The following select passages are excerpted from Exposition by Nathalie Léger, translated from the French by Amanda DeMarco, published by Les Fugitives in 2019 and P.O.L. Éditeur in 2008.
She enters. She is roused by anger and reproach. She bursts onto the right of the image as if it were a backdrop masked with curtains. One hand clutches a knife against her waist, which gleams obliquely across her belly. Her face is cold, her mouth thin, lips tight, eyebrows knit, her gaze is clear and hard, her hair is slicked into two little severely parted plaits. The knife, whose handle disappears into her balled fist, vibrates at the very center, nearly absent from it, so white is its blade that it disappears in the luminous satins of her dress. But its tip agitates the exact center of the image, piercing its focal point. As if the fullness of her garments weren’t enough, she grasps the faille silk curtain, pulling it toward her in a strangely chaste gesture. It is not her body that she wants to conceal, certainly not, but rather the faux backdrop, overfilled with a tin-plate pedestal table whose foot might invade the image. This woman entering, she wants to kill. Theatrical killing? Yes, no one would doubt it, she is definitely on a stage, pretending to ensure that everything has the semblance of truth. But like any great actress, she is pretending to be pretending. This woman entering, she wants to kill.
The day of their engagement, he gave her a ring. Very simple, elegant. The guests throng the ground-floor sitting rooms. He closed the door. The two of them, shut up in a bedroom for the first time. At a distance, the peaceable murmur made by a horde of very polite guests. There they are, alone in a room. The two of them, my mother and him. Forever. They’re waiting on them. They have to show themselves in the radiance of all of their qualities. They’re waiting on them. (She has won. She is alive. You can die a hundred deaths from not being loved. But she is alive. She has won.) The guests are down below. They’re waiting on them. He is leaning toward her but he doesn’t look at her. I have something to tell you, he says. I have something to tell you. He takes her hand and plays with it in a rough, awkward way. There, you have to know, you have to know that I loved a woman before you, I couldn’t wed her because she is married, but I will never forget her, never, you understand. There. He put the engagement ring on her. They’re waiting for us. Are you ready? Let’s go. She enters.
In this solitude, in this dismal waiting without purpose, as she staggered in bitterness through the dark, dirty rooms within, did she manage to cry? Is it possible to imagine this woman sobbing? Did she sometimes surrender to the disaster of her face in tears?
Besides that, she exhibited fragments of her body during what were called ‘living statue’ sessions, an arm, an ankle, a thigh, a breast. She had a few molds made of these bits and sometimes gave them to her admirers. After her death, Montesquiou acquired them in the 1901 sale, carefully preserving them in display cases. ‘This woman’s life was one long tableau vivant, a perpetual tableau vivant.’ She appeared nude for a happy few, men who came in the evening to hold their salon around the recluse. If boredom won out, if conversation lulled, she revealed the ace in her sleeve: nude, she appeared nude. She vanished, she prepared herself at length, and then appeared, it is an exhibition, she lets the scarves fall one by one, nude, she believes she is a Nude, but she is merely showing her nudity, she is caught up in her skin. ‘Ugh, she smelled like sweat,’ said General Gaston de Galliffet, the one who commanded the famous cavalry charge at the Battle of Sedan. No matter, she would make good on it at her next sitting with the photographer. Images don’t smell.
The lady in tulle isn’t smiling anymore. Now, hidden under her veil, she looks at the man without his knowing it. No more need to compose her features, to act sweet, beautiful, to coax the other, to force him to look at you, to love you like Castiglione in her photos, the inclined head, the way of attracting, catching, and of retaining. What face would you find behind the luminous tulle, what gaze? The one we have when no one is looking at us, a hostile face, a blind gaze, a disoriented face, the face of a monster, a seething face, perhaps.
Nathalie Léger was born in 1960 and is the author of four books of fiction based on her research work as a curator, as well as a collection of illustrated, aphoristic flash-fiction, under a pseudonym. The director of the Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, she lives and works in Paris and in Caen. Her UK debut Suite for Barbara Loden garnered intense critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, and was translated into several European languages. It is credited as being instrumental to the re-release, in American film theatres, of Barbara Loden’s cult masterpiece Wanda (1970). Together with The White Dress, her second novel Exposition will be published in the US later this year for the tenth anniversary of Dorothy Project, an American independent literary press publishing only two books a year.
For more information and to buy the book, visit Les Fugitives.
Read more from the publisher: The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated by Mark Hutchinson.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.