Now, Now, Louison is an engaging but – for me – ungraspable novella/creative biography, all about the visual artist Louise Bourgeois. It is written by Jean Frémon and published by Les Fugitives, a small indie press that specialises in newly-translated Francophone literature.
Jean Frémon is a writer (in numerous genres and styles), as well as the director of several galleries, and in this text he takes upon himself the evocation of Bourgeois’ voice: this piece is told from her perspective, and is about the clashing memories Bourgeois shorts through as an increasingly old, increasingly alone and increasingly unwell – yet increasingly acclaimed – artist.
I’ll be honest here: though I recognised the name “Louise Bourgeois” I wasn’t able to immediately bring to mind any of her work. This is kinda embarrassing, actually, as one of her most famous works is one of the most famous/conspicuous sculptures at the Bilbao Guggenheim (which I visited in December), the massive spider that overlooks the gorgeous Basque river (picture below). Once I had remembered that, the book made more sense, and was more enjoyable. A lot of Bourgeois’ work incorporates images of spiders, and a lot of Now, Now, Louison contains detail about them too.
Frémon writes about Bourgeois’ study of the lifestyles and materiality of spiders and spiderwebs, he presents quotations written into scrapbooks (these maybe existed, maybe they are imaginary?) that explored encyclopaedic studies of different species of spiders. We see Bourgeois’ fascination with how spiders catch their prey, how they seduce their mates, how they intimidate their predators and, of course, how they weave their webs.
Spiderwebs exist in numerous patterns and designs and they have different purposes. There are spiders that use their own excrement to create fake versions of themselves as decoys, there are those that dig underground caverns and fill them with an inverse cocoon-like web, from which they only ever momentarily stray in order to snatch their food. Spiders are often coded as sinister, but they’re also seen as resilient, as hardy, as tough. They are also – particularly in Classical myth – coded as feminine, and Bourgeois uses these mythologies, in combination with the structural images of spiders, to create evocative, big, sculptural works. You’ve probably seen some.
But – and this is a big but – I knew/know nothing about the life of Louise Bourgeois. I try to approach all books with as much ignorance of their content as possible, but here – when actually ignorant – I found it a severe hindrance. Though I am familiar with some of Bourgeois’ work, I am not familiar with her artistic career, and having read this text I am now in an ambiguous situation where I have a newfound, presumed, knowledge of her life that I know to be fictionalised to some extent. It is necessarily fiction because it is written as such, time plays not how time plays in reality, and the swinging between modes of address and implied reader/audience is a literary device… Now, Now, Louison is a literary text, it contains many beautiful passages of prose and careful descriptions of people and animals and objects (especially art objects), but whether or not the existence it evokes is an accurate depiction of Louise Bourgeois’ later life is a question that I cannot answer…
It was a book, I felt, that required a pretty high level of prior knowledge. Actually, “required” is wrong, it presumed a high level of prior knowledge: this book expects a reader to know the shape of Bourgeois’ life, to be able to recognise descriptions of her works and to see an analysis in – what seemed to ignorant me – blunt description. My enjoyment of this text was impaired by not already knowing its narrative, and though there were many sections that were a great pleasure to read, the fact that it didn’t contain any images of the visual art it was writing about compounded my feeling of detachment. When a book makes you feel chastised for not knowing something, when it doesn’t even allow the gap for ignorance that a series of plates or black and white photos within the text would address, it is an off-putting readerly experience. For me, at least.
This isn’t a book for me, I felt, and as much as I enjoyed Frémon’s writing and Cole Swensen’s translation, I didn’t “gel” with the book, I didn’t fall into it. And maybe, alas, that was because it wasn’t for me and it didn’t care about its value to those who it wasn’t aiming to engage.
I’ve looked the book up since finishing it, and it’s surprisingly acclaimed, but everywhere in high-minded, high-brow locations. This blog, then, must embrace its slack power, its wide margins, its lack of knowledge: Now, Now, Louison is not for me, is not for you, it’s for the people that it’s for, and if you’re reading it by accident it probably wants you to be ashamed by your confusion.
Basically, Frémon’s book feels confrontational in its presumption of knowledge. But if you have that knowledge then, sure, great, you’ll probably love it.
Here’s a passage I particularly enjoyed:
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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