The Slow Bloom of ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

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When the postwoman delivered Suite for Barbara Loden to my mailbox, I was not at home. I wasn’t even in the country. The book boarded a flight to Paris, then traveled the 400-and-some miles between Charles De Gaulle airport and Roodt-sur-Syre, Luxembourg. I first held Suite for Barbara Loden in my aunt’s living room on Christmas Eve, but it wasn’t until I was back home in New York five weeks later that I began to read this book, which has traveled with me for a while­­; and in a sense, the story it tells has been traveling for even longer.

Nearly 60 years ago, The Sunday Daily News published the story of Alma Malone, a woman from rural Appalachia condemned to life in prison as an accomplice to a robbery. She thanked the judge for the sentence, a detail that inspired Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda. In the film, Loden plays Wanda as she stumbles numbly through a series of difficult situations with what appears to be total complacency: forfeiting custody of her children to her husband, swapping nights on her sister’s couch for strangers’ beds, and, eventually, agreeing to a lover’s scheme to rob a bank.

In her 2011 novel, Suite for Barbara Loden (a brilliant blend of biographical fiction and nonfiction) Nathalie Léger examines how her own life overlaps with Loden’s and Alma’s, through the prism of the filmmaker’s first and only film. An essayistic novel on the complexities of agency versus passivity in the collective female psyche emerges; the product of Léger’s unwavering fascination with Barbara Loden and her mostly overlooked work.

Wanda was hailed as a brilliant display of avant-garde cinema in Europe, and even won the International Critic’s Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1970. But when the film first premiered in the United States, it was not particularly well received. Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote: “Miss Loden’s film, by the time you are through with it, has, rather surprisingly, some of the look of classical moviemaking.” This isn’t ostensibly the opinion piece of a critic ripping a film to shreds–but all the same, note the condescension dripping from the words “Miss Loden,” and “surprisingly.” What laurels Loden received were given with pinches of salt.  What about Wanda captivated Barbara Loden and foreign audiences? And what captivated Nathalie Léger?

“All I had to do was write a short entry for a film encyclopedia,” Léger notes in Suite for Barbara Loden. That entry, which she was once commissioned to write by the editor, blossomed into a slim, yet exquisitely rich novel. She continues: “I try to see beneath Wanda’s lost expression, beyond her forlorn face and the nervous, distracted way she holds herself in front of other people. I’m trying to find everything that she has in common with Barbara.” The expression that inspired Léger can be seen on the book cover, drawn from a film still. Wanda’s hair is gathered in a flowery white headband, her delicate lips are parted. Most striking is her gaze: inscrutable, but the slight dip in her brow suggests fear, and anxiety.

But this is not the story of Wanda. Léger infuses the book with personal elements from her own life, namely the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her father. She writes, “[Wanda] sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.” This is, as Danielle Dutton—editor at the book’s publisher, Dorothy Project—puts it, the “obsessive and archival telling of one woman’s story through another woman’s story.” The Dorothy Project publishes fiction and non-fiction written almost entirely by female authors—similar to their U.K. counterpart, Les Fugitives, which publishes primarily award-winning francophone female writers. I view both of these small presses to be yet another link in what is an ever-expanding string of women who have ushered this story along.

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Mid-way through reading, I had to put the book on hold, so that I could watch Wanda. I had to see for myself. With every frame, I thought of Barbara, playing Wanda for the camera–but also Barbara behind the camera, watching herself playing Wanda. A game of mirrors.

Suite for Barbara Loden isn’t just the story of Barbara Loden: It’s the story of Nathalie Léger, and to a certain extent, the story of women everywhere. How better to preserve oneself than to be the author of one’s own vulnerability?

Nathalie Léger first published Suite for Barbara Loden at 52. It is her third book, but her first to be translated into English. Authors can experience a second “bloom” when their work reaches a foreign audience, and that is certainly true of Léger and her work. An excerpt was published in The Paris Review, and the book has also been featured in The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

For this piece, I interviewed Natasha Lehrer, who initially co-translated the book for U.K. publisher Les Fugitives. She provided some insight on the subject: “No English language publisher in either the U.S. or the U.K. wanted to touch Suite for Barbara Loden. It was too odd, too difficult to classify, too non-generic. After [the] Dorothy [Project] published it in the U.S., it kind of went mad.”

The translated work is a remarkable feat of collaboration. Lehrer, a native English speaker, worked with her native French counterpart, Cécile Menon, to convert Supplément à La Vie de Barbara Loden into English. According to Lehrer, “Working together like this we created something with the language that I could never have achieved on my own.”

It was Lehrer who brought my attention to the #namethetranslator hashtag circulating on Twitter. More and more people are beginning to consider the translation of books to be art, rather than what it was long thought of: grunt-work divorced from the intricacies of the original piece. Translators and their supportive readers believe the translator should be central to the design and promotion of the edition—though there is some debate surrounding this point, resting upon the difficulty of judging whether a translation does the job well enough to be credited alongside the author. To learn more, read this article on the subject, or Katy Derbyshire’s take on why one must be forgiving of a translator’s work.

Flaws in translation are inevitable, as there are so many factors to consider, all of which are determined by the translator’s individual interpretation. Lehrer confides just how difficult the process is:
“[T]he intrinsic challenge of translation is maintaining the author’s voice and yet liberating the text from being shackled to it, letting it live and breathe freely. Léger’s style is very literary, very allusive, and very French. You don’t want to sacrifice the very quality that makes it distinctive but you have to avoid sounding arch or pompous. Every word, every comma counts. It’s like filigree work–incredibly finely detailed, but you don’t want any of the effort that went into it to show.”
For the publisher, there is no debate: the translators’ names are boldly displayed on the back cover of the novel. The Dorothy Project, along with Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, deserve credit for enabling a sort of symbolic homecoming for Barbara Loden. Her story in its many forms has traveled from the U.S. to France and back again, like a migratory bird.

Recently, it has even reappeared onscreen. If you are a fan of Netflix’s Russian Doll, you might just catch a glimpse of Suite for Barbara Loden. The second episode opens on the show’s protagonist, Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne), waking up in a hangover haze (not unlike the opening scene of Loden’s film, in which Wanda emerges, bleary-eyed, from a mound of sheets on her sister’s couch). The book is a prop, strewn carelessly on the bed, face down, some of it read, if not read entirely.

The show employs the Russian Doll–a woman replicated, miniaturized, and incorporated into a larger version of herself–to symbolize the reincarnation central to its premise. Throughout the season, Nadia dies a number of times only to be resurrected again, on the night of her 36th birthday. Her path is violently circular, while Wanda’s is relatively linear. She moves ever-forwards, though with all the forethought of a somnambulist floating gently towards a cliff.

Alma is Wanda is Barbara is Nathalie is…arguably, the story that ties these women together has had a slow bloom. Through mediums, languages, spaces, it has refracted, and not unlike the Russian Doll, it has grown larger with every fold. This 2018 publication of the novel brings closure to a 50-year saga, coinciding with the height of the #MeToo movement, which has given women everywhere renewed strength through common vulnerabilities. The book lends its voice to this cause, by retracing the lives of so-called “weak” women in bold, by highlighting the strength in simply bearing, if not prevailing.

The original French title called the book a “supplément,” an addition to the life of Barbara Loden. Numerous titles were experimented with over the course of the translation process. Lehrer muses, “One of the most peculiarly interesting things about the act of translation is that often it takes moving quite far away from the original [in order to] to realize how to get close to it again.” And so the English version opts for a slight deviation for the title: “suite” evokes a string of melodies that bleed into one another, a continuum. I wonder where it will go from here.