Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione; photograph by Pierre-Louis Pierson

Howard Gilman Foundation/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione, 1895; photograph by Pierre-Louis Pierson

When Nathalie Léger was around nine years old, her father’s mistress moved into the house next door. One afternoon, Léger hid in the hedge that separated the two yards and watched a photography session between them turn into sexual foreplay. In Exposition, she recounts the transformation in one long sentence, with commas, like little wounds, splicing it into filmic montage:

I saw them slip along the terrace, careful not to make a noise, laughing silently, then the woman hoisted herself up a little on the railing, the rounded iron of the rail pressing into her thighs, her dress pulled open a bit, they’d stopped laughing, a gravity, something had collapsed between them, my father turned his back to me but I could tell that something had changed, the woman stopped smiling, her face had become thick, her gaze elusive, her mouth seemed enormous and malformed to me, he was still photographing, the dress fell, he kept advancing and she wrapped her legs around his lower back, took the camera from his hand, quickly wound it and, her arms around my father’s neck, body clinging to him, she aimed over his shoulder as if she were photographing the empty terrace behind him.

In this moment, the camera snapped a photograph of Léger, her face poking through the greenery. A few days later, in an inexplicably perverse act, her father left the developed print on her nightstand for her to find when she awoke. “I’m staring at the lens,” she writes of the image, “but you don’t see anything, nothing of what I see, nothing of what I’m thinking.” The photograph reveals a compromised Léger but captures nothing of the transgression she watched—a witness but no crime. What meaning, if any, would it hold for someone who knew nothing of what was transpiring on the other side of the lens?

The precariousness of the materials that document a life is a central preoccupation in Léger’s triptych of books—Exposition, Suite for Barbara Loden, and The White Dress—which are superbly translated by Amanda DeMarco, Natasha Lehrer, and Cécile Menon and published by the excellent small press Dorothy. Each examines a different woman, but these aren’t biographies as we typically know them. To conjure her subjects, Léger combines life writing, criticism, and personal rumination in a fragmentary and lyrical form that feels autofictional or even autotheoretical at times. (Suite for Barbara Loden won the 2012 Prix de Livre Inter, awarded to the best French novel of the year.) Organized in single paragraphs separated by line breaks, the books drift among subjects. Léger loops back to earlier thoughts and catches new strands each time, so that the fullness of her connections accrues with each new paragraph.

Exposition (2008) is about Virginia Oldoïni, the Countess of Castiglione, a celebrated nineteenth-century beauty (“fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature, try getting over that one,” Léger writes) and a mistress of Napoleon III. As though to slake her thirst for “the unfailing pleasure of being looked at,” Castiglione cast herself in hundreds of staged photographic portraits, even when she felt, Léger notes, “the humiliation of no longer being desired.”

Suite for Barbara Loden (2012) is concerned with the American actress and director who wrote, directed, and starred in the 1970 film Wanda, about a working-class woman at loose ends in Pennsylvania mining country.1 The film is semi-autobiographical in that it represents not the facts of Loden’s life but the feel of it—of being, according to Léger, “a woman wondering what she’s actually going to be able to do with all the freedom that everyone keeps telling her about.”

The White Dress (2018) is about the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who set off in 2008, at age thirty-three, to hitchhike from Milan to Jerusalem in a wedding dress to promote world peace and was raped and murdered partway through the journey. It is a variation on the theme of the personal risks women endure, as each of these stories is, but it’s the one in which the subject’s last bit of control is stolen away. Léger said in an interview with DeMarco in Bomb that “it took three books for me to finish saying more or less what I needed to say about the suffering of a woman who had been humiliated, about the rage of a couple tearing each other apart, about the powerlessness of women, their waywardness and their courage.” That suffering and humiliated subject is not Castiglione, Loden, or Bacca, but Léger’s mother, who also appears in each book.

Léger was born in 1960 and grew up in Antibes. Her parents’ marriage was a difficult one: her mother was ignored and berated by her father, who cheated on her for years with a woman Léger, in Exposition, names Lautre—from “l’autre,” or “the other,” as in “the other woman.” In 1974 he divorced Léger’s mother in a salacious court proceeding, charging her with neglect of his needs, their children, and her domestic duties, and calling forth witnesses—family members and friends—who testified to his grievances. It was an era, Léger writes in The White Dress, “when one party had the means to demolish the other party, the other party being, in general, the wife.”


Léger’s mother makes only brief appearances in Exposition. Suite for Barbara Loden reveals details of the divorce but little else. In The White Dress, however, Léger seems to lose control of her mother’s presence in the book—or rather, her presence takes control of it, engulfing the narrative, even as Léger resists, often bitterly: “Evidence of what my mother lived through, no, I have no such thing, only memories—if we can call memories this kit of congealed sensations that can’t even be knitted into a story.” In the Bomb interview, however, she said, “I wrote for her. As if the words she couldn’t say to me as a child remained in my throat.” At what point did Léger realize that her mother was not simply a character but a subject, perhaps the primary one, the one she was writing toward all along?

Léger is an archivist by profession. Since 2013 she has been the executive director of the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, a repository devoted to French writing. Earlier, for the Centre Georges Pompidou, she cocurated exhibitions on the work of Roland Barthes and Samuel Beckett that combined archival materials with contributions from various artists. She also annotated Barthes’s posthumous Mourning Diary, a book she assembled from notes he recorded on 330 slips of paper in the months following his mother’s death.2 Léger writes in her foreword, “The reader is presented not with a book completed by its author, but the hypothesis of a book desired by him.” Elsewhere she describes Barthes’s last endeavors as “the peregrination of a quest”—a phrase that characterizes her own literary pursuits as well, where the journey is as important as its end point.

Early in Exposition, Léger writes, “It was by coincidence, at the top of a small wooden staircase in the dilapidated bookshop of a provincial town, that I came across her.” She is referring to a catalog of Castiglione’s photographs, La Comtesse de Castiglione par elle-même,3 which shows “a woman charging across the cover”: “I was chilled by the evil of her gaze, petrified by the violence of this figure bursting forth.” She buys the catalog and immediately puts it away, repelled by its repeated depiction of “this melancholy without depth, this defeat,” and yet drawn to it: “When I opened this book of images, I had the strange feeling of returning home and, although the house was destroyed, of returning in fear, in recognition.”

Later, while at work on a project about ruins, Léger is given the opportunity to select a single historical object from the collection of an unnamed European museum and “elaborate on its theme.” In preparation, she pulls out her catalog of photographs of Castiglione (several of which are in the museum’s collection), and it consumes her attention. Starting in 1856, when she was nineteen, and for the next forty years, Castiglione was photographed by Pierre-Louis Pierson hundreds of times, resulting in a body of work notable for the fact that it was the sitter, not the photographer, who directed the shoot. “She is an eighteenth-century marchioness, a severe Carmelite, she is Legouvé’s Béatrix, she is chaste, drowned Virginie, she is a man-eater as Donna Elvira,” Léger writes, listing some of the many personas Castiglione depicted. “She prepares herself behind the scene…. The session begins, and Woman makes her great appearance.”

In Camera Lucida, his book on photography and a eulogy to his recently deceased mother, composed around the same time as some of the notes that became Mourning Diary, Barthes writes, “In order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes.” Léger discovers something similar as she researches what the Tuileries Palace, destroyed by fire in 1871, looked like when Castiglione might have roamed its halls. She consults maps and photographs, but as with the photograph of herself in the hedge, the details express nothing of the spirit of the place. “In an instant,” she writes, “the images have taken away the little existence that this vanished palace once had. I shouldn’t have looked at them.”


Insisting on looking for what isn’t there is part of Léger’s method. As she searches for truths about her subjects’ lives, she amends the archive’s gaps by introducing short flights of speculation and imagination, allowing her subjects to swell into living figures. Her writing is intellectual, self-aware, and lucid in its demonstration of this investigation-in-progress, a thinking-through dramatized on the page. She also threads in the words and work of numerous others, ranging from Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henrik Ibsen, and Marilyn Monroe to Yoko Ono, Francis Alÿs, Svetlana Alexievich, and Faith Wilding, drawing upon a network of writers and artists across time and space who harmonize with her thinking. The books read like conversations she is having with herself, where detours turn out to be essential to the excursion.

None of Castiglione’s photographs are reproduced in Exposition, though one appears on its cover. Titled La Frayeur (Fright), it was made by Pierson in the 1860s and marked with small daubs of color by the artist Aquilin Schad, who later painted a much more detailed version of it. On the back of the photograph, Castiglione gives instructions to Schad for the scene and costume she has in mind: “The remains of a ball where fire has broken out. A chandelier on the floor, everyone in flight. Shining white satin gown, black and red grapes with dark green and red leaves.” The photograph itself reveals the edges of a plain backdrop and unrelated props as Castiglione pretends to flee.

Léger observes that Castiglione’s biographer, Robert de Montesquiou, the famous dandy and wealthy aesthete eighteen years her junior who greedily acquired more than four hundred of her photographs after her death, knew her only through these images. He described her life as “a perpetual tableau vivant”: for him, she was fixed in the photographs, a passive subject. Léger parses the details of the images that he collected, searching for an element that troubles this tidy presentation—“the inconsistency of a memory, how it stumbles slightly among objects. It’s a gesture, or just an intention that asserts itself over the material.”

She finds this in a late photograph, owned but not displayed by the museum she is working with, of Castiglione and her dead dog Kasino. Made around 1875–1880, after Castiglione had fallen out of favor in high society and was living in solitude and squalor (she died in 1899, at the age of sixty-two), it is one of several images in which she not only put her aging face and body on display but gave a window onto her destitution. The photograph shows her in mourning, leaning halfway into the frame beside the dog, around whom she has arranged “dried bouquets, a parasol, cushions embroidered with her monogram, photographs, a fan, trinkets” in her dusty apartment:

You see what you shouldn’t see and yet she displays it as she displayed her beauty, you see its haywire inverse side, the dismal scene of this bitter madness…. She did it. It’s fully documented…. After the intoxication of her beauty, after the ecstasy, she swilled abjection. I look at the image, 22 x 16.8 cm. I don’t know what of it is her and what is me.

For Léger, this image reveals what she has been looking for: not “a memory of a life but rather life itself, the imperceptible palpitation of life.” She chooses it for her project, only to have the museum’s chief curator suggest that she select a torchère lamp or Empress Eugénie’s vanity mirror instead. He rejects her choice of the mourning photograph outright, on the grounds that “abjection does not figure in the image of ourselves which we promote.”

As with Exposition, Suite for Barbara Loden is predicated on an assignment: the editor of a film encyclopedia has asked Léger to write a short biographical note about Loden. But she finds that what constitutes an essential fact isn’t always clear, and wonders whether, in trying to sift feelings from facts, the latter lose all sense of the life they are meant to describe. She writes:

I explained to the editor that I wanted to put in everything about Wanda and everything about Barbara—the impossible truth and the indescribable object, a soul that is lucid and afraid, hiding within another, and that I wanted to add an elegy in praise of wandering beneath the bleached Pennsylvania sky, without forgetting the grandiose comic-heroic game of inner disaster…. He seemed relieved when I told him I was leaving.

The book’s original French title is Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden. It is not a biography but a complement to a different, larger story of Loden’s life. She was born in 1932 (“two years before my mother,” Léger notes) and raised in rural Appalachia. She arrived in New York at age seventeen, where she worked as a model, nightclub dancer, and pinup girl. She had a handful of theater and television credits before Elia Kazan cast her in two of his films, Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). She and the much older Kazan, both married to other people, began an affair. “I find out that Kazan kept trying to break up with her,” Léger writes, “and that in 1967 he married her.” Around the same time, Loden began writing the screenplay for Wanda.

In Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger ranges around eastern Pennsylvania to see the land where Wanda was filmed. Her descriptions of these places—where Loden’s character also wanders within the movie—are elegiac: “suddenly in the dusk a gleaming Dunkin’ Donuts, people sitting at tables, massive old bodies outlined against plate glass windows like wounded Titans, gods after the apocalypse, ancient bodies neatly, silently gorging themselves.” Because Léger follows both the film’s geographical path and its story, the book has the sharpest, most satisfying narrative in the triptych.

In Loden’s film, we first see Wanda in bed at her sister’s house, with the sheets pulled over her head. She then ambles across a coalfield on her way to the courthouse in town, where she willingly relinquishes her marriage and custody of her children. Shortly after, she is fired from her factory job as a seamstress and meets a man with whom she has a one-night stand. He abandons her. Robbed while napping in a movie theater, she attaches herself to a man at a bar who she thinks is the bartender but who is actually robbing it. They leave together and hit the road. When his accomplice pulls out of a bank heist, he cajoles her into driving the getaway car. She arrives at the bank late; he’s already dead. Narrowly avoiding being raped by another man, she ends up at a roadhouse. Welcomed by its patrons, she is on her own in the company of others. The end of the film isn’t so much a conclusion as an adjournment.

Barbara Loden in Wanda

Bardene International/Photofest

Barbara Loden in Wanda, 1970

This recitation of the story belies how plotless the movie feels, as Wanda drifts, moved along by the actions of others. “My mother finds it weird that I am interested in this film,” Léger writes. “Nothing happens, she says.” But Léger notes that this same nothingness—an emptiness that reflects not passivity but a life that isn’t hers to control—describes her mother’s story, too:

The day we sat and watched Wanda together on the small sofa in her living room, my mother told me how, when she left the courthouse the day that her separation from my father was finalized,…having lost as a result of the violence that had been inflicted on her all sense of congruity with herself, she said that the only thing she wanted, she thought, that’s what she told me, the only thing she wanted was to go home and see her children; that day she told me how she wandered for hours around Cap 3000 [a huge, American-style shopping mall] and then, at dusk, how she drove down the coast all the way to Nice where she had lived as a child, thinking of nothing, feeling nothing, falling, time passing, in a state of unendurable grief.

The image of her mother amid the capitalist void of Cap 3000 echoes the first view of Wanda in Léger’s book, traversing mountains of coal: “In a wide-angle shot, we follow this minute, ethereal figure as it makes its way intently along the forbidding horizon…like a backlit hole in the picture.” It also brings to Léger’s mind a moment when Wanda, “killing time in a shopping mall…is taking refuge in the descriptions she sees: a plain dress with opaque tights, a double-breasted check suit, a blonde fringe, a price tag, each detail more charged in substance and meaning than she is.” Léger’s mother guesses that she herself must have looked like no more than an ordinary doctor’s wife out shopping: “From the outside what can you see of the deepest despair?”

This is the brilliance of Léger’s project: we can look and look and see nothing of a person; we can examine them minutely, intently, and miss them completely. What do we know of anyone? What do we know of ourselves? Which parts of ourselves do we show, and of those parts, which are performance? Which are we coerced into playing? Léger’s false starts at writing the biographical note about Loden are a refusal to disregard her complexity or participate in a selective circumscribing of her life. At one point she describes Loden this way:

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.

If this sounds like a tangle, it is. Léger is constantly taking apart and reassembling the facts, the evidence.

In 1964, Léger writes, Kazan cast Loden in the Broadway premiere of Arthur Miller’s new play, After the Fall. She played Maggie, a thinly veiled and unflattering portrait of Miller’s late ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. “I thought it was about me,” Loden told a journalist, describing how she felt about the part after reading the script. “It was so close to me, so obvious.” In 1967 Kazan—now married to Loden—published an autobiographical novel, The Arrangement, that used recognizable details from her life for the character of the mistress, Gwen. When he turned it into a film two years later, Léger notes, Loden expected to play the role of Gwen—it was based on her, after all—but Kazan gave the part to Faye Dunaway, who had been her understudy in After the Fall, “her shadow who suddenly became more than her very self.”

Loden died of breast cancer in 1980, at the age of forty-eight. In his autobiography, written after her death, Kazan is dismissive, denigrating, and eye-rollingly self-aggrandizing. “She had to get ahead,” he writes of a twenty-three-year-old Loden, when he first met her, “and for this purpose she was not neglectful of the advantages men’s desire gave her. Including mine.” He claims that she asked him to direct Wanda but that he declined because “I didn’t see life as she did—sentimentally.” That men’s desire is a gift to be bestowed or withheld, that women’s experiences are governed by emotion and their bodies reduced to currency—these are tactics of diminishment examined throughout Loden’s film and Léger’s book.

Midway through Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger considers what attracts her to Wanda. She has been thinking about some of Loden’s other roles, a montage of yielding and vulnerable women. Then she tumbles into a far more personal revelation:

I’ve left men, sometimes heartlessly, with the trembling joy that one feels slipping away down a side street, or vanishing into a crowd, or jumping onto a passing train, or standing someone up; the acute and rare pleasure of avoiding something, of evading something, of disappearing into the landscape—but never the experience of surrender. And yet: it did happen to me once, just one time and it was enough, but who hasn’t experienced that—not knowing how to say no, not daring to say it, yielding to the mortal threat, escaping in the end by withdrawal, absence, slipping to the ground, no longer even offering him the gift of fear, no longer pretending, no longer thinking the unthinkable, protecting oneself in shock, vomiting, the lusted-after body suddenly repulsive, leave me alone, leave me alone. But mostly what’s happened is that I’ve allowed myself to be pushed around, just waiting for it to be over, preferring misunderstanding over confrontation—it’s impossible in moments like that to think that defending my body could be worth the effort, and anyway what does that mean, “my body,” at the age of fifteen?

Elation turns to disgust and resentment in this passage, which describes with exacting specificity certain aspects of violations that many readers will recognize. It’s the final line that angers the most—Léger’s age, yes, but also her uncertainty about the ownership of her own body, both in relation to and apart from the violation of it. Loden knew the feeling. She said she made Wanda “as a way of confirming my own existence”: a series of images in which she could glimpse herself, however desperate that self might be. Toward the end of the book, Léger returns again to the subject of her mother, describing her, post-divorce, as being “denuded of power,” a chilling phrase when applied to a woman. It’s Wanda, too, and Loden, who at the time of her death was at work on her next project, an adaptation of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening.

That leaves Pippa Bacca, the Italian performance artist who, Léger writes, “set off along the roads of Europe in bridal white in order to save the world.” Bacca deliberately traveled to countries that had recently experienced war, including Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and at some of her stopovers, she washed the feet of midwives and asked them questions about birth. She wanted her dress to get stained with the dirt of her travels, like a filter trapping impurities. She carried her trousseau, which Léger likens to the gear of a soldier going off to war, and a video camera, with which she recorded her voyage—often banal details such as “the still life of the driver’s hands on the steering wheel, then a long tracking shot of a featureless Europe flattened against the glass.”

Less than a month after Bacca’s departure from Milan, her body was found in a thicket outside Istanbul. A local man had strangled her to death. In The White Dress, Léger describes a photograph of this man at the wedding of his niece only three days after he murdered Bacca. Posing in a powder-blue shirt with his wife and child, he wears “a good-natured expression, dependable and cheerful.” Who would guess at the horror he had committed outside the frame?

Léger’s writing in The White Dress is of a different register than in the earlier two books—her tone is colder and there is a different anger, often expressed as cutting resentment toward her mother, but also toward something else, something bigger. At times I struggled to understand the connections she was attempting to make. I was nearly halfway through before I understood that the difficulty I was feeling wasn’t mine but Léger’s. “Even when artists are heavy-handed, when their ideas are confused, when their gestures fail in some way, their performances nonetheless stubbornly articulate something true,” she writes. She circles Bacca but cannot seem to locate the truth in her performance, stymied by an “inability to grasp what was simultaneously significant and trivial in her gesture.”

Léger holes up at her mother’s house, after reluctantly deciding not to meet with Bacca’s mother to ask her about her daughter. She spends much of her time pretending to be asleep on the couch and avoiding her mother’s plea to read a dossier she has put together, evidence of the injustice and humiliation she suffered in her divorce, where she was made out to be the victimizer rather than the victim: “It sits on the table like an old liver, a glistening and vaguely bloody substance in which you can read the past.” When a pack of old women from her mother’s neighborhood question her about her book-in-progress, she replies defensively:

I tell them that Pippa Bacca is dead. This is what I say to them: At any rate, the point isn’t whether she failed or succeeded, the point is she died from it. That’s what I say. From it. As if everything, from the original intention to her death and her return, was structured around cause and consequence.

Befuddled by this hectoring “chorus of ancient Maenads,” Léger, here and elsewhere in the book, reaches the limits of language. She encounters “entire walls of words” and finds that “sometimes intuiting just the right word is not enough.”

Léger’s mother would like her to be a “seismograph”—that is, to record things not as her husband claimed, not as the courts documented them, but as she remembers them. She wants to regain her own life. She implores her daughter to “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.” Léger spends most of the book refusing to read her mother’s dossier:

I cry out that I don’t want to…I cry out that she has to stop putting her life into the dossier and the dossier into mine, I cry out that it isn’t up to me to bring her justice, that her cause is pitiful, that I want to go back to my research.

When she finally turns to it—and describes the proceedings in a paragraph that spans eight pages and is the most extended passage in all three books—she is awestruck at the discrepancy between what she remembers of her family’s domestic life and the way it is portrayed in the court testimony. “Following the hearing on October 24, 1974,” she writes, “the procedural institution of evidence delivered its verdict, finding in favor of the husband.” Her mother was not allowed to defend herself. “Nothing in her own life counted for anything,” Léger concludes. Like Castiglione’s photographs, like Loden’s film, like Bacca’s journey, the dossier is her mother’s assertion of self. It is a great wave of revelation and fury.

Of the many writers Léger evokes, her touchstone may be Marguerite Duras, who wrote her early novels, Léger says, to redress the injustices done to her own mother. “Why do you think you write,” Léger’s mother asks her, “if it’s not to bring about justice?” But Duras also said that her mother was not “the main hero of my body of work, nor the most permanent. No, I am the most permanent. Writing is to write for oneself.” What does this mean for Léger’s books, which rouse the lives of four women, each of whose stories was so easily elided by degradation, defeat, and death? She has listened to them, observed their work and efforts, and described what she found. Maybe that is justice—not vengeance but recognition.