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Cécile MENON & Dominic JAECKLE
in conversation

LES FUGITIVES is an independent literary collective—comprised of authors, editors and translatorsthat aims to promote the voices of award-winning French-language female authors whose work has not previously been translated into English or is as yet unpublished in the United Kingdom. Publishing both fiction and non-fiction—and often advocating work that blurs the boundaries between these two modes—their first title, Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (2015), epitomises such a proclivity for innovative writing. First published in France to enormous critical and popular acclaim, this is the first book about and inspired by one of the most unconventional actresses of her time. 

Suite follows a writer commissioned to pen a short entry on actress and director Barbara Loden for a cinematic encyclopaedia embarking on a trip to America to expand and consolidate her research. How to paint a life, a personality? The struggle to commit Loden’s life to paper elucidates a fractious biography that expands and contracts, drawing the narrator to a discussion of the lives and works of Marguerite Duras, Georges Perec, Jean-Luc Godard, Sylvia Plath, Kate Chopin, and Herman Melville to name but a few of Léger’s objects of attention.

Each aside entices a focus on her work in process: a singular homage to Loden... Loden the star, famously married to Elias Kazan; Loden the director, and her one and only film Wanda (1970); Loden the personality, humanised. Hailed as a masterful exemplary of early American cinéma vérité, ‘Wanda’ is an anti-Bonnie-&-Clyde road movie; a picture of a young woman adrift in rust-belt Pennsylvania. As scenes from Wanda punctuate the pages of Léger’s unclassifiable book, a docu-novel, of sorts, elements from the narrator’s own life become enmeshed with Loden’s—gleaning a harmony, a reflection: these two threads don’t compete for our devotion but begin to rhyme, thematically, framing a complex reading of representation, personality, and begging the question of the distance between the creative life of the mind and its representation through creative work. 

Winner of the prestigious Prix du livre, 2012, as voted for by readers across France, Suite is  a ‘moving, subtle novel about the need to create’ [Le Monde]. ‘Léger writes Suite for Barbara Loden with the assuredness of someone whose topic has its own self-replicating logic. Someone whose task is channeling, not producing, her book. Indeed, it seems like the book must already have existed, containing the story of its own origins as well as its own critique’ [The Rumpus]; ‘Léger's book reminds us just how difficult making art is, as a woman, [and] as a human being’ [Bookslut]. Léger’s prior works include L’Exposition (2008), a semi-fictional essay about the Countess of Castiglione, the most photographed woman of her age, and Les Vies Silencieuses de Samuel Beckett (2006)—a book-length (and archly personal) study of the works of Samuel Beckett. Léger has curated major exhibitions on Roland Barthes, 2002, and Beckett, 2007, both at Paris’s Pompidou Centre and, since 2013, has acted as director of the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine: a unique cultural institute dedicated to the archiving of 20th and 21st Century French literary life. Suite was translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon.

Later this year, Les Fugitives will publish their second title: Ananda Devi’s Eve out of her Ruins, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published in co-edition with CB editions.

Eve out of Her Ruins portrays a society mutilated by globalization. Geographic and economic conditions, the lure of riches from tourism or far-away France, all conspire in sealing the fate of the refugee families that inhabit ‘a floating prison’—an island off of Mauritius that gives the novel its setting. The book gives voice to little-heard, desperate adolescents—caught in self-defeating forms of rebellion—and adults resigned to (or in denial of) a humiliating, self-perpetuating poverty. The themes of identity and of sexual and economic alienation seamlessly run through the novel against the backdrop of a post-colonial past. Education, access to culture, and the prospect of a better future are themes openly derided, while tacitly extolled, and paraded through a study of criminality; when figures of authority are too deeply corrupt, blinded by prejudice or too downtrodden to protect the young, the only way for justice to prevail is to break rules. The story thus reveals the roots and mechanisms of gang violence, of individuals’ cruelty and apathy, and of a particular young woman’s rebellious descent into prostitution and self-destruction, until a tragic series of events makes her get a hold of herself. For all the painful light shed on all the characters’ lives, their deeply engaging voices create a compassionate, startlingly honest novel evoking an oratorio in form and content… a study of the sacred and the profane. Eve out of her Ruins will be in bookshops this Autumn.

Hotel met Les Fugitives’ founder on International Woman’s Day, 2016, to talk through the identity of Les Fugitives as a publisher, and explore the intersectional relationship between these two books.

Hotel: Thinking on Suite for Barbara Loden, I’m very interested in this transaction between film, literature, and the ways in which these forms border one another... In my own response to Suite I was reminded of the film criticism of Serge Daney, whose emphasis on cinema as a subject seemed so invested in the slippage of the medium into a myriad of competing conversations. Beyond his work communicating from within the formal entrapment of an essay, beyond those self-reflexive ticks that carry through with cliché and audience expectation, he seemed to suggest that talking about cinema needed to mean talking about the movement between ideas rather than the ideas themselves. As Daney writes about the importance of transition, in that regard, do you perceive your interest in cinema, as a press, as linked to your emphasis on translation and the movement of meaning from an original to a reproduction? 

Les Fugitives: There’s definitely this idea of movement that’s key to any talking about translation: in fact, maybe it’s a “lift” rather than a transition that’s a necessary or appropriate image when we start thinking about translation. You can be as fluent as can be in one language or another, but that alone will never make you a literary translator. It’s a little paradoxical, as you have to find a voicea singular voice—one vital enough to match that of the writer you are working on and that yet remains as honest to the terms of its own personality as is possible. We had two translators at work on Suite for Barbara Loden—one French, one English—and they needed to marry their voices to one another for the book to work. With literary translation, there is always a constant back and forth, a movement between this new voice and its source. It requires a real confidence to lift the work out of the original—which I think of as a social act—and that’s the most tangible sense of movement that I can think of. It’s quite immaterial really... it’s difficult to describe. 

Of course, but it’s a conversation so particular and so perfect to Suite and the relationship between the text and Barbara Loden herself; the movement from efforts to define Loden—and who she really is—through to efforts to describe passages from the film itself. Scene for scene, the prose moves through restaurants, bus stations or unpeopled landscapes—and then back into invented fragments, Léger’s own observations, and a restaging of scenes from the film itself. Never a simple novelization of the film itself, the writing retains this sense of a movement or a lift that seems so fundamental to this book. It certainly feels as though it becomes harder and harder to identify any original moment… 

Yes; with the book, it’s so much about its lack of place really, it’s beyond definition, with regards to genre, you know? It’s insaisissable! It’s not really “ungraspable”—its close—but “ungraspable” infers something that eludes understanding. In French, insaisissable is a very seductive term... it’s used to describe a woman, for instance—a femme fatale… the way a perfume fills a room. It is evasive, elusive. In a sense, it relates so perfectly to this particular book. In France, to speak broadly, people don’t concern themselves too readily with genre, classification or category when it comes to literature and any thinking on fiction outside of academic circles. Suite for Barbara Loden was a commercial success, it won a significant literary prize—elected by readers rather than a literary elite—and it’s not as though that positions the book as lowbrow in any way. It’s this mixture of the mainstream and the highbrow that forms its crux. I think Léger herself was taken aback by the successes of this work which is now, gradually, finding its international audience.

Do you think that success is down to its interests? That cocktail of the highbrow and the mainstream? Is there something in its oblique and explicit references to American cinema? Something in its use of cinema as a lens to discuss its themes, and the relationship of these themes to your work as a publisher? I’m thinking here of movement again, of different forms of translation, and of Léger’s interest in female representation and marginality? These interests definitely carry over from this work to your forthcoming book, Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins: they definitely seem to be a part of the same investigation to me. 

I think that Suite for Barbara Loden is a book that touches a lot of women—a lot of very different women—appealing to the idea of differing experiences and expectations as interpolating within its focus: Barbara Loden herself.... For instance, Natasha—one of the translators working on the book—her life and work experience departs so readily from Cécile’s—her co-translator. They have entirely different biographies and yet their voices intersect through Loden’s fiction. That’s not just a practical idea: it is wrapped up in the themes of the book itself. I find a lot of women relate so readily, not necessarily to Barbara Loden herself, but to Wanda – although a character based on a real woman, she’s our character. Kind of like an Oblomov, you know? Léger conveys that so clearly; there’s a type at work here—it’s very cinematic... Like Oblamov, like Bartleby, there is an interesting margin to definition in Loden and her relationship to Wanda, and in our relationship with Léger’s own voice. This margin surrounds a vision of the world that—framing the idea of “making it”—becomes a parody on prosperity, or the search for happiness… It says something very intimate really about the ways in which we self-define... the way we think about ourselves. That’s true for both books—as true for Léger as it is for Devi. This relates directly to our name as a publisher of course and I’m ok with the pretentious whiff of it, in a British English context, by the way. But what we’re trying to create, as publishers, is a body of work that plays on a difficulty to define work—an insaisissable writing—a genre, or a gesture, that is undefinable. These writers are either escaping definition, like Léger, or are tinkering with the novel’s usual parameters, like Devi. It’s vital to the works and their characters. I say characters, but I want to say people—as Paul Ricoeur would say. There’s no pure invention here. But they try to escape definition as female entities—through criminality (taking criminality as a definition…) or by playing with the authority that’s implicit in the very act of writing.

I think of Jean Genet’s writing on the criminal, here: “Of their own volition, or owing to an accident which has been chosen for them, they plunge lucidly and without complaint into a reproachful, ignominious element, like that into which love, if it is profound, hurls human beings. […] They agree to live in it. The air there is nauseating: they can breathe it. Criminals are remote from you—as in love, they turn away and turn me away from the world and its laws.” Genet’s thief is like a writer at work on something insaisissable. It’s separate, but engrossing. It’s remote from you, but you’re implicated in the terms of the construction of a new world or a new idea; there is something of an opposition informed by creating work? 

Yes… This is true of Suite for Barbara Loden, and equally true of Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins… wherein the main character is this black sun, or solar axis. A young woman, still at school, slips into prostitution… turns to murder. Eve first appears as a monster, but a monster entirely humane.... She has this delicate humour, delicate psyche: the haziness of her character suggests her runaway from definition. Perhaps that’s what enables her ability to find power in criminality. Opposition is a kind of action, and for her, a definition.

I’m fascinated by this partnership between genre and criminality; this reclamation of a term and its fugitive meaning. Its indication towards the marginal character, the representation of women in culture.... It feels so enmeshed in the more industrial notes of literary publishing—it’s about money, about capital—about the general need to compartmentalise a piece of literary or cultural work so as it can be defined ahead of sale—that seems so much a part of this project to me. Les Fugitives seems to celebrate our real inability to define a book and, instead, let a mystery sit at the forefront of a reader’s experiences. Reading through the press’s self-definition on your website, I was drawn to your interest in establishing a relationship with film, both in terms of atmosphere and the punch of its history. You write that you “would like to build a list of fiction works that have either a distinct cinematic feel in the writing itself, or a direct link with film history.” Could you expand upon that at all? I am fascinated by the idea of the cinematic feel, both for better and for worse, as it manifests in literary fiction and, beyond Suite for Barbara Loden, I would be fascinated to hear how you feel film impacts on writing? Does the direct involvement in a project that comes with being an independent project redraw the publisher as something more akin to a studio?

I can’t answer all of your questions—but you ask the right ones! I absolutely agree with your point on marketing, there is maybe something disingenuous in our interest in cinema—making a joke about marketing hooks—but on the cinematic feel, if you read Zola’s The Beast Within, its deeply cinematic—The Kill, for example, is so filmic and yet so true to its time... it’s the nineteenth century, after all. But it depends on what kind of cinema we’re talking about; Léger’s work here is a mimetic exercise—it mimics the kind of cinema it wants to discuss: it wants to talk about cinéma vérité.

Absolutely, the book slides between Wanda and Léger’s voice.... It feels like so perfect a way to explore this idea of the ungraspable genre. Are we watching, passively observing, or interpreting and actually penetrating the scenes we’re given?

Yes, it makes the reading experience more complex, and at times unsettling. People want to know what the fuck it actually is that they’re reading—for some, it’s too much of a test of patience! But I just came across this the other day and it seems such a fit for this discussion... its a citation from an unlikely source, but appropriate here—Agatha Christie’s autobiography. I read her here in Jean-Yves Tadié’s Le Sens de la mémoire… as a Proust scholar, the link he describes between memory and the objectivity of a remembered image isn’t so surprising...

“What is it that determines the choice of our memories? Life is like a film screening. Click! Here I am as a child, eating éclairs on my birthday. Click! Two years have passed and I am sat on my mother’s lap.... Only moments and between them, long intervals, months or even years. Where were we back then? It brings to mind Peer Gynt’s question: “Where was I, myself, the complete man, the true man? Our memories represent those moments, insignificant as they might seem, nevertheless representing our deeper selves, and ourselves as the most really ourselves.”

There’s so much in there. Moving from cinema to something about autobiography, about memory—about the ways in which we constitute ourselves, imaging life. It’s an aspect of any literary engagement that will convey some relationship between writing and cinema.

Yes. Cinema is perhaps an editor’s art form. It chops and changes. It cuts up the narrative in an organic and sometimes awkward fashion that seems to me potentially so imitative of the ways in which we see ourselves.... Memory proves selective—we’ll portray an event the way we want it seen—and it’s as informed by life as by genre, by story. ‘Wanda,’ for example, plays so perfectly with cinematic cliché to chase this idea—it’s the runaway film...

Yes, think of ‘Bonnie & Clyde.’

Precisely, on the one hand we have a cliché, but here it’s more like a reference to our uses of cliché, don’t you think? Our need to use other people’s work and accepted points of references to frame a narrative or an argument? It becomes about our need to runaway from the work to find ourselves within it...

Uh, The book shouldn’t be a pretext for any academic discourse. It’s about human resistance, human existence. It’s about truth, in its simplest sense. About trying to approach some kind of reality. We have departure of course, the flight of fancy or the act of imagination.... But against the grain of stereotypes like ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ there is this hunt for truth—for the nitty-gritty of things—a kernel of truth that’s there like the grainy quality of the cinematography in ‘Wanda’. 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 its self-mythologizing tendencies. She was looking for something closer to a universal truth, something more akin to poetry.... In her interviews you can see that she had such an acute social conscience. She was looking for some way to explore the limitations that affect women in an envisaging of life that is so impacted upon by capital. Loden had a challenging experience as a young woman—she was no country bumpkin, she was experienced—and there is both an intellectual connection and an emotional one at work between Loden, Wanda and Léger. Its not an intellectual discourse per se, but rather a social commitment performed through art. There is that search for something to say. It’s not a road movie, but about a road movie; it’s a docu-novel. Something searching for something. The next book is far more immediate—more clearly anchored in fiction as a genre rather than a subject-matter—but Suite for Barbara Loden runs back and forth between a description of reality and a depiction of another; be it art, or the writer’s experience.

To refer to your blurb on your website again, you suggest that your interest in short form pieces is a paean to the value of the “elliptic” short work. Could you expand at all on the value of short-form fiction and how it more acutely involves the reader as a “creative partner” in the work? 

I don’t want to claim any originality here where there is none, but the reader is by and large a creative partner in any literary project. That’s not an original idea. Literature differs from cinema of course; there’s more of a passive involvement in the film you’re watching. “Film is a bully,” as Jonathan Gibbs wrote of ‘Wanda’ and Léger’s writing: whilst we let cinema manipulate us, “the reader and the book need each other” in a different kind of way. In short fiction a reader’s experience is more concentrated—a theme imposes itself on your imagination and we need engage it rather than simply let it entertain us. In a novella, you have to fill in the gaps. It’s as simple as that. But even in short works, you know, I'm thinking of writers perhaps debatably revered—Ian McEwan, for example—there's proof there that it’s not just a question of length.... I like it when a writer allows a reader space. Blanks. Unknown spots in the narrative. Otherwise it’s just claustrophobic. Space is more readily an element of a novella’s form, but it is a question of the nature of the writing, and it’s that which terms interpretation as something more enjoyable. But then maybe we’re just looking for a certain kind of reader—one who doesn’t shirk from reading or looking for poetry, in an unselfconscious way. It’s also a problem with experimentation. I don’t think writing should be “difficult,” you know. If you want to publish difficult work, that’s fine, but if a book is difficult to read that’s a thing designed for a very specific kind of reader. If you enjoy that, fair enough, of course, but it’s almost as though you need your own predetermined reasons for running through that before you get there. Books should let you in; maybe books should be thought of as tools for exercising your freedom.

And the Devi? You mentioned that Eve out of Her Ruins performs a more traditional role as a fiction?

There are four characters, all underage, and the book proceeds in fragments, page after page, and each character talks in their own voice. Their stories prove interwoven. It reminded me of [Max Porter’s] Grief is the Thing with Feathers—the story gets darker and darker. If Suite for Barbara Loden felt dark at all—dark like a drive in the desert—this is dark. But somehow the writing gives it a lightness in a way that's really amazing. The translation seemed to be simple at first, but actually the text was riddled with metaphor, poetic asides, colloquialism, regionalism and threads that proved really tricky. But it has come over as such a strong piece … vivid, lyrical, and terse at the same time. It’s fragmented. It’s sparing. It’s stark. But it’s beautifully written without being excessively floral. The writing carries the mood up—another “lift”—yet what I want to say about this book, or at least what I like about it, is that while its darkness is consistent—it doesn't avoid disturbing you—the writing is never crude. It’s honest, not violent towards its reader. It offers an open look at the underbelly of a marginalised society, but it never makes you want to skip a page. It’s strangely contemplative, delicate, and very humane in its approach of its subjects. It presents a delicate expression of violence.

Do you think that delicate violence feels like a self-reflection on behalf of the book? An internal metaphor? That it is aiming that violence at the world outside of the book whilst, at the same time, controlling the violence by cutting itself up into pieces?

Yes, we’re back with the cut again, but it never feels like a violent structural or formal rule... it’s more reminiscent of a traditional form—a musical form—an oratorio.... You have three to four voices that sing, soliloquising a story. An oratorio is what, 16th or 17th Century? It’s a classical, operatic form. Devi achieves this in writing; the central theme in any oratorio is this divide between the sacred and the profane. That’s there too in Eve.... Obviously “Eve” is a very loaded name here, epitomizing both the whore and the saint; there’s also the artist, the poet; and the bad seed about to hit an epiphany…. Though little is made of that epiphany… there are knots where you would expect clarity. Devi presents a world more interested in how they’re tied than not... through the language of it.

It’s very different from Suite for Barbara Loden. In Eve out of Her Ruins, there’s reference again—quotations lifted from Rimbaud’s poetry, and others—and it does talk about culture as something acquirable, you know, as a kind of currency. The characters are very sarcastic about the value of culture or education, but at the same time, the book puts forward a view of literary value through the possibility that it could be a tool for freedom… a tool for antagonising or overruling some standing order in the search for truth, your truth, or something like that...

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