Brigette Manion reviews Now, Now, Louison by Jean Frémon

Translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2018)

Making art was always personal for French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010): “Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up,” she once remarked. Today, Bourgeois is internationally recognised for her candid treatment of subjects that include sexuality, the body, the family, death, and childhood trauma through large-scale sculptures, installations, prints, and paintings. Her work has been the subject of major retrospectives at many of the world’s foremost galleries, attracting the admiration of artists, including Tracey Emin, Polly Morgan, and Tessa Farmer.

However, Bourgeois’s artistic renown was only achieved in the final few decades of a complicated life that spanned most of the twentieth century. Born to parents who ran a tapestry dealership, she lived her early years in Paris, where she was subjected to cruel treatment at the hands of an adulterous father and, at age twenty-one, witnessed the death of her mother from influenza—both experiences that recur as subjects in much of her later work. Her adult life was spent in exile in America, where she married and attempted to forge an artistic career despite prevailing trends in the forties and fifties towards abstract expressionism and a male-dominated New York art scene. The composite character and complex life and work of Louise Bourgeois are the focus of critic, novelist, and gallerist Jean Frémon’s Now, Now, Louison, a slim volume he describes as an “imagined biography” in which he presents the artist in dialogue with herself in an attempt to craft a “kind of portrait” of her life. The book is published this year in English by Les Fugitives, translated by Cole Swensen from the French edition, Calme-toi Louison (2006).

Frémon developed a relationship with Bourgeois that lasted thirty or more years, beginning with Frémon’s commissioning of her first European exhibition in 1985. The author’s intimate knowledge of Bourgeois’s personal relationships, life experiences, and outspoken views on a host of subjects are in evidence throughout Now, Now, Louison. There are revealing passages on her decision to have children (“without wanting them all that much, for that matter”), on her family (her father is characterised as “a bon vivant, a self-confident, phlegmatic boaster [. . .] the epitome of the normal male”), and on the art world (“they ignored you for fifty years, and when they finally noticed that you existed, they couldn’t wait to tell you what you’d been doing”). But, for Frémon, the task of producing a comprehensive biography covering the finer details of Bourgeois’s life was never a great priority in crafting his “kind of portrait” of the artist. Speaking to Granta in a recent interview, he remarked: “This book takes great liberties with reality, so it’s not by that measure that it should be judged. It cites no sources and is not encumbered by references.” He also questions the extent to which one can ever truly “know” someone, despite the closeness of a friendship: “It would be presumptuous of me to say that I knew Louise Bourgeois well. She was a complex, contradictory, unpredictable character, who really did live several lives.”

Resisting a conventional biographical approach to writing Bourgeois’s life, Frémon instead aimed to shape a narrative that captures the essence of her distinctive voice and dynamic character, creating “a portrait made from memory moving through time [. . .]. Those alone are the things that I wanted to render—not precisely what she said, but her tone, her rhythm.” And Cole Swensen acknowledges a similar series of concerns in translating the work into English. Contrasting Now, Now, Louison with several of her previous translations of Frémon’s writing, (notably Island of the Dead, for which she won the PEN USA Award for Literary Translation in 2004), she commented in an email interview with Asymptote earlier this year: “I noticed immediately how he’d stretched his own voice to accommodate hers—this book has a quicker surface, a more jocular attitude, than most of his other work.” Acknowledging that the book’s “character is completely determined by tone,” she states her particular desire to retain this feature in English.

Throughout Now, Now, Louison, the exchanges between Bourgeois’s first and second person voices shift with striking speed. Tonal transitions occur between paragraphs, from sentence to sentence, and even within sentences, producing a challenging suite of registers for the translator. At one extreme, the voice is assertive, sarcastic, even cantankerous—a mode Swensen conveys with deft assurance, particularly by deploying American colloquialisms to render the idiomatic, rant-like chatter of Bourgeois’s prose. In a critical take on Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp, we read:

Clearly he realised from the start he’d never be more than a mediocre painter, so he just forged on ahead [. . .] so uncool, and they stink. Open your eyes, buddy! They died off ages ago, those two, and yet they’re still taking up all the room. Étant donnés, given this and given that, blah blah blah.

By contrast, later passages reveal a more reflective, muted side to Bourgeois’s character. In such moments, she adopts an elegant, aphoristic style, often occurring when speaking of her ambitions for her own work: “Aim for beauty and you’ll get the vapid; you get fashion, beribboned cliché; aim for something else—encyclopaedic knowledge, systematic inventory, structural analysis, personal obsession or just a mental itch that responds to scratching, and you’ll end up with beauty.” Further voices include digressions in a childlike tone, as Bourgeois appears to ventriloquise her youthful self, alongside slippages into the voice of her father, mother, and even other texts. With impressive versatility, Cole Swensen negotiates the multiplicity of voices, while also maintaining the distinctive spoken quality Frémon achieves in his text. Despite the many tonal shifts, we always know we are rooted in the errant, challenging, deeply compelling inner monologue of Louise Bourgeois.

But, arguably Swensen’s greatest accomplishments in Now, Now, Louison stem from her complex engagement with the relationship between fidelity and translation. Echoing Frémon’s views on reality, sourcing, and biographical detail, Swensen remarks: “Issues of fidelity are always important—but fidelity to what? I think for me a good translation is one in which the translator recognises that fidelity to content, to denotation, is not the only or even the most important level. It must be a multi-level fidelity, a multi-directional fidelity that includes tone, sound, speed, cultural nuances, grammatical structures, and many other aspects.” Sound plays an important part in crafting the “multi-directional fidelity” to which Swensen aims in the text, found particularly through the internal rhyme she carefully observes in Frémon’s French, and incorporates into her own translation. Speaking of her decision to leave France for America, Bourgeois narrates: “They’re out of place, he said. OK, so let’s get out of place, let’s displace ourselves, embrace the distance.” The rhyming of “place,” “displace,” and “embrace” stresses the disorientations of a life lived in exile in the United States. Swensen also opts to retain passages in the original French that could have been transposed into English—the lyrics to several songs are included in full, and left en français, as are occasional turns of phrase, subtly reinforcing her exile’s state of geographical and linguistic flux:

Ever notice that I always say chez nous for here, and chez nous for there? Even though my place was there, and not here, but it all tends to get turned around. That’s what exile’s like, it rends apart. Apart from here and apart from there. Apart from everything. Advice to exiles, refugees, expats: take an electric adapter or two along with you.

It is tempting, when faced with Frémon’s adept text, to raise questions of ethics. Should we read (or rather, buy) a book in which a male gallerist ventriloquises a female artist formerly of his stable, particularly one of Bourgeois’s deep feminist credentials? Put frankly, is he just cashing in on a connection to a respected (and conveniently deceased) artist? I’d argue there’s more depth to this work. Beyond his technical achievement in Now, Now, Louison, Frémon dives into his own memory to create an impressive fictional portrait, creatively responding to both Bourgeois’s life and art. This portrait stylishly captures Bourgeois’s voice but of course only forms part of it. Most of her adult life was lived in the United States, and she was bilingual. Swensen’s contribution is to translate Frémon with the freedom to bring Bourgeois’s English voice to life. It is the forceful, irascible, often funny nature of this voice that accounts for so much of the text’s joy, lifting it beyond its potential to be seen as exploitative. Taking as its lead both Bourgeois’s voice and creative practice, this is a book that eschews excessive biographical detail to convey something closer to life, “a kind of portrait” captured through the combined artistry of writer and translator.