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A Writer’s Portrait of Louise Bourgeois

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fremon now now louison cover
Now, Now Louison by Jean Frémon (all images courtesy New Directions)

Originally published in French under the title, Calme-toi, Lison (Éditions P.O.L., 2016), Now, Now Louison (New Directions, 2019) exists in a liminal space between biography and fiction, firsthand observation and the imagination.

The subject of the book is Louise Bourgeois, who became an internationally known, widely celebrated artist after she reached the age of 70. She was also someone who was widely written about. Now, Now Louison is not like any other book on that shelf, which purists who believe in strict categories, such as biography, art criticism, and novel, might be troubled by.

The author is Jean Frémon, a French fiction writer, poet, gallerist, and art critic, who has written essays on many artists, including Jean Degottex, Antonio Tåpies, Sean Scully, Nicola de Maria, David Hockney, and Juan Usle. In 1981, Frémon became the co-director, along with Daniel Lelong and the poet Jacques Dupin (a close friend and biographer of Joan Miro), of the current incarnation of Galerie Lelong, after the death of the original founder, Aimé Maeght. I published Frémon’s book, The Paradoxes of Robert Ryman, translated by Brian Evenson, through Black Square Editions in 2008.

As a poet, novelist, art critic, and co-founder of an internationally known gallery with branches in Paris and New York, Frmon muddies the waters. Having known him for nearly 40 years, I do not think of him as a gallerist who writes books on the side, or a writer who directs a gallery, but someone who does both and more. There is no American counterpart.

The American poet and translator, Cole Swensen, who has translated other books by Frémon, has rendered Now, Now Louison into English. I published her translations of the long poem Bayart by Pascalle Monnier (Black Square Editions, 2002) and selection of short prose pieces, Atlas Inutilis, by the Oulipo writer Herve LeTellier (Black Square Editions, 2018).

Fremon Jean © J. Foley P.O.L
Jean Frémon (photo by John Foley / P.O.L.)

In his afterword, “Louise Bourgeois as I Knew Her,” Frémon tells us: “It is a kind of portrait.” He goes on to state: “So the book is not a biography; at most, it’s a life imagined. Like those written by Walter Pater, which I’ve always enjoyed so much. This book takes great liberties with reality, so it’s not by that measure that it should be judged.” We also learn that he “saw her regularly over a period of thirty years” as well as gave “Bourgeois her first show in Paris” in the mid-‘80s, a decade before he started writing this book.

If Now, Now Louison is, as Frémon says, “a kind of portrait,” it is one told by its subject — an interior monologue that touches on many matters and, as with any complex individual, it is made up of many voices. This could be a stumbling block for many American readers, who prefer “tell all” biographies with an omniscient narrator, but that would be their loss. In another contrast to those doorstop monstrosities, which do hav`e their place, Freémon’s text is less than 100 pages.

Within those hundred pages — made up of short, self-contained sections, few of which are longer than a page, grouped together and separated by asterisks — all kinds of writing occurs.

Starting with “You’ve thrown open all the windows and doors, just hoping to get a bit of air,” the reader is listening to Bourgeois’s interior monologue. Frémon writes in the second person throughout, both the addressor and addressee. If you think this means that he has appropriated Bourgeois’s voice, you are a literalist who does not believe a writer can interpret, draw inferences from, or investigate the text known as Louise Bourgeois.

If you know anything about Bourgeois, either through the many statements she made about her life, or through the wonderful documentary film in which she appears, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and the Tangerine, directed by Marjorie Cajori and Amei Wallach (Zeitgeist Films, 2008), you know that all the themes she explored were rooted in her traumatic childhood. You also know that she was bilingual (English and French), that she was married to the American art historian Robert Goldwater (1907-1973), and she had her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1982, when she was in her early 70s.

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Cole Swensen (photo by Matt Gold)

Frémon’s book begins after Bourgeois has gained fame. She ruminates on her childhood, goes about her day, makes comments about friends and acquaintances, remembers this and that, and details her study of spiders and other subjects. Even if the details will be familiar because you have read her statements, listened to her interviews, or watched the film (which I have seen more than once because I show it to my undergraduates), Frémon’s nuanced ventriloquism will make them fresh.

In other instances, we “hear” Bourgeois’s thought about her own work. Here, Frémon is the sympathetic art critic, novelist, and friend who often visited Bourgeois on his frequent trips to New York, and could converse with her in French and English about subjects such as poets and poetry (something I witnessed). He clearly knew the books in her library, and how she came to be in possession of some of them; he knew of her love for mashing together sardines and bananas, spreading them on bread and eating them, accompanied by a glass of milk. There is a wonderful section on Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi, which is also a synthesis Frémon’s talents as an art critic, novelist, and artist’s friend: this combination is what makes Now, Now Louison special and well worth an hour or two of your time.

It occurred to me while reading this book — and I was drawn in immediately — that Frémon would likely understand aspects of her French childhood that an American writer might not quite grasp, though I have no proof of this. He would get the nuanced emotional resonances of popular French songs, whose lyrics appear throughout the text.

And finally, Frémon’s Bourgeois comments on something that has long perplexed me:

But what’s nonetheless extraordinary and, in a certain way, quite admirable in [Gaston] Bachelard is his marked taste for bad poets, the worst phrasers, the gigolos of the cheap dance halls […]

How can such an insightful reader have such bad taste in his books? This is just one of the paradoxes that Frémon touches upon in his portrait.

The rest of her comments on Bachelard, and how his writing has been used to read Bourgeois’s work, is one of many high points in Now, Now Louison. An art critic who uses fiction to expose the limitations of the interpretation and understanding of art, all done with humor and insight — now that’s not something you encounter every day. And, when I say that Frémon is an art critic, I, of course, know that he is far more than that.

Now, Now Louison (2019) by Jean Frémon, translated by Cole Swensen, is published by New Directions.


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