the lack of an afterlife for Wanda, the only film Loden directed and in which she also starred—Léger soon realizes that her research is far exceeding the word count mandated by the encyclopedia’s strictures of brevity, uniformity, and ostensible objectivity. As the editor of the encyclopedia begs Léger: “Please, just write me an entry for the encyclopaedia, not a self-portrait.” Léger, however, does exactly this, approaching Loden from a more personal stance: “I felt like I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Indeed, while the scarce biographical facts about Loden’s life are more suited to a notice—e.g., “She was thirty-eight when she directed and starred in Wanda. She was Elia Kazan’s second wife . . . She died at forty-eight of generalised cancer. Wanda was her first and her last film.”—Léger’s project is less about Loden’s life than about how Loden is somehow Wanda, while, at the same time, somehow managing to speak to Léger’s own experiences: “I was trying to be as objective and rigorous as possible. To describe and only to describe, in as few words as possible, Barbara, Wanda . . . I kept being carried away by the subject.”
So why has Léger centered on Barbara Loden, of all the figures whose narratives she might excavate and rehabilitate? Léger herself can hardly answer the question: “What is it that attracts me so to Wanda?” To consider Léger’s magnetic pull toward Loden/Wanda, a very brief summation of the film Wanda is first necessary. A recalcitrant woman living in a backwoods coal-mining Pennsylvania town, Wanda is a horrible mother (“The kids? . . . She mutters that they’re better off without her”) who can find no steady work, drifting in and out of squalid bars, and yet who, despite her existential ennui, holds out hope for something more. After encountering a small-time crook to whom she refers only as Mr. Dennis—“she had never once called him by his first name” but “with him . . . I was kind of happy,” Wanda tells the judge—she reluctantly agrees to help him rob a bank, knowing “that if they screwed up he was going to kill her first and then himself.” However, “her accomplice [ended up] dead and she had appeared in court alone . . . She is accused of armed robbery, premeditated kidnapping, and ‘malicious entry into a financial institution.’ She didn’t even set foot inside the bank . . . Sentenced to twenty years in prison, she thanked the judge.” Wanda’s thankfulness at this verdict is curious, leading Léger to wonder “what pain, what hopelessness could make a person desire to be put away? How could imprisonment be relief?”
Just as Suite for Barbara Loden raises more questions about writing the other and one’s self than it can answer, so, too, do these questions about Wanda’s behavior remain unanswered. And yet, Loden’s own compassion for—and, more importantly, her identification with—Wanda is a subject that obsesses Léger as she begins work on the film notice. Is what draws Loden to Wanda the same impulsive identification with the other that Léger herself feels toward Loden, a similar feeling of deep “affecti[ion]” for “the story of this woman”? Or is it something more complex than that? In her research and various interviews with Loden’s colleagues, her surviving son, and even Mickey Mantle, who “knew Barbara Loden when she was a dancer at the Copacabana” in the late 1950s, Léger only finds evidence that suggests Loden somehow felt she was Wanda, that Wanda’s struggles with ennui, despair, and powerlessness were also Loden’s. As Loden remarked in an interview with Positif in the early-1970s: “I’ve gone through my whole life like I was autistic, convinced I was worth nothing. I didn’t know who I was.” This leads Loden to conclude that “I was the best” for the part of Wanda, a statement that for Léger is loaded with as much ambiguity and uncertainty as are the minimal facts to be found about Loden’s own life.
Léger uses the historical figure of Loden alongside the fictional—yet still “real” as it is rooted in actuality—persona of Wanda to reflect on her own experiences. Loden, as herself and as Wanda (“Barbara Loden is Wanda, as they say in the movies”), serves as “another woman” through whom Léger can contemplate “her own story.” And, like the “disorder and imperfection” of her subject, Léger can incorporate these informational gaps and absences because they remind her that she, too, is drawn by “what one imagines to be the other’s desire”—in the Lacanian sense, a figure to whom Léger refers directly—and that this drive toward and desire for the other (Loden for Wanda; Léger for Loden) is because art is relational, applicable always to one’s own narrative, never objective. “Only in unfamiliar bedrooms do we perceive with such clarity the true nature of our existence—true because astray,” writes Léger, and it is this act of locating oneself in unfamiliar surroundings that sees her embrace Loden as an other figure within her own text, becoming an othered self who can reflect back on the now more illuminated parts of herself: “the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it.”
Recognizing that her project is far more personal than a notice allows for, Léger abandons the encyclopedia entry, “and instead spen[ds] several months trying to piece together the life of Barbara Loden, especially during the time when she was trying to invent a character as close as possible to herself, using another woman’s life as a template.” To be sure, this is Léger’s own “use” of Loden/Wanda in Suite: encountering “so many obstacles” in researching Loden’s life narrative, Léger understands—alongside Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, from whose reconstructed portraits of Victorian poet A. C. Swinburne she quotes at length—that all history is subjective, that biography cannot pretend that the authorial voice (and the experiences that make up that voice) is absent from the text. Instead, “using another woman’s life as a template,” as Loden does in becoming the persona of Wanda, is the sole means not only to approach Loden, but to consider Léger’s personal experiences—along with those of her mother—in the light of this “template.”
Duras remarks: “Self-portrait, I don’t understand what that means. Really, I don’t. How do you want me to describe myself? You know, knowledge is a difficult thing, something that would need to be reassessed, the knowledge of a person.” And Duras is correct, for isn’t one’s “knowledge” of a subject always colored by one’s subjectivity? Due to this, Léger cannot merely write a personal history of Loden/Wanda, quite simply because there is no “most precise way possible”; the presumption that there is one way that is more precise than another precludes the writer’s presence in the histoire, a presence that is always tangible even if the first-person voice is absent: it becomes a “wound” of sorts, as Léger suggests elsewhere, a gap around which the facts circulate but against which they always collide.
Wanda’s powerlessness is, according to Léger, everyone’s powerlessness; as such, Loden’s fascination with Wanda—so deep that she becomes Wanda—is akin to the author’s fascination with her subject: what Loden feels for Wanda is, at its core, the same as what Léger feels for Loden. The act of retrieving the other is thus the act of finding oneself:
[Wanda is] the story of a woman who is alone. Ah. The story of a woman. Yes? The story of a woman who has lost something but doesn’t know exactly what, her children, her husband, her life, something else perhaps but we don’t know what, a woman who leaves her husband, her children, who breaks up—but without violence, without having thought about it, without even wanting to break up. And? And nothing.
Wanda’s courage in the face of life’s many adversities is something that Léger admires immensely: “Wanda never cries . . . When I cry I overdo it, I am overwhelmed, incapable of holding back the tears, incapable even of dissembling. Tears are perhaps the only articulation, however monstrous, of the part of me that is completely shameless.” Further to this admiration of Loden’s embodiment of Wanda, of becoming the other, Léger finds that in discussing her project with her mother, art and fiction allow for bridges to be gapped; she learns of her mother’s abuse at the hands of her father, culminating in a court appearance to finalize the separation. Like Wanda’s face that reveals nothing of her emotional state, and like Wanda’s strange utterance of thanks to the judge who sentences her, Léger’s mother leaves the courthouse and her husband “thinking of nothing, feeling nothing, falling, time passing, in a state of unendurable grief.” Her mother’s confession leads Léger to apply Wanda’s outer passivity and inner resistance:
Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men . . . 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?
Loden’s grief, Wanda’s grief, and Léger’s own retrospective grief all fuse, becoming a chorus of sometimes discordant, sometimes concordant, voices that demonstrate that no narrative can be told without affecting, influencing, and somehow being weighed against the narrative of the one who is listening—especially the one who is listening with the intent to document and pass the story of the other on. Léger emphasizes that it is better to directly address this subjective nature of writing another woman’s story insofar as it relates to one’s own, rather than participating in the delusion that the author’s presence is nowhere in the text. Isn’t a biography always an excavation of sorts, both of the subject on whom the biographer is focused and the biographer who is writing this portrait? Aren’t there unconscious artifacts discovered on such journeys whose singularity echoes back to the subjective reality of the subject at hand?
And, of course, the universality of one’s chosen subject must be applied to one’s own life: Wanda “is like everyone else—she just wants to believe, she thinks she will find relief from her sadness if she can find something to believe in.” As Wanda’s quest for “something to believe in” is played out on the screen by Loden (who is Wanda), so does Léger search for something to believe in, taking Loden’s journey as Wanda as a model for her own:
To sum up. A woman is pretending to be another, in a role she wrote herself, based on another . . . playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.
While she notes the immediacy such questions of subjectivity have upon a writer who is writing the other, Léger does not offer any advice or direction; instead, she suggests that the weight or burden of these dialectics are part and parcel of the act of writing, as inescapable as the authorial “I.” Are the self-revelations made while writing about the other any less valid than those Léger has uncovered or invented in the case of Loden, or isn’t all writing—not only biography—just such a journey, with its attendant risks of locating fragments of one’s own narrative along the way? In Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger enacts a kind of double excavation in her desire “to excavate a miniature model of modernity” that is Barbara Loden, an unearthing that has no teleological endpoint because it continues beyond the scope of the text being written. This excavation, indeed, must engage with the many texts that inform it, shaping the journey and, in effect, refracting the writing subject back on to herself—a fantasmatic act of the other becoming the self.
K. Thomas Kahn's criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Millions, the Quarterly Conversation, Numéro Cinq, Bookslut, and other venues. He is reviews editor for 3:AM Magazine.