“And now, especially after the death of my mother, I am my own subject.” This is British painter Celia Paul concluding the penultimate section of her book Self- Portrait (London, Jonathan Cape, 2019). In the span of three years three books have been made available to readers in North America where the simple statement “I am my own subject” could apply. Three books by women writing their lives in different forms: Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, from Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2016; Family Lexicon, by Natalia Ginzburg, the New York Review of Books, 2017; and Self-Portrait by Celia Paul.
Commissioned to write a brief entry for a film encyclopedia on the 1970 film Wanda and its director, Barbara Loden, Nathalie Léger understood that to be concise but comprehensive she would need to know her subject well. More than diligence drew her into the assignment, which she never completed. Instead, she wrote a book—a Chinese ivory puzzle ball of a book, sphere inside worked sphere, inside sphere. At the outset Léger’s pursuit seemed clear: “a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Barbara Loden was captivating as Wanda. A faded, pretty, leggy waif. Passive and detached, abject, accepting and without any expressed desires. Weightless and drifting, like milkweed fluff. As for the puzzle of spheres—there’s Barbara Loden, director and actor, who said, “Wanda’s character is based on my own life and on my character and also on the way I understand other people’s lives. Everything comes from my own experience. Everything I do is me.” Wanda is Barbara. Years before making the film, her attention had been drawn to a newspaper article about a woman carried along by a man with whom she’d had “a kind of happiness,” to whom she’d attached herself and who’d planned a bank robbery, where she, hapless accomplice, had been picked up by the police and he had been killed. The newspaper report was sufficiently detailed to have included the response of the woman, Alma Malone, thanking the judge for the 20-year sentence, and Loden, responding to media on the successful reception of her film, spoke of how moved she’d been by Alma Malone’s story and how struck she was by the hopeless situation of a woman for whom a jail sentence could be some form of a gift.
This book, Suite for Barbara Loden, is the author’s obsession with Loden who is Wanda and Wanda who gives us Loden, because her husband, the director Elia Kazan, told her, “Everything you do must be heard. That’s why I made Wanda. As a way of confirming my own existence.” And more here—Kazan spoke about the work of which he was most proud: his work of autofiction, The Arrangement, published in 1967. His relationship with Loden and many details of her life were identifiable. They married shortly after; Loden, however, was not chosen by Kazan to play the lead in the screen adaptation of the book. Nathalie Léger, in pursuit of Wanda, and Loden, and drawing a portrait of herself in this pursuit, notes that Loden’s close friends received the book as good friends would—hating it because it was a novel and also because it was true. Léger, her shrug almost visible, concludes, “They thought that these were two different things.” Elia Kazan had said, “Truth is the best basis for fiction,” following his own counsel to Loden on the necessity of being heard.
Natalia Ginzburg might turn that assertion on its ear. Her brief preface to_ Family Lexicon_ sets the terms for the book. She made it clear that names, places, events were real, and she scrupulously righted herself if she found she was leaning toward any of her techniques as a novelist. She doesn’t fault memory for its incompleteness, and said she wrote only what she remembered, having drawn clear lines between her making anything up and her assertions that the book was not fiction but instead the story of her family. She asks that we read it “as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.” If the novel is to be the frame for our reading Family Lexicon, what are the qualities she wants applied? Embellishment or elaboration, riffs of language, narrative structures and supports, temporal and sequential latitude and maybe, too, tolerance for the lacunae she mentions.
There is little more that is as closely observed as your own family from the vantage of being a child watching from under a table or quietly overlooked as the conversation goes on noisily overhead. And you are implicated, formed there; it is you and your making. So, it’s interesting that Ginzburg writes in the preface, “There are many things that I do remember but decided not to write about, among these much that concerned me directly. I had little desire to talk about myself. This is not in fact my story but rather, even with the gaps and lacunae, the story of my family.” With her credible, notably stringent prose, it might be odd to say about her that she is being disingenuous, but that seems the case here. She concludes with a nimble tautology: the book is the story of her family but not complete because memory is unreliable, ephemeral. But reality, too, is fragmentary. In adhering to its truth she is limiting herself to what she says she has seen, heard and remembered.
Family Lexicon then, is a memoir by indirection. Ginzburg said she had no desire to talk about herself, but each observation, those she chose to make, her unarticulated responses to incidents, events, and the inclusion, and in some cases the repeated appearances, of certain figures, her tonal tongue-holding when the event would have provoked an open-mouthed scream, speak as thoroughly to character as stating it boldly would have done; omissions can have a bell-like resonance. The lacunae about which she spoke also invite the reader to insert their own empathic responses, which bring the events or provocations closer, make them more immediate. Memoir is memory and Natalia Ginzburg had both engaged and excused hers. It’s a rich reserve, and while it can’t be depleted, it can be altered. The fraught and difficult period in which she lived, her personal tragedies and her complex family had her view memory’s store as precious and inviolable. She knew certain people through her mother’s repeated telling, connecting back to her mother’s own childhood and mixing, when these people were still alive, with her own observations. Sometimes a blur or soft smear is the sight you’d prefer. As well as spare and stringent language, there is the gentleness and generosity that speaks Natalia Ginzburg’s heart. “These were people impossible to meet now, impossible to touch, and even if I were to meet them and touch them they were not the same as the people I’d imagine, and even if they were still alive, they were, in any case tainted by their proximity to the dead with whom they dwelled in my soul; and they assumed the step of the dead, light and elusive.”
Leaving the reader to fill in the absences when a clear assertion of “I” would easily have told the emotional impact has us querying, searching and alert to the teller. Her subtle insertions, almost casually offhand (if you’ve been asleep while reading), of her life’s most critical events are as affective as a charge from an electrical socket. She discusses Leone Ginzburg, recently released from prison for subversive political activities. He was tall, pale, had a broad stride, spoke Russian with his family, and as well as politics was passionate about philosophy and poetry. Before prison he’d been sociable, a frequent guest at salons. After his release the invitations ceased. Then, “We got married, Leone and I, and we went to live in an apartment in via Pallamaglio.” For her irascible, politically engaged and vocal, impossible-to-please father, she’d done something of merit, and with pride he would introduce her as “my daughter Ginzburg.” There were family and friends, lives and politics and the dailiness and details that fill years and pages in recounting. She and Leone have three children. And then the Germans invade Italy, and anti-fascists and Jews who were also anti-fascists were in peril. They moved from Turin to Abruzzi for safety and then it was necessary for Leone to disappear to Rome. This was July. By November, from Rome, Leone alerted Natalia of the necessity to leave quickly and come with the children, where they were reunited for 20 days. Here she is precise with personal details, “They arrested him twenty days after our arrival and I never saw him again.”
Ginzburg moved to Florence, to her mother, and again the significant event is told elliptically, through omission. “Tragedy always made her feel terribly cold and she’s wrapped herself up in a shawl. We didn’t talk much about Leone’s death. She’d loved him very much but didn’t like to talk of the dead.” Events so devastating as to be unspeakable, their weight precluding their being brought into full light.
In her fine and astute afterword, Peg Boyers concludes that Family Lexicon is Ginzburg’s will, and “will” seems apt when speaking of this writer, “to revisit the past not to find answers to questions but to furnish an alternative to carelessness, forgetting and indifference,” terms it would be impossible not to employ in any reference to Ginzburg’s life and language.
Boyers refers to Ginzburg’s father, Giuseppe Levi, as the book’s hero, its strongest character. Loud to the point of causing rapid eye blinking, bombastic, cruel and caustic because he comes so close to both the heart and the bone of his targets, almost always close family, such as to have me wince as reader and once child, uncompromising, unswerving, unyielding and therefore inevitably courageous, he goes unjudged by Ginzburg throughout the book, almost admired for his relentlessness because it evidenced a man of character. But who wants to claim a father who is belittling and diminishing? When, exactly is a bully desirable? One of Natalia’s brothers, who were all older than she, Alberto, is arrested at home one night and taken away for his political involvements. Mother is upset, concerned, bewildered. But who is Alberto, Father shouts, not anyone, not even his brother Mario, and his response is not concern, not worry or alarm, but, “They’ve locked him up because he’s Mario’s brother, because he’s my son, not because he’s himself,” writes Ginzburg, remembering the event.
Peg Boyers’s noting Ginzburg’s insistence on the necessity to engage the past is reflected in the prologue Celia Paul wrote for her own memoir, Self-Portrait. She thanks her husband, who was the manuscript’s first reader, for confirming that the past, however coloured, has an important place in the present. Unlike the portrait of a life given to us by Ginzburg, Celia Paul writes very much in the first person, intensely felt, open and candid in speaking about herself. “I have made my life my own story.” This statement is resonant. It is the story of a woman who is an accomplished painter, who was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, who met there a visiting artist with a well-established and broadly recognized career, Lucien Freud, who was 37 years older than she. He wooed her quickly, they became lovers; her talent as a painter was already evident but still nascent. She was his muse, his subject, the object of his desire. He was powerful, she was insecure. She was smart, still very young. He was cruel, abusive, seductive and often tender. She describes him, on one occasion. They waken on a morning, having argued the previous night. “He is shining and grand and cruel today.” Their relationship lasted a full decade. Her paintings continue to grow in strength and the book is full with her reflections on art. Here Freud is always encouraging; they nourish each other in this.
For both Natalia Ginzburg and Celia Paul, a dominant abusive male is present in early, shaping periods of their lives but so are ongoing and sustaining relationships with their mothers. Both wrote about them with care. Here is Ginzburg seeing the effects of the war: “The terror and tragedy caused my mother to age suddenly, overnight. In these days she always wore a violet angora wool shawl that she’d bought from Parisini and wrapped herself up in it. She was always cold because of her fears and sorrows, and she became pale with large dark circles under her eyes. Tragedy had beaten her down and made her despondent, made her walk slowly, mortifying her once triumphant step, and carved two deep hollows into her cheeks.”
Celia Paul’s book includes reproductions of her painting and paintings of her by Lucien Freud. After the death of her father she’d painted her mother, My Mother as St. Brigid dreaming, and her description of her mother, through the painting, reflects the same care Ginzburg’s had evidenced. “My mother lies on her side, with her eyes closed. Her hand, with its wedding ring, is on her chest.” She goes on to describe the painting, recalling another by Rembrandt, and she wrote, “I had wanted to do something to echo it, using the same sheltering edifice of the mountain, like a tent, to protect my mother. My mother is dreaming up her own protective world. She is the spirit of nature.”
Toward the end of her decade with Freud, Celia Paul became pregnant and their son, named Frank, after their friend, the painter Frank Auberbach, was an astonishment to her. She felt more confident, she said, more powerful. At the same time she had written what I read as a tragic response to her seeing his face for the first time, “I do not know myself. I do not know who I am. He knows who he is. His certainty in this knowledge of himself gives him power over me, tiny as he is.”
How is it that this happens to a woman, to women? When Wanda came out in 1970, the feminists hated it, Nathalie Léger wrote. Of course they did. It was too close as an accurate portrait, both artful and true. It wasn’t a documentary, but it wasn’t fiction, either.