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Now, Now, Louison, a new slim novel by gallerist and writer Jean Frémon, isn’t so much “about” French-American artist Louise Bourgeois — her life or her work — as an attempt to channel the artist on the page. Frémon met Bourgeois in the 1980s, curating her first European show in 1985 at the Galerie Lelong in Paris, and they knew each other until her death at the age of 98 in 2010. Frémon’s story runs exactly as many pages as Bourgeois lived years, a quick take on a long life, just as the author intends.
In a nonfiction afterword (published last year in Granta) titled, “Louise Bourgeois as I Knew Her,” Frémon says, “It’s a very short book: that’s what I wanted. But despite the length I’ve been writing it for over twenty years.” Since 1995 to be exact, so Frémon began his authorial ventriloquism while his friend was still alive. For this and other reasons, his performance of Bourgeois’s voice is sometimes uncomfortable.
Published in France in 2016, the 2019 edition published this spring by New Directions in a lively English translation by Cole Swensen is fun, compulsive reading. A novel with no plot and little story, it feels part of a French experimental tradition, though that makes it sound too airless and intellectual for what is a strange, exuberant tale told via stream of consciousness.
Told mostly in the second person, both the speaker and the “you” addressed are Bourgeois: “You dried up. You felt the cold, a dry cold, rising inside you. A cold and a drought that cut you off from the world. You thought you’d die if something didn’t happen.” So it’s a story told by Bourgeois to herself, addressing herself as “you,” except when she sometimes uses “I.” Confused? Well, yes, it’s unclear as a device and so is the reason for using it. It’s hard to say what’s gained, clarified, made more poignant or dramatic. The choice feels oddly random, flighty, as does Bourgeois’s voice moving in and out of her life from childhood to old age. Few moments feel inhabited but are, rather, said — and what’s said can be stirring.
One of the book’s most beautiful passages is a rare scene of human interaction. Bourgeois has been cutting an apple into smaller and smaller slices, a kind of mania that leads to breakdown: “Your heart was too full, it overflowed, your arms fell to your sides, and you cried and cried and cried.” Her much younger assistant comes to Bourgeois’s rescue: “Jerry came in silently and sat down next to you. He said nothing; he let you cry. Then, very softly, he said: It’s not you on the plate, nor your father, nor your mother … nor any of your children. You have cut no one into pieces.” Then he bathes her and puts her to bed and it’s sweet and sexy and also a little infantilizing.
Frémon calls his book “a portrait made from memory moving through time.” But whose memory, his or Bourgeois’s? In the short essay that comes after the novel, he writes that, “This book takes great liberties with reality, so it’s not by that measure it should be judged.” Fine, but then by what measure? Not dramatic structure, obviously. Presumably, instead, by insight into Bourgeois’s art and life, inner and outer. But as a character, Bourgeois remains more a device than an inhabited woman who was earthy, psychologically shattered in some ways, but a shattering artistic powerhouse. This Bourgeois lacks depth, will, flesh, and even desire. She’s the author’s puppet and even when charming, it’s off-putting.
Then there’s the unsettling situation of a man assuming the voice and consciousness of a woman he knew, one he called a friend. I might be more sensitive to this gender appropriation than Bourgeois would be. She once wrote, “My work deals with problems that are pre-gender,” but her work is also insistently about the female body, memory, sexuality, female power and powerlessness. Gender aside, Frémon himself suspects Bourgeois would not have approved his using her identity: “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.”
That strikes me as dishonest, but Frémon says, “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.” The author says that “people who count in your life are permanently present” and “become characters that frolic and chatter in your head.” Maybe so, but neither frolicking nor chattering seem adequate words for expressing the life, work, or singular personality of Louise Bourgeois.
Frémon’s book is a charming frolic. But for Bourgeois and her formidable voice, look to her art.
Editor’s Note: Since the publishing of this article, Hyperallergic received an email from New Directions stating that the author Jean Frémon had previously publicly asserted that he had mentioned the nature of his project to Louise Bourgeois.