A Composite Interview with you, Nina Leger

It is about a mirror, sliced into shards. It is about a hole to drift into and emerge somewhere else. It’s about light bouncing. It’s about being on the metro with eyes on other people, eyes on other men. A needle weaving between. It’s about resisting one direction, one page, one hotel, one person. It’s about moving under ground, then under the restaurant table, then in the cinema. It’s about sitting naked on the sheets in broad daylight, it’s about being in the new hotel, on the bed, in the bed, at the window. It’s about always looking out, never in.


Mise en Pièces is about a collector, but a collector of the memories of penises from men she has sex with in hotel rooms.
It is also about a woman walking alone in Paris, creating her own geography.


I had been living on the riverbank when you read your book in that stacked room of bodies– translated from your own with a tentative crawling – to me and others.  A hot gathered feeling of humid breathing was bubbling, and I was in the front row being pulled to each new part. It was like watching a new photographs being shuffled on top of ones that came before – each page was framed. Around me were warm people with coats on chairs, pinking skins, knees against other knees, clammy clapping hands and questions. It was in that large room with wooden bookshelves, and after the microphones were turned off I handed out little thimbles of bloody, sticky wine to wintered claws.

Downstairs by the fridge they told me, with a pointed finger, “Nina gets the good stuff”.

At that time I had been trying to write a book – one with a camera as a gun, do you remember? –but nothing was arriving. I handed you a drink and asked you about writing and you said

keep looking, keep your eyes open.


Writing is related to looking through description – and description is really important to me

You, in a little room, a little box somewhere caged in Paris, right now – or last month, depending on where you are – in pixels. You are an image of a writer at home, being converted for transcription. I notice what surrounds you as we talk. Not just the room, but a hazing, humming noise. Digitised, you’re now caught in a file on my desktop titled Nina Leger, Mise en Pièces / The Collection Interview.mov

I look at it most nights, scanning for clues or sentences or sparkling seconds that I can use to build a picture. To describe who you are – someone who refused to do exactly that for your own subject, Jeanne– is a thick fog to walk through. To describe you seems wrong and it makes me uneasy, so I frame you in composite pieces from where I see.


The ability to describe a situation, to describe our own situation, is something we have to keep working on every day. I think it matters to everybody who is interested in thinking about how the world works


I watch someone walk behind you onscreen, and a piece of the picture is painted in. I imagine the rest.

This wrapping up of things I’ve seen and collected, all in the hopes to present you, seems a violence.


No description is an objective, transparent rendering of something that would be called reality. It’s one thing that you see at one moment from one point of view. I’m really interested in this idea of “it comes from somewhere”.

We talk about looking as a violent act. I raise the reviews that I found on French TV penning Mise en Pièces as a violent book, because I like this idea of looking as a bloody thing.

I think it’s impossible for me to repel and just say ‘"they’re wrong, there is no violence in the book”, because I totally agree that looking is violent. I think that when you look, you take the power  – especially when, as it’s been common in the history of fiction, the person who looks doesn’t have their body exhibited. There is this violence about looking at somebody and using their body as an object to be described. People have become so used to reading descriptions of female bodies by male observers– descriptions so detailed and crude and sometimes degrading.

But what happens when you reverse the sight?

When you reverse the sight, the violence is revealed. We’re not used to that situation, but there’s violence from the start. I simply had the idea of reversing the mirror.

It’s like, when Jeanne is looking at the male body, she only sees it in fragments, never in its entirety... always split and mostly, just penises. These fetishistic cuts are obvious in cinema, representing the female body where you only keep pieces... you’re watching and you’re shown an ankle...

your hand is held still, obstructing my view of your face

you see lips...

your mouth is open, your sentence suspended

you see the chest...

as you sit still, I think of something a friend said to me the night before about the impossibility of making eye contact online. About the lack of piercing sight.

you see the–

back on screen, you jump forward, sentence lost, and move

yes this fragmentation is used to arouse desire but it’s also,
again, very very violent. This process of cutting into pieces was behind the title too; Mise en Pièces –

I translate the words as you keep talking. It means “a tearing up”

I wasn’t thinking about inventing something new, but reusing and reversing these traditions of sight.

Your box stutters again. Your face and body dislocate while your hair sways. This disembodiment embodies what I think we’re talking about and I look at it like a painting, scanning for reason or meaning.


The stilted call invites a shift and I welcome it. We talk about alternative narratives, the purpose of genres and categorisation in fiction. You mention Anne Carson, Helene Bessette, Raymond Queneaux, Nathaniel Hawthorn – I don’t tell you I haven’t read them – and then we talk about the collaging  of writing.

It makes me think of something you wrote* in an essay about Mise en Pièces for Granta, where you referred to Andre Malraux’s Musee Imaginaire to illustrate your rearranging of Mise en Pièces' order.

*My desire to unknot the binds of narrative drove me to invent new methods of working. After having written the whole novel, I printed it out, assembled the different fragments… spread out on the floor to observe them as an ensemble, except that instead of images, there was text… I progressively ordered these fragments, guided not by concern for the coherent succession of scenes, but preoccupied solely by the rhythmic line that this arrangement would produce: I wanted the reader to navigate the novel like a space vibrating with distinct intensities. For me, The Collection (Mise en Pièces) is a rhythmic ensemble rather than a story, and it seems to me that this rhythm renders Jeanne with far more precision and mystery than a factual description would have done

I read that article before speaking with you, and found the photograph online. I liked the disorder of it and the suited Andre Malraux, looking clinical and precise – a funny caricature of the artist from a certain time– ponderous, posed and male. I liked the illusion of a method, of all of these photographs lying on the floor with no beginning or ending. I liked this idea of presenting a collection of moments all at once instead of a succession of them walking towards an accumulative end. I think I liked it too because Mise en Pièces doesn’t have an end, not really,  either.

After reordering Mise en Pièces, after removing chronology, I still thought of it as a book but maybe not as a novel because, to me, novels are structures that generally respond to a sense of time. I was interested in using space as the main categorisation instead.


Time spreads around Jeanne. I never know where she’s going and I only know where she’s been when you bring me along. The book omits backstory. The book omits background noise.

Jeanne just looks and at no point am I given a reason why.

I am not given a stick to beat Jeanne.

A plot to punish her against.

A face to sneer at.

I threw away pages that I had dedicated to describing Jeanne, realising that the information would be held against her. I’m not opposed to explaining or interpreting though, because our interpretations really interest me. Our interpretations – and we’re all concerned – are narrow and inherited from ways of seeing, ways of judging. They are these grids that we put upon situations. These little boxes to put people and characters into when we read them.

Seeing you say this from your little box on my screen unsettles me.

I wanted to trouble the usual interpretations that I knew people would have – and this isn’t me putting myself as a superior eye either – I’ve seen like that too.


I spend a while thinking about this – about the ways we’ve been seeing things through time. I come to realise that seeing has its own history, and that maybe that’s all Art History is- the process of scanning for clues and meaning, explanations, symbols, context. A place to inherit interpretations. To look at other looks.

After this granular, buzzing thought, I talk to you about your work as an Art History teacher at the École Supérieure d'Art Marseille-Méditerranée. I imagine you spend a lot of time looking at looks or gazes. Looking at men looking at women looking at men.

You know, when Mise en Pièces was released in France in 2017, talk of the female gaze wasn’t really happening. People weren’t talking about the male gaze, either. Then METOO happened, and we really came to question our own culture as a country, and then this idea of the male gaze, followed by questions of the female gaze.

I think we should talk about female gazes, though. It will soon be insufficient to encapsulate females as one unit.

What is a female gaze?


I tell you about watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire last spring, and about the film being tethered to Mise en Pièces in my memory. About women looking in art.

I really loved that film. It made me think about how painting has long been an activity of men painting women for men, and looking at women for men.

There are brilliant pages from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing about the female body as being a kind of body ‘for’ the male gaze. There’s a kind of electric charge that you have with you when you use the past to criticise it.

I am looking at this portrait of you, now in pieces of paper on my floor. It’s an obscure image and its incomplete – how long should I keep looking? – with so many gaps to fill.

I’ve been thinking of the portraits that I’ve seen before. I’ve been thinking about whether someone can be whole on a page. I keep digging and searching and reading and looking.


She looked for her alter ego in novels and sometimes thought she had found her there. She trawled through books that staged the sexual life of female characters. She read enthusiastic reviews recommended these texts, presenting them like so many maps of the dark continent. Results of previously unpublished explorations that have, finally, brought long closeted mysteries of female pleasure to light. They promised far more than a novel, they promised the truth.

Jeanne plunged herself into these books. In each new text she hoped to find what the previous had lacked but the same pattern was invariably deployed. At the beginning, the heroines were bold and immoral. The first pages blazed, the lines throbbed with subversion. Then, this heart beat diminished, became a minuscule pulse which dwindled little by little until vital functions shut down completely. Half way through, the heroines had been irrevocably transformed into psychological composites devised for the purposes of explication … and the novel, which has appeared free and wild, preferred to frolic in an enclosure of highly limit significations, where sex could be nothing more than a symptom - a sign of a void that needed filling, of an anguish that needed to be appeased. Of a slowly healing wound.

The taste for sex itself was not a strength, but the consequence of an extreme weakness. Incapable of existing as accountable subjects, the heroines lived only to be the objects of male desire. They relinquished all force and will, to him. Dreamt only of being possessed, reduced, debased – and the portrait was perfect only if their eyes were blue, their hair blonde and fine, their complexion pale, their bodies fragile.

There were lots of coffees and cigarettes, and alcohol consumed in one gulp, pains-au-chocolat nibbled and immediately discarded dark circles under the eyes, tangled hair, lips bitten hard enough to draw blood, confrontations in the mirror, sleeping pills, tears shed in public toilets, scenes in clubs or bars that culminated in these beautiful cold fish drunk and sprawling ending up in the opportunistic sheet of a man whose penis was never described, because it was a symbol, an authority to which the women who had once believed herself to be strong surrendered herself. A phallus. Not a cock.


It’s now that smoke part of night. The bit I can’t seem to keep hold of. Night or morning are just words now, and I too am looking for looks in these pages or places to ask you about them, later. I am searching for these gazes in paintings and I find myself frenzied as Jeanne was then or is now, still in that book with the pink and black cover somewhere.

I am looking for some sort of piercing. A sharp point where she, anyone, says to me from oil or canvas or film or screen –

I can see you, too

but I can’t find her anywhere.


So many women have been looking out in paintings, but the thing is – who are they looking at? They are looking at the viewer, and the viewer is a man. As direct as their look may be, it has no power. What is really happening is this: a man is looking at a woman for other men who will also look. It is a look between men, most of the time.

It’s the fiction of a woman looking back.


Katharina seen by Lucas 1514

Venus seen by Tiziano 1538

Mary seen by Anthony 1638

Girl seen by Johannes 1665

Marquesa seen by Francisco 1804

Duvaucey seen by Jean 1807

Olympia seen by Edouard 1863

I hoped to show you this collection of mine but there isn’t enough time because we’ve agreed that you will leave for lunch soon and I want let you. Instead, the list lives in a file next to other pieces of you, women and research and we talk about your new book, instead. It’s a look into Sophia Antipolis in the South of France. It is a book with the same ebb of unearthing and burying that’s there in Mise en Pièces.

I wanted to see how this narrative, this story of sudden civilisation, progress and modernity overlays other narratives that are hidden or unknown

I notice this word from you again – hiding. I think about Jeanne and the paintings, and the rest. Then I realise you have been looking at me, for me, around me, too. The frame blurs. It widens.

Can you show me something that you remember being satisfied about finding after a long while of looking?

Yes, I recently discovered a very famous American poet. Her name is Adrienne Rich. She wrote this essay called Revision: When We Dead Awaken. It's an essay that encapsulates everything I like to think about when considering the creation of new ways of seeing. I think I read it three or four days ago, and I was thinking “oh, I want to read lines from this essay when I talk with you”. Just before this, I read it and I underlined these lines –

… Re-vision. The act of looking back. Of seeing with fresh eyes. Of entering an old text from a new critical direction, is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see-and therefore live afresh… We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.


It was pink with a cover wrapped in grey and brown mushrooms that seemed to pulse or blink along with the sliding cart, dipping in and out of the ground, up and down shoots and tunnels.

I didn’t tell you this on the call but I left my copy of Mise en Pièces on a metro in Paris the last day I was there. Everything I said was from slipping memory and online searches.  

I like the thought of my book, your book, still gliding inside and around Paris, now.


Since that book and the year that followed it, since its translation and its reading in that bookshop, since that call and that glitching – I look for eyes holding, still. I look in photos and on screens and think of the things between us.

The obstructions and glass.

I think of us, reduced to composite images in little boxes, sliced in these fetishistic cuts. Your stilted arm. Our flesh inside our mouth in frozen pixels. The gloss of my eyeball, flat. The warmth of this body, cold.

All of these pieces scatter in a new kind of frame, looking out, looking at the flat, looking at this in-between.

Nina Leger is a writer from France.

Her book Mise en Pièces was published by Gallimard in 2017.

Two years later it was translated by Laura Francis and published as The Collection by Granta.

It is a book about a woman who walks across Paris and sleeps with men in hotels to collect memories of their penises.

It was Nina Leger’s second book.

It won the Prix Anaïs-Nin.

I read it in English.

Nina Leger is currently researching for her third book.

It will be about the failed technopole of Sophia Antipolis – a town in the South of France.

Subscribe to mail-list for writing and publication news