Nathalie Léger’s latest experimental novel, The White Dress, beautifully weaves together the protagonist’s own story with that of the late artist Pippa Bacca and performance artists like Marina Abramović.
Not far into Nathalie Léger’s experimental novel The White Dress – which in truth is a seamless blend of fictionalised autobiography, philosophy, essay and memoir, captured beautifully by translator Natasha Lehrer – the protagonist’s mother asks her if she knows what a Lumière minute is. She doesn’t. A Lumière minute, her mother explains, is a device used by the film director Claire Simon for teaching, in which she asks her students to fit the story they want to tell into a single minute. One moment. An entire narrative. In The White Dress, the tragic story of an Italian performance artist is beautifully woven together with threads of the protagonist’s own story into a brilliant Lumière minute of a book: short, bright, rich, and incredibly moving.
On 8 March 2008, Pippa Bacca set out from Milan on foot for Jerusalem. She wore a wedding dress, and carried a video camera to document the journey – a journey that was intended to shine a spotlight of peace into some of the most war-torn corners of Europe. But she never made it to her destination. On 31 March her body was found in woodland on the outskirts of Istanbul. She had been raped and strangled.
But the novel opens, not with Pippa’s preparations and departure from Milan, but with a tapestry that hung in the protagonist’s childhood home. The bleak image of The Assassination of a Lady bore witness not only to everyday family life, but to the undercurrents of her mother’s tension, fear and unhappiness. As the novel unfolds, we see this nameless woman (a thinly veiled Léger) struggling to focus on Pippa’s story. She abandons a research trip to Italy: exhausted, she seeks solace at her mother’s house, only to be faced with the lingering remnants of her mother’s own abandonment and defeat at the hands of her father. Her mother wants her to write this story, the story of an ordinary woman’s humiliation and loss at the hands of a man she thought she loved. This isn’t the story the protagonist wants to write, and yet she struggles to resist her own mother’s demands. And always, throughout, there is Pippa Bacca.
How can a white dress atone for hundreds of years of conflict? How can one woman’s writing do justice to another woman’s tears, especially when that other woman is her own mother? Understanding – or the search for it – runs through the heart of the narrative. “All my mother wanted at the end of her life was to understand”, says the protagonist, who in turn is struggling to understand the motivation behind Pippa’s journey. Pippa Bacca placed her trust in good, and that trust was broken in the most brutal way. Perhaps something like that can never be comprehended. Instead, we focus on the details. There were two wedding dresses, exactly alike. One remained in Milan, while the other, destined for Jerusalem, ended up as evidence in Istanbul instead, torn and grubby and saturated with experience. The plan had been to exhibit them side by side, visual proof of the way in which objects carry scars. Along the way Pippa washed the feet of midwives, an attempt not only to honour their vital work but to elevate creation and birth above the destruction of war. She took a video camera to document the journey, on which her murderer later filmed a family gathering as if nothing had happened. All these things in themselves can be understood. Taken as a whole – as a work of performance art that cost the artist her life – they become at once even more significant and yet trivial at the same time. A wedding dress against war. A few words, against a lifetime of unhappiness. What, our protagonist seems to be asking, is the point?
Perhaps to find an answer, or perhaps to place Pippa’s journey into some sort of context, the narrative twists and turns into the terrain of previous performance art, and in particular performance art by women. One of these stands out above all the others. Marina Abramović, in 1974’s Rhythm 0, stood by a table on which stood 72 objects, and invited her audience to use the objects on her as they wished. She was hugged, given flowers, had her picture taken with the Polaroid camera. She was also cut with a razor, beaten with straps, and threatened with a gun. Violence is common. Violence against women is common. Performance art can expose violence for what it is: senseless and mindless. Marina Abramović was beaten simply because she was there. She tested human nature by placing these objects freely at her audience’s disposal. Pippa Bacca was murdered because she was there, and because it was her principle on this journey never to refuse a lift from anyone – another test of human nature that failed. She must have known it was a possibility. But still, there is something unfathomable about violence, something that Pippa wanted to explore and ultimately to remedy. She wanted her white dress to bring about some kind of justice, however inconsequential it might seem. And so we are brought round again to autobiography, and our protagonist and her mother and the story of family misery that she doesn’t want to tell. “Why do you think you write, if it’s not to bring about justice?”
The protagonist agrees to help her mother. Something of the difficult relationship is, we hope, healed or at least in the process of healing. But there are still no answers, nothing packaged neatly at the end, and certainly no conclusion for Pippa. Instead we are left with her murderer, laughing as he turns her video camera on himself. Léger intertwines lives, interrogates them, shows that the collective is personal and vice versa. We are left to think about the answers – if indeed there are any – for ourselves.