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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Suite for Barbara Loden

Nathalie Léger

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To purchase Suite for Barbara Loden

Title: Suite for Barbara Loden
Author: Nathalie Léger
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 123 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Suite for Barbara Loden - US
Suite for Barbara Loden - UK
Suite for Barbara Loden - Canada
Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden - Canada
Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden - France
  • French title: Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden
  • Translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done life/work study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 10/2016 Christine Smallwood
Le Monde . 8/3/2012 Nils C. Ahl
The New Yorker . 1/11/2016 Richard Brody
Nouvel Observateur . 16/2/2012 Bernard Géniès

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) little gem by Nathalie Léger" - Christine Smallwood, Harper's

  • "Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden remet en perspective la décision d' écrire , de choisir un mot plutôt qu'un autre -- un profil, une silhouette, une anecdote. (...) La belle prose simple et fragmentée de Nathalie Léger laisse très finement passer cet inachèvement. Dans la douceur de son montage et dans le rythme parfait de ses brèves séquences. Saisissant." - Nils C. Ahl, Le Monde

  • "Here, now, is a remarkable new book that does everything -- biography, criticism, film history, memoir, and even fiction, all at once, all out in front. (...) In her combination of the conversational and the incantatory, the fragmentary and the infinite, Léger captures something of Duras’s own tones and moods, yet her approach to Loden and her appreciation of Wanda are entirely her own." - Richard Brody, The New Yorker

  • "Ce récit dense et bref est construit à la façon d'un puzzle dont les pièces sont patiemment réunies. (...) Ce beau livre est presque un livre d'amitié. C'est donc un livre rare." - Bernard Géniès, Nouvel Observateur

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The US edition of Suite for Barbara Loden comes with the familiar publishing-disclaimer:

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
       This seems more than a stretch for this first-person narrative that is no less thorough than your average biographical study would be regarding the title-'character' -- the real-life Barbara Loden -- or than a film-study would be about Loden's film, Wanda. Yes, Suite for Barbara Loden is a creative take on examining and reflecting on a life and work, and, sure, essentially everything that is written is arguably, in a way, fiction; still, this seems a crass case of over-reach. (The UK edition does not have such a disclaimer -- and the French couldn't be bothered with almost any sort of front-matter, certainly not of this kind.)
       Taken as a fiction, the English title seems appropriate, the work a suite-on-a-life, a creative interpretation, but the French title -- Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden -- seems closer to the mark: it is an appendix of sorts, a set-apart summing up (of a personal sort).
       The narrator -- a fictional version of Nathalie Léger, if we're sticking with the artifice of the story-as-fiction -- explains that the original plan and commission had been rather more narrowly circumscribed:
It seemed simple enough. All I had to do was write a short entry for a film encyclopedia. "No need to put your heart and soul into it," the editor had said on the phone.
       Of course, the narrator does wind up putting heart and soul -- and a ridiculous amount of effort -- into the project, her research extending far beyond the subject (including, for example, reading: "through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times" and researching coal mining -- and even traveling to the US (to meet Mickey Mantle at the Houdini Museum in Scranton ...)). Much of the research makes its way into the text, and so, while there does appear to be some broader fictionalizing here, most of the work reads like a personal essay, an account of looking for and into someone else's life and work.
       The advice Léger('s narrator) gets from documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman is to: "Make it up. All you have to do is make it up" -- and she (half-)does, but presumably, part of the effectiveness of the work is that its subject is 'real' -- rather than a completely invented figure. Yet Loden also remains elusive: Léger('s narrator) can imagine her and recount various facts, but the portrait only proves so revealing. Of course, it's also that, the basic unknowability of the other, that makes this approach so compelling; so too, the voyage is as much about Léger('s narrator) as Loden.
       Loden was an actress who achieved some success but only briefly flirted with stardom. Among her greatest successes was the stage role of Maggie in the original 1964 production of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, directed by her husband, Elia Kazan, for which she won a Tony. She also wrote and directed one film -- and played the title role --, Wanda, based on a real-life story of a woman she closely identified with (as she also did with the Marilyn Monroe-based character in Miller's play: "I thought it was about me", Léger quotes her).
       Léger notes that: "When Wanda came out in 1970 feminists hated it", but Léger's sympathetic study of the two women, of Loden and Wanda (and the story of the woman she is based on) suggests a more complex reading of them as individuals, marked by their circumstances (and personalities). Léger('s narrator) sees Loden finding herself in the Wanda-character:
(S)he pieces herself together as a person through Wanda. "I used to be like her. I had no identity of my own. I just became whatever I thought people wanted me to become."
       Such malleable characters lend themselves to fiction, of course -- Léger('s narrator) can put what she wants into them, or also herself, piecing herself together in turn through Loden.
       The disintegration of Loden and the Wanda-character -- Loden dying of cancer before she hit fifty, the woman Wanda is based on sentenced to prison for a ham-fisted bank robbery gone wrong -- make them more intriguing (and tragic) figures as well, struggling seekers whose paths to escape were ultimately incomplete, cut short.
       Short yet rich in thoughtful observation (and some fascinating details), Suite for Barbara Loden is an unusual not-quite-fiction, consistently compelling and artfully drawn.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 June 2017

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Suite for Barbara Loden: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Nathalie Léger was born in 1960.

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© 2017 the complete review

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