Arts & Culture

On translating Nathalie Léger’s Exposition.

Pierre-Louis Pierson, Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di Castiglione, 1861-67

Exposition is the first in a triptych of books by Nathalie Léger that intertwines Léger’s mother’s story with that of a female artist or celebrity.

You could say that Exposition is about the Countess of Castiglione. Considered by many in Europe to be the most beautiful woman alive, Castiglione was probably the most photographed person of the nineteenth century. Born in 1837 in Florence, she was sent to Paris in 1855 to plead the cause of Italian unity at the French court, as an instrument of soft power, essentially. Unfortunately, she had terrible social skills, and it didn’t go well. She became the mistress of Napoleon III but overstepped her social position at the court and was soon asked to leave. Beginning in 1856, she had herself photographed hundreds of times at a high-end studio, spending her family fortune. She would often restage scenes from mythology but also moments of glory from her life at the French court. Some of her portraits were even presented in the International Exposition of 1867. As late as 1871, Castiglione was asked to intercede with Otto von Bismarck to discourage a German occupation of Paris. This point, the end of the Second Empire with which she was so identified, seems to mark the beginning of Castiglione’s decline, and she lived out her days in increasing isolation in her funereal Paris apartment until her death in 1899. However, she remained a legend in urban lore, granting viewings to her admirers and taking long nocturnal walks through a Paris that had changed around her.

Castiglione in her most famous “Queen of Hearts” ball gown, but in this photo, she’s wearing it a decade after the ball actually happened. Pierre-Louis Pierson, La Dame de Coeurs, 1861-63

Exposition is about the Countess of Castiglione, but it isn’t a biography. The genesis of the book was Léger’s attempt to curate an exhibition of photographs of Castiglione for a museum. Léger ran into some problems, the museum management didn’t share her enthusiasm for Castiglione, the exhibition never happened, and Exposition is her endeavor to come to terms with the difficulty of her subject. It’s also about Léger’s mother, and the way both she and Castiglione were unable to control their own fates. Léger’s writing often has a telescopic effect: one woman collapsing into the next; one woman’s life rendering certain facts of another’s visible. I think of it as a tool that allows her to broach big subjects that might be unwieldy with other methods. And so, shifting from one woman’s story to the next, Exposition becomes an interrogation of female self-representation and agency, but more than that, an exploration of what it means for a book to be about anything at all.

What is it to be captivated by a subject and to try to capture it? “For years,” Léger writes, “I had thought that to write you needed, at the very least, to master your subject. Many reviewers, famous writers, and critics have said that to write you have to know what you want to say. They repeat, hammering it home: you have to have something to say, about the world, about existence, about, about, about. I didn’t know then that the subject is precisely what masters you.”

Pierre-Louis Pierson, La Comtesse, 1861-67

When one submits to a subject, it is not necessarily a benign or unambiguous force. Castiglione is thorny, difficult to pin down and often unlikeable. Your average portrait subject can’t sink a museum exhibition; perhaps the more personal format of a book was better suited to the extremities of the project anyway. Ultimately it’s the power of Léger’s obsession that drives the story. We know that obsession is a corrosive force, a vampire, a thing with hooked claws. But obsession also preserves. Obsession communicates, reinforces—translates. And as the translator of Exposition, Léger’s alchemy of obsession and repulsion, submission and mastery is precisely what I had to convey.

Other people’s obsessions are always a dangerous thing to become involved with, and no one knows this better than the translator. Every job has its dangers and its attractions, and sooner or later any translator develops her methods for inhabiting a mind that is not her own. For me, the best approach is usually to craft a careful distance from the material; if you want to gain perspective on a subject, you can’t be sitting on top of it. Before I began, I pored over portraits of Castiglione, read about her. In a rare books collection, I turned the brittle pages of an album dedicated to her, turned them with something like reverence, the album’s fragile spine resting in a book cradle. At some point, a woman came into focus: alluring, repugnant, everything I already knew she would be.

Pierre-Louis Pierson, album page with ten photographs of La Comtesse mounted recto and verso, 1861-67

Léger isn’t the only person who has been fascinated by Castiglione; for over a century, she’s been an irresistible subject. The first person on the list must be Castiglione herself, who never would have gone to such prodigious lengths and expense to record her own image without the considerable force of self-obsession. And then there are the men. Besides her husband, Napoleon III, and her various other lovers, Castiglione was a gay icon in her lifetime. (This is a phenomenon that is much older than you might think: before Judy Garland, there was Castiglione and others like her.) So many of her images were well-preserved because the French dandy Robert de Montesquiou (who, besides being an Olympic bronze medalist in 1900, was Proust’s inspiration for Baron de Charlus) purchased as much of her estate as he could after her death, keeping together a trove of pictures and artifacts that would otherwise have been dispersed.

And so Léger is simply one of the most recent in a long line of people to be moved by Castiglione’s force of fascination. But Castiglione was never my obsession, nor even my subject.

Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Red Bow (painted and retouched by unknown artist), 1861-67

I came to know Exposition not through an interest in Castiglione, but through an interest in Léger’s work. Like most American readers, I first encountered her Suite for Barbara Loden. As in Exposition, the eponymous filmmaker’s story is interwoven with that of Léger’s parents’ failed marriage (as the final book in the triptych, The White Dress, would do with the story of the performance artist Pippa Bacca). Reflections upon reflections, one woman’s life within another’s, and another’s, and another’s. That is, it was a formal question that hooked me, a way of telling a story against the grain. More than any book I’ve translated, Exposition made me wonder what, as the translator, is my subject. The question may seem either self-evident or nonsensical, but let’s follow Léger’s thinking and define “your subject” as “what masters you.” That is, what was it that obsessed me as a translator?

I know that it has something to do with immersion. What is it that I am immersing myself in? What is my material, what is it that makes up the world of the book? It’s tempting to say “language,” that’s a trope we hear enough. But words can be dead matter—what infuses them with living spirit? Instead, I would say that I am obsessed with, immersed in, the movements of a mind. For me, literature has always been a way of being close to other people. There is nothing more interesting than someone else’s perspective, and the sheer excess of a book’s hundreds of pages are the perfect opportunity to indulge my obsession in their obsessions. Not the content of those obsessions, exactly, but their form. It’s the way idea connects to language and gives it shape.

Exposition tracks the movements of an erudite, restless mind. Its fragmentary, probing style draws on a rich array of artistic and literary references, joining together the past and the present, the personal and the public, the abstract and the tangible in order to leap from one place to the next. What I love about it is that it is a book that is always in motion. It’s the same thing that makes it indefinable in terms of subject, outside of the relationality of the women whose stories it tells. What mastered me were gestures, movements, forms I would shape and reshape, returning again and again until they were right. If anything, by the time I’d finished translating it, Castiglione had ceded her position in my mind, nudged aside and balanced by the acute and personal pain of Léger’s family story. It’s a book that comes alive in the connection of its figures, the way that language comes alive when it connects with thought, giving shape to emotion, intuition, insight.

It’s unsurprising, when I flip back through my translation of Exposition, that Léger arrived at this conclusion before I did. There I find, written in my own words but more so hers, that to have a subject is to give something form, and that this is an act of tremendous concentration, of giving something shape in language:

It would be best to leave it at what the painters say on the subject: “I hold on to my motif,” Cézanne told Gasquet. Cézanne, clasping his hands. He drew them together slowly, joined them, gripped them, made them fuse together, merging the one into the other, Gasquet recounted. That’s what it is. “This is what you have to achieve. If I go too high or too low, it’s all ruined.” What is my motif? Something small, very small, what will be its gesture? I look at her face in Portrait with Lifted Veil from 1857, her eyes downcast, her mouth so weary, tight and thin, her air of mourning. This woman’s sadness is frightful, a sadness without emotion, true self-defeat, an inner collapse, desolation. Photography can create an image of it, but to make a motif of it, something more is required; one must use words to bring things together slowly, so to speak, join them, fuse them.


The English translation of Exposition will be published by Dorothy, a publishing project, this September.

Amanda DeMarco is a translator living in Berlin.