French novelist and essayist Laurens (Who You Think I Am, 2017, etc.) considers the history and meanings surrounding Edgar Degas’ famous sculpture and the young woman who posed for it.
Young dancers gazing wistfully at Little Dancer Aged Fourteen will be sobered by this biography of the young woman, Marie van Goethem, who posed for its creator. In the book’s effective opening third, Laurens vividly sketches out a history of the abuses of child labor in Paris in the 1880s. At 14, Marie was not so much an aspiring and inspired dancer at the Paris Opera as someone forced to play walk-on roles to help support an impoverished family. At the barre, she joined other illiterate young girls, known as “little rats.” To supplement their meager pay, the teenage girls were encouraged to work the opera house’s foyer and its backstage areas, performing sexual favors for patrons. The girls’ mothers, Marie’s probably included, encouraged the assignations. No wonder, then, that Marie willingly endured physically painful postures for sculptor and painter Degas: The assignment paid better wages and freed the young woman from the advances of old men (Degas was largely indifferent to any sort of relationship). No wonder, too, that one critic described Degas’ rendering of Marie’s face as “sickly, grayish…old and drawn before its time.” Laurens brings her commentary up to date in a telling comparison of Degas’ work to images of Marilyn Monroe. In 1956, Monroe donned a tutu and posed next to the statue. The photos suggest, the author writes, “a ballerina overcome by loneliness, a soul sister ‘Little Sister.’" The narrative’s final third fails to cap the work, trailing off into unanswerable questions about Marie’s fate as a woman; the faint clues Laurens found about Marie’s adult life led nowhere. A somewhat opaque personal commentary describing the author’s deep feelings for the statue and its subject ends the work on a note of melancholy.
A tale of artistic endeavor with more agony than ecstasy—an insightful but uneven long-form scholarly essay.