The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Barbara, Wanda,” By Nathalie Leger

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It’s generally a mark of good writing when a writer is able to render something compelling, even intimate, despite nothing actually happening plot-wise. Nathalie Leger’s contemplative “Barbara, Wanda” in the the Fall 2016 Paris Review is a testament to this kind of understatement.

The piece opens with a procession of dreamy imagery, almost overly so, almost enough to put you off, until you realize what you’re reading is a description of a movie the writer is watching.

We are inside the house now; we see the meagerly furnished rooms, things left lying about, an old woman sitting in the back holding a rosary, her face yellow in the pale, streaky light, gaze fixed on something that disappeared long ago. We pan back a little; a child is running around her. We pan back farther and see a woman from behind, she’s wearing a nightdress, her disheveled hair is pinned up, her weary shoulders droop … we think this must be her, this must be the heroine.

The movie “Wanda” was starred in and directed by the actress Barbara Loden, a ripped-from-the-headlines film inspired by the true story of a woman who was meant to drive the getaway car of a botched bank robbery and, upon her sentencing, thanked the judge. Intrigued by the theme of imprisonment as relief, Leger was attempting to write about Barbara and her project, transitioning from scenes in the movie to pondering Barbara’s life to writing about herself and her mother. The scenes in her own life keep that same dreaminess of the movies scenes, yet still manages to read as grounded, substantive.

So what’s the story about? my mother had inquired. She was pretending to be interested just to be nice, but she didn’t care. She really wanted to go back to ordinary stories of ordinary lives, gossip, things she knew and cared about—a dead cousin, an ailing female friend, a sickly child; and no sooner had she asked the question than my mind went blank, a fog set in, I felt a sudden unfamiliarity with the subject: everything that had been clear and obvious suddenly seemed completely inconsequential, lost in the awful echo chamber of background noise as she absentmindedly scraped her spoon around the bottom of her almost empty coffee cup, waiting for me to begin. It’s the story of a woman who is alone. Ah. The story of a woman. Yes? The story of a woman who has lost something important but doesn’t know exactly what, her children, her husband, her life, something else perhaps but we don’t know what, a woman who leaves her husband, her children, who breaks it off—but without violence, without having thought about it, without even wanting to break it off. And? And nothing. Nothing happens? Not really.

How to describe Barbara, a woman Leger studied exhaustively but nevertheless didn’t know? She drifts between historical descriptions of other notable women delivered by people at various peripheries of their own lives. She ponders descriptions of Barbara that also stand in for many women—“To defend herself she smiles a lot”—and explores her own perplexion at how difficult it was to write what appeared to be a simple story.

You’d think explicating how Leger is plumbing her own life, and that of her mother, through Barbara and “Wanda” wouldn’t be a good idea, that the dreaminess and decision to rely heavily on imagery and description would be ruined by something as blunt as a thesis statement; it would seem almost gauche. But that’s exactly what Leger does, and yet with a soft and deft enough hand that it almost slips past you without noticing:

I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.

Leger is using Barbara to tell her story; Barbara was using “Wanda,” the woman from the newspaper story. She and her mother are using the people in their respective lives. They’re using each other. Nothing is really happening, and yet it is affecting and important. Leger is able to keep a level of reserve while still being intimate, and to make the layers of the piece seem complementary, rather than gimmicky or confusing.

Wanda is taking refuge in the descriptions of what she sees: a plain dress with opaque tights, a double-breasted check suit, a blonde fringe, a price tag, each detail more charged in substance and meaning than she is (what a joy to find your life vindicated at last by the detailed and endless enumeration of everything that passes in front of your eyes) … She goes into a cinema to watch a movie at random. She craves darkness, a love story, some miracle to bear her away. She falls asleep.