How to describe her, how to dare to describe a person one doesn’t know? You read accounts written by other people, you look at pictures, appropriating a stranger’s face, tugging it from oblivion for a moment.Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden
Suite for Barbara Loden is the first title to be released by Les Fugitives. Les Fugitives are my new favourite publisher, promoting French authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. ‘What we’re trying to create as publishers, is a body of work that plays on a difficulty to define […] an insaisissable writing – a genre, or a gesture, that is undefinable’. You can read more about their work here.
I like it when a writer allows a reader space. Blanks. Unknown spots in the narrative. Otherwise it’s just claustrophobic.
I fall in love with the book at first sight, the cover and its title call out to me, and from the start I catch myself thinking of this book as something I was always meant to find, like being reunited with something lost but at once familiar.
The book is about the film Wanda written, directed and starring Barbara Loden. It offers an intense and moving portrait of a subject seldom on-screen, a young woman drifting through rust-belt Pennsylvania, and on the sidelines, of dingy bars and motels. Described as an ‘anti-Bonnie-and-Clyde road movie’, the film has developed a cult status among artists and film-makers.
It’s a degraded image rather than a picture in high definition. Barbara Loden herself wrote that she hated the kind of gloss and glamour we find in a film like ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ and all it’s self-mythologizing tendencies. She was looking for something closer to a universal truth, something more akin to poetry …‘Criminal Aesthetics’, Hotel in conversation with Les Fugitives
Léger writes in layers, combining fragments on scenes of the film, and its maker, with personal narrative. The affect is mysterious, subtle and inventive. She has a lightness of touch, an open and questioning approach. Léger addresses Loden’s own identification with her subject; her inspiration for the screenplay which came from a newspaper story she read.
Sentenced to twenty years in prison, she thanked the judge […] Barbara would say how deeply affected she had been by the story of this woman – what pain, what hopelessness could make a person desire to be put away? How could imprisonment be relief?
The book captures the movement, the drift and passing of Wanda’s life, directionless, without future, a wanderer. Reflected in its style, the book leaves a mystery at its heart, unanswered questions; the invisible and unaligned.
A woman appears from within the folds of grimy bedsheets, she seems to be unwilling to be forsaking sleep, waking up only to sink into the aggravating solidity of existence – what has she been dreaming of? Of bright faces, the quiet calm of an orderly bedroom, some gesture of recognition, infinitely repeated? She sits up, confused. Everything is slipping away, everything escapes her; from now on she will just wander, lost among the shadows.
The author’s task is to write a short entry on the film for an encyclopedia, which somehow evolves into an obsessive quest, taking in quantities of research and divergences. It is this quest that draws me in, in which I see parallels with my own.
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 one another, and that I wanted to add an elegy of praise of wandering beneath the bleached Pennsylvania sky…
Sometimes you persist in wanting to substitute an image for the reality, you want to exhaust these places, to drain them of their power once and for all, to put an end to the almost imperceptible way the image vibrates at the mention of a name, as you try to find a resemblance, as you try to recognise a landscape, for want of a face or memory. I searched for that face, that memory, that unformed event; I searched for it in motorway service stations and motels, on potholed roads, in disused factories, deserted warehouses and derelict houses…