Translated from the French by Cole Swensen

 

Now, Now, Louison is the portrait, from memory, of Louise Bourgeois, by French novelist Jean Frémon. From her childhood in France to her exile and adult life in America; through the moods, barbs, resentments, reservations and back – Frémon’s novel is a phosphorescent poem-in-prose describing the inner life as only one artist regarding another can. The novel will be published by Les Fugitives in September 2018.  

 

Now, Now, Louison is a kind of portrait. In motion. At several stages of a life. A very long life. Threads of discourse, springing into the mouth of the speaker. An interior monologue. Written, but striving toward the illusion of speech. As a painted portrait gives the illusion of life, or a painted landscape the illusion of depth. It’s a portrait from memory. Any written portrait, unless it’s entirely imaginary, must be made of memory: there’s no model striking a pose, motionless, before the writer. Memory doesn’t exclude imagination; on the contrary, it requires it. So the book is not a biography; at most, it’s a life imagined. Like those written by Walter Pater, which I’ve always enjoyed so much. This book takes great liberties with reality, so it’s not by that measure that it should be judged. It cites no sources and is not encumbered by references. Louise Bourgeois, who was often so funny, once called footnotes cannonballs tied to the feet.

This is, therefore, a portrait made from memory moving through time. The movement and the time are both integral parts; together they create rhythm, the rhythm of the body and of the voice. They allow rhythm, texture, the tone of the model’s imaginary voice, to emerge by themselves.

Any painter will tell you that making a good portrait requires more than just a model to pose for you. You need much more – you need a deep familiarity that can only develop over a long period of time, the ability to put a hundred portraits into one. Which is why so many painters only do portraits of the people close to them. On the other hand, bad painters think they can do a portrait from a photograph . . .

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I knew Louise Bourgeois well. She was a complex, contradictory, unpredictable character, who really did live several lives. And yet I saw her regularly over a period of thirty or more years. And I witnessed her progressive but fairly rapid transition from a 70-year old artist with a large body of work behind her, but almost completely unknown to the general public, to an international star that the entire world wanted to meet. That transformation doesn’t appear in the book, because it didn’t change her way of being and speaking, and those alone are the things that I wanted to render – not precisely what she said, but again, her tone, her rhythm. And the best way to do that seemed to be to use the second person. Bourgeois speaks to herself in fragments and snatches; we’re in her head. We see her desire to speak, her reluctance to speak, her moments of rage, her self-possession when faced with overwhelming feelings. The portrait is built up of tiny strokes, one added upon another, like dashes of pencil.

And then there are the songs. The songs stuck in her head. Old French songs in an old exiled head. The songs that appear in the text are not necessarily the ones she sang herself. The story needs the words of certain songs to achieve its tenor, and so I put these words into her mouth. The words are there to draw a tune into the reader’s mind, along with the pathos each singer – Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, or Jean Sablon – sang those words with. The songs add a bit of color to the drawing. They relax the tensions, calm things down, open a space for provisional reconciliations.

 

It’s a very short book; that’s what I wanted. But despite the length I’ve been writing it for over twenty years. I remember when it started: at the end of a dinner after the opening of the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1995, when a friend asked me what I was working on. Nothing, I replied. I’d published a novel a few months before, and I believed I had nothing else to say. (This was L’Ile des morts, which came out in 1994, a title that Louise detested because of the word dead, which frightened her. I won’t read it, she said when I brought it to her, which is a shame, she added, because I really like your last one. Some time after her death, I returned to her house one last time, after it had become the Louise Bourgeois archive, and I saw the spine of the first edition of Jardin botanique in the upstairs bookcase. L’Ile des morts wasn’t there. Not only had Louise not read it, she had, no doubt, simply thrown it in the trash. That was Louise.) Nothing more to say – that’s not possible, my friend replied. I’m sure you’ve got lots of things to say. I remained doubtful. What about all this, for example? All this what? Louise Bourgeois. The novel of Louise Bourgeois. I don’t mean a book of art history, I mean a novel. The conversation stopped there.

The seed germinated, and an idea began growing inside me, until it finally started taking form. 1995. Ten years earlier, I’d given Louise Bourgeois her first show in Paris. Up until then she hadn’t shown anywhere but in the United States. (I first encountered her work in 1979 in an exhibition at the Xavier Fourcade Gallery in New York. I retain a vivid memory of that exhibition, which included, at the back of the room, Partial Recall, a huge wooden construction painted white, as well as a large group of her wooden characters from the 1950s. I immediately wanted to meet her.)

After 1995, we didn’t work together as much, but I continued to visit her regularly, though I never said a word about the book I was writing. I knew that even if I came up with something decent, I would never publish it during her lifetime. I needed the freedom of imagination that she used so well in her own work, but which she would not have been able to allow someone who was writing about her. That’s how I felt, at least. Whenever I visited, she’d ask me what I was writing, and since I always had several projects underway I could always say something without having to mention the project about her.

The people who count in your life are permanently present in your head and in your heart. If that head and heart are those of a writer, they’ll begin to express themselves in words, in sentences, which in turn become characters that frolic and chatter in your head. If you start listening to them and writing them down, they’ll eventually become a book like this one.

The Man Who Lived
West