None of it is Certain

Camille Laurens, trans. Willard Wood, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Les Fugitives, 175pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781999331870

reviewed by Adrian Nathan West

In Britain and America, Degas is a cliché. I briefly studied art history at university, and have an abiding amateur interest in the subject, but my closest association with him is the sun-bleached posters of his ballerinas lining the walls of the shabby roadside dance school where a friend’s girlfriend taught ballet basics to ungainly preteens. Degas is the kind of artist well-represented at poster shops; people buy his prints for sentimental reasons, or just to keep their house from looking bare. Acquainted with Degas as he exists in the popular mind, you think of his dancers as innocent, earnest, sometimes ecstatic. A long look isn’t needed to tell you otherwise, but looking long is not what most of us are good at.

In Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens attempts to do so and to stay true to the moral demands unquiet contemplation imposes, presenting a speculative life history of the model for Degas’s eponymous sculpture. Her perspective is not entirely new: in 2009, Germaine Greer singled out Degas’s cruel detachment in The Guardian, and numerous recent articles, in keeping with the times, examine Degas as an arbiter of the ‘male gaze’ and question the extent to which his subjects embody, subvert, or resist it. What distinguishes Laurens’s book is its relative uninterest in the idle if self-flattering pose of denunciation; instead she is concerned with the little dancer, Marie van Goethem, as a person, one determined by but not reducible to her sex, her poverty, and the time and place where she was born. Though extensively researched, her work is not pedantic, using facts and quotations sparingly when they can give an impression of truth, but happily drawing on the resources of fiction and memoir when they assist in imagining Marie’s inner life.

Marie’s extant biography is scant: she was born on June 7, 1865 to a family of Belgian immigrants. She had an older and a younger sister, and a brother and sister who died. The three girls were employed as ‘rats’ at the Paris Opera — the youngest, Charlotte, would have a long and distinguished career there, while the older one was arrested as a thief. For four years, Marie posed for Degas, and she appears in numerous sculptures and paintings apart from the one that gives Laurens’s book its name. Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was shown, to great scorn and bafflement, at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881. That same year, Marie was fired from the Opera for missing classes. No trace of her appears afterward, and there is no record of her death.

Laurens gives an evocative summary of the reactions Degas’s sculpture of her occasioned:

They pressed forward eagerly, approaching their faces, their monocles, to the transparent divider, they frowned, they backed away, what the devil, hesitated, and either fled or stood transfixed. Almost all who saw it, sensitive and cultured as they were, reacted with horror to the Little Dancer. This isn’t art! some people said. What a monster! said others. An abortion! An ape! She would look better in a zoological museum, opined a countess. She has the depraved look of a criminal, said another. ‘How very ugly she is!’ said a young dandy. ‘She’ll do better as a rat at the Opera than as a pussy at the bordello!’ One journalist wondered, ‘Does there truly exist an artist’s model this horrid, this repulsive?’ A woman essayist for the British review Artist described her as looking ‘half idiotic,’ ‘with her Aztec head and expression.’ ‘Can Art descend any lower?’ she asked. Such depravity! Such ugliness! The work and the model were conjoined in a single tide of disapproval, a wave of hostility and hatred whose virulence surprises us today. ‘This barely pubescent little girl, a flower of the gutter,’ had made her entry into the history of artistic revolutions.

Penury brought Marie to the Opera. The stage was one of the few careers open to young girls, and promised — while rarely delivering — a shot at fame and fortune. Beginning dancers’ lives were brutal and ugly: they worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, arriving at their jobs on foot, because their wages wouldn’t cover the price of a tram or omnibus. The work was physically rigorous, scoldings and beatings were common, and dancers were responsible for their own uniforms and expenses. Many became alcoholics, or sought protection from male patrons in formal or informal arrangements of prostitution. ‘The Opera rat,’ wrote Théophile Gautier, ‘is caught in the gigantic mousetrap of the theatre at such an early age that she has no time to learn about human life.’

Degas’s intent in sculpting the Little Dancer is far from clear. He was familiar with the poverty and the hard lives of his dancers, and the pathos in young Marie’s face, the gracelessness of her flat-footed pose, could well express sympathy with a labourer’s exhausted desperation. J.K. Huysmans saw in her a protest against exploitation, but for many visitors, she was a portrait of depravity. Laurens reminds us of the scientific prestige physiognomy enjoyed in the 19th century, with its menageries of criminal ‘types,’ many of whose features are evident in the Little Dancer: the receding forehead, a sign of stunted evolution, the prominent cheeks that attest to an overly sensual nature. Perhaps Degas meant to show Marie as a specimen of fallen humanity, of a piece with the sketches of murderers he presented at the same exhibition under the title Criminal Physiognomies. Photos of the killers from the Department of National Security’s archives reveal how Degas altered their faces to bring them in line with the theses of criminal anthropology; and the preparatory drawings for the Little Dancer likewise reveal the wilful or unconscious seeping of prejudice into representation:

It is hard not to loathe this forty-something conformist who, in modelling his wax, manipulated a very young girl for reasons that have nothing to do with art or aesthetics. Art need not be an exact imitation of life, but must we accept that a young creature be sacrificed to the suspect ideology of the artist?

All of this is intriguing, but none of it is certain, and the virtue of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is this accumulation of uncertainties as a moral prerequisite to looking. It is curious to me how we talk so much about ‘engagement’ in criticism when moralising tends so quickly to the opposite: to condemn the Little Dancer on feminist grounds, or to defend it with reference to the creation’s autonomy vis-à-vis the creator are all ways, not of engaging, but of being done with the work of art itself. Laurens presents the evidence such judgments would rely on without confining herself to a definitive verdict, because her question is how we dwell with a work of art, how we must at once approach and step back from it to permit it to remain a permanent object of curiosity and wonder.

In this way, she touches on one of the most significant problems for fiction: the imperative of understanding others while honouring that inner secrecy they always possess and we never will be able to grasp — the paradox of being condemned to understanding in one way or another without ever managing to verify how much our way of understanding deviates from any approximation of the real inner nature of those we contemplate. At the beginning of her writing, Laurens recounts, she meant to address Marie directly, ‘as though she were my own daughter or someone in my family’. The presumption strikes her as ‘sacrilegious’, but when her work is nearly done, it tempts her again. She speaks to Marie, to an absence whose existence and expiry is embodied in art, wonders about the books she held in Degas’s studio, the streets she took to school. Her unknowing is a form of honour, her attention to detail a form of grief for an enigmatic person in wax, her face weary and defiant, her emaciated arms folded obediently behind her small-boned back.
Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation as well as translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature. His essays, fiction and criticism have appeared in McSweeney’s, 3:AM, the Times Literary Supplement and Asymptote, where he is a contributing editor.