:: Article

Looking for Barbara Loden

An exclusive extract from Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, trans. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, art by Laura Carlin.

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We meet in the hall of the Silas Bronson Library. He is a young man. I don’t like young men, I don’t like their bloom, their inflexibility, their grace, their spermatic irritability, their soft hands. I look at young men, I look at them below the belt, I look at them very carefully, I scrutinise them, but I don’t like them, they laugh too easily, which is nice, I make this one laugh easily, it’s nice, it’s boring. I would not want to die in the company of a young man. He waves cheerfully in my direction when he sees me arrive and we leave straightaway. He has a long stride; from time to time he looks at my shoes. We walk down endless avenues, empty of people. There are buses coming from where we have come, going in the same direction we are going. Without me asking he explains the history of the town, about its old Algonquin name Mattatuck, how it was renamed Waterbury in 1686 and nicknamed the Brass City, famous for its buttons, its watches and clocks, the second town in the county of New Haven, Connecticut; walking even faster, he tells me it’s a town with several claims to cultural fame, it’s here, would you believe it, that the first American Nobel prize winner for literature, Sinclair Lewis, did his research for a novel he never wrote; he speeds up some more; but you have to recognize that the future of this town will always be linked to its speciality, brass, zinc and micro-technology; shape memory alloys and things like that. I turn my head towards him as he goes into detail about how shape memory alloys mould themselves to an initial form, and are able to go back to the original form even after it has been corrupted, how they can take the form of one memorized shape and then another, with reversible extensions but no permanent deformation. I am about to ask him about the practical application when he tells me that this has various different uses, for example, he says without pausing, Raychem coupling connectors for hydraulic circuits for post 1967 F14 warplanes, micro-technology, temperature sensors and electromagnetic actuators, but memory shape alloys are mostly known to the general public for their role in heart surgery, if you see what I’m saying, which offers incredible perspectives for us all; Waterbury should – here his voice swells, his face, so crude, so young and serious, is suddenly twisted in his intense urge to reach an aesthetic climax – initiate a conversation between science and art, unite its history and skills into a single synergetic concept. Waterbury is surrounded by hills and we have been walking uphill for a while as though we were heading out of town. Eventually we stop at a freshly asphalted little park with a view over the town. I’m relieved that there is nothing to rave about here. Turning away from the young man, I pretend to be deeply absorbed in studying the sprawling weather-beaten mass of brick and cement. Nothing beckons me from the urban jumble below, I feel no sense of recognition, no pleasure in seeing from above what would look familiar down below, and it’s almost by a sense of duty that I try to find the Clock Tower and the Mattatuck Museum. He waits politely nearby, his magnanimous patience like that of a funeral director, but as soon as we start walking again he continues with an air of shrewd amusement: remembering shapes from the past, that’s a bit like your work, isn’t it? We turn onto a tree-lined avenue. Pine trees cast wide shadows like craters on the ground. We have arrived at the entrance of Holy Land.

Let’s rewind. The time before there was a silence, the time it takes to measure a distance. I’m waiting for my son to come home. The man looks at Norman Dennis square in the face, but he is unsure, his voice trembles a little, we can hear the sound of crickets outside somewhere in the dark. Wanda is between them, behind, curled up, apparently asleep. You don’t have to do anything, all you gotta do is drive, Norman Dennis places a revolver on a crate between them, this must be the guy who’s got hold of it for him, and now he’s trying to persuade him. They face each other, man talk, each trying to conceal his uncertainty from the other. Joe says (his face old before its time, his speech hesitant, his friendly voice conciliatory), what little I have, I don’t want to lose. He seems amazed to be getting somewhere, gradually, repeating the same phrase, I don’t want to risk it, you understand?, slowly making headway with his words (waiting for his son, protecting him, taking no risks), he’s amazed that he is managing to resist Norman Dennis’s offer, I’m waiting for my son, I’m telling you, he starts off saying it in a very quiet tone of voice, gradually gaining confidence. Norman Dennis stands and paces up and down inside the garage wide open to the night air. The other man sits up straight, takes a breath and places his hands flat on his knees, I can’t do it, that’s it, he’s said what he wanted to say, Norman Dennis should have stayed facing him, shouldn’t have taken his eyes off him, should have intimidated him, pinned him down with fear. No, Norman, I can’t do it. I cannot do it. Joe downs a small glass of whiskey. The conversation is over. Mr Dennis. When he laughs – if he laughs – he laughs quietly, at the back of his throat; if he’s in love – when he’s in love – then he shouts, like he has a kind of inner compulsion to reduce the other to nothing, overdoing it as a form of humiliation. He gives orders. With me, no lipstick! With me, no hair curlers! He can’t hide his fear – he knows he ought to but he must have forgotten. He has forgotten to conceal the hunted look in his eyes; he has grown used to sweating. Wanda and him. They look at each other, but never at the same time. They only search the other’s face (and then with such anxious curiosity) when the other one isn’t looking – when they’re asleep or staring at the road or absorbed in some other task – a gaze that clings to the side of the other one’s face, as though waiting for an answer, as though startled by its unfamiliarity. They are on the road. Wanda, off-screen, Mr Dennis, where are we going? Him, staring at the road, no questions, when you’re with me, no questions. He glances at her. A hard look. Come closer. She does. He puts his dry hand on her bare thigh.

Nothing remains of the miniature theme park but an overhanging cross and a few plaster stumps sticking out of the underbrush. The hill is overgrown with vegetation. Holy Land. Hard to imagine that in the 1970s this place was thronged with thousands of visitors. Families strolling around the model temples and picnicking amongst the miniature mausoleums, archways, statues and ex-votos, with loudspeakers concealed here and there among the pine trees sputtering a stream of a cappella psalms. Somewhat petulantly, I wonder aloud whether these ruins are the remains of a theme park, an American specialty in applied mysticism, or an impressively bombastic allegory of the dire fate of all human activity. The young man laughs. He’s always laughing. We have squeezed through the metal gates that are meant to keep people out, and – this is what I wanted, this is what I told him I wanted – have found ourselves inside a very old, crumbling dream. Don’t bring anything with you that you can’t replace – your life, for example – went the whispers in town. We are in a glitzy, fake holy land turned no-man’s-land on the edge of town. Now the young man is standing in the middle of a small esplanade that I think I recognise. Reflexively, he buttons up his jacket, clears his throat and begins. The man behind the creation of the Waterbury Holy Land in 1956 (I could leave him there, I could wander off down the hill) was called John Greco (I could walk down sunken paths, peer into crevices). With the help of hundreds of volunteers, John Greco built this new Bethlehem (I could look inside the ancient caves and I would still be able to hear him from afar), for John had heard the call of an angel (I would still be able to hear his strong voice ringing out, even from a distance), who had ordered him to build a holy place right here in Waterbury (I could go down into the putrid tunnels of the catacombs, where the cracks in the cement structure let in barely any light), and John, known to be an expert on nativity scenes, showed the others how to construct nativity scenes (but I stay by his side, I look around, waiting and staring at what’s left of the Holy Land). The old warped scenery, a shabby biblical imitation, a pastiche of some ancient tale. July 1970. Wanda and Mr Dennis step onto the Holy Land esplanade that overlooks the town. In the distance we can see the lines of a motorway flyover. The strangeness of the place is surprising, the awkward buildings, the carefully tended asymmetrical coppicing, the crackly recording of a syrupy choral medley. Soon we will see colourful crowds of hurrying families rushing forward under the spring sky, red and orange, children in short yellow trousers, a middle-aged woman in electric blue cutting across the screen; she must be dead now, all those bodies that are already old, all those outdated fashions. Perhaps everyone is dead now, even the children who would be about my age today, like that ten-year-old in short red trousers, my exact contemporary. Now everyone is waiting at the entrance to the catacombs after wandering around the gardens in search of who knows what, amongst the tiny temples and the fake tombs. The esplanade is empty. Mr Dennis gestures to Wanda to move away. He walks on his own towards an old man working at something at the base of a cross-section of Herod’s temple, almost impossible to make out against the colour of the stone. He is absorbed in his task; perhaps he has a low wall to finish, some stones to lay, letters to carve into the plaster, the final touches to the word god at the foot of the tower. The old man is bent over, motionless, slowly completing his voluntary work, hey Pop! an awkward embrace, it’s the first time they’ve uttered these workaday pleasantries, good to see you again, borrowed gestures. Then they walk, the son supporting the father, crossing the lopsided miniature holy land, walking past the pyramids, pillars, biblical verses, and I WILL PUT ENMITY BETWEEN THEE AND THE WOMAN, AND BETWEEN THY SEED AND HER SEED. The father falters, the son puts his arm around him. Chants, a celestial chorus. Thinking they have things to say to each other, they sit down under an awning plastered with worthy inscriptions, GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD, it’s getting cloudy, it is the first grey day, FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US. The father sits down, the son stands in front of him, pale, already exhausted by mutual disappointment, Have you been looking for a job? Yes, Pop. You found one yet? Not yet, Pop. And when the son hands him some money, a few crumpled notes nervously pulled from his pocket, the father refuses, you’ve done something stupid again, I don’t want your dirty money. The son explains he’s hoping for a job and will be back in a week. So I’ll love you and leave you. No doubt the father will go and etch his own epigram about offence and forgiveness at the foot of the low wall.

Wanda is making her way down in the dark. We can just about discern a few scattered objects, the gaping maw of an animal, a hand, something that looks like an arm, rags, faces emerging from the shadows. At first we don’t understand and then we do: behind the metal gratings are fake relics, broken dolls, plastic masks, a celluloid body crucified on a cross, a jumbled pile of manmade relics. If you would care to follow me. A voice leads them into an underground gully lit by bare bulbs. The volunteer guide explains that these are graves, Christian graves, martyrs’ graves, and we know that martyrs are people who died for their faith, he leads them through a kind of sacred junk shop, everything is mixed up with bits of rubble, a veritable religious bazaar, old adverts, ‘The Illustrated Life of Christ – from the Cradle to the Cross’, old press cuttings stuck down under glass, advertisements for miracles. His voice is confident and reassuring, here is Saint Thecla’s tomb, she was one of Paul’s disciples, his account is not remotely concerned about being credible, its sole purpose is to show that the story he is telling is so true that it can get away with being presented as fake – so true, so insanely true in fact, that it must actually be falsified in order to be understood. Wanda follows the group that is now crowded into the gully, sinking into the damp subterranean gloom – all we can make out of Wanda Goronsky is her mass of blonde hair and sometimes, when she gets close to a light bulb, the big white flowers on her headscarf seem to glow. We might imagine that perhaps she is at last finding a little solace in this dark space, letting herself be guided by the earnest voice that is constantly investing meaning in the most insignificant gestures and objects. She 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, like Flaubert’s Félicité – a simple heart who needed familiar objects to reconcile what she didn’t  understand, who imagined she saw the Holy Spirit in the features of her beloved stuffed parrot.

We seemed to have run out of things to say. Then the young man put his hands on the table and announced resolutely that he wanted above all to avoid metaphor, to avoid allegory and metaphor. He looked at his hands as though he were about to lean down, stand up and leave – as though he were about to run out of the Mattatuck Museum cafeteria in Waterbury and leave everything behind – his writing, his research, his friends, his memories, everything. Earlier he had talked to me at great length about his doctoral thesis on these holy places, the American Holy Land. It was relaxing to listen to him talking about sources, structures and annexes. Now he was struggling against some inner collapse, he was sick of himself, which actually made him rather likable. Behind him, and probably behind me too, large television screens were broadcasting yet another baseball match. He remained very focused, looking at his hands, shaking his head from time to time, saying how sometimes he had the idea that the Waterbury Holy Land was nothing more than an edifice of melancholy, a project whose very ruin was integral to its construction and therefore a testimony to the illusory and pitiful nature of all our undertakings, but then he said that we have to fight against that approach, that’s what people always say about ruins, he preferred to insist upon the socio-economic approach because with metaphors, he said, little by little you drift away – did I know for example that back in 1970, Holy Land made more profit than the brass-manufacturing industry, in fact everything indicates that this place, for some people a very poetic, or mystical, whatever you want to call it place, was a tightly run marketing operation whose purpose was to promote the illusions of the Christian faith at the height of the Cold War. I was only half listening. I was wondering how it is possible to hit such a small ball with a stick – I wanted to ask him, but he seemed anxious and wanted to keep talking. His research on Holy Land had led him to understand how Americans hate lies because they are themselves the subjects of a perpetual fiction. You only need to turn on the television to see how over here reality is so distorted that you mustn’t joke about the truth, he said. The most surprising thing about this Holy Land story is the desire to celebrate what they called revealed truth with clumsy copies and implausible and monstrously contorted recreations that John Greco and others passed off with their crude self-confidence as the real thing – that I can’t understand, he said. He looked exhausted. To distract him I asked how long you have to train to be able to hit such a small ball with a stick.

Nathalie Léger is an award-winning French author, as well as an editor, archivist and curator. Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden won the prestigious Prix du livre Inter 2012, voted for by readers across France. It will be published in the UK on 31st March by Les Fugitives.  Léger’s other works include L’Exposition (2008), a semi-fictionalised essay about the enigmatic Countess of Castiglione,the most photographed woman in late 19th century Paris, and Les Vies Silencieuses de Samuel Beckett (2006). She curated the 2002 exhibition on Roland Barthes and the 2007 exhibition on Samuel Beckett, both at the Pompidou Centre. Since 2013 she has been the Director of the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine, a unique cultural institute dedicated to the archives of 20th and 21st centuryFrench writers.

Natasha Lehrer lives in Paris, where she works as a translator. Former deputy editor of the Jewish Quarterly, she is a regular reviewer for, among others, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian and the Observer. She holds an M.Phil in comparative literature from Université Paris St Denis.

Cécile Menon is a French translator living in London. A Sorbonne Nouvelle and a Birkbeck College alumna. She has worked in the book trade and in independent literary publishing in London since 2001.

Laura Carlin is an award-winning English illustrator, currently working with Quentin Blake in an advisory role for the development of the House of Illustration. She has been voted by the Art Director’s Club of America an ADC Young Gun, one of the 50 most influential creatives under 30 years of age.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 8th, 2015.