Violette Leduc - An obsessive and revealing self-portrait of a remarkable woman humiliated by the circumstances of her birth and by her physical appearance



Violette Leduc, La Bâtarde. Trans. Derek Coltman. Dalkey Archive Press, 2003. [1964.]

An obsessive and revealing self-portrait of a remarkable woman humiliated by the circumstances of her birth and by her physical appearance, La Batarde relates Violette Leduc's long search for her own identity through a series of agonizing and passionate love affairs with both men and women.
When first published, La Batarde earned Violette Leduc comparisons to Jean Genet for the frank depiction of her sexual escapades and immoral behavior. A confession that contains portraits of several famous French authors, this book is more than just a scintillating memoir--like that of Henry Miller, Leduc's brilliant writing style and attention to language transform this autobiography into a work of art.

“At the age of five, of six, at the age of seven, I used to begin weeping sometimes without warning, simply for the sake of weeping, my eyes open wide to the sun, to the flowers. . . . I wanted to feel an immense grief inside me and it came.”
La Bâtarde (1964) is a harsh title for an autobiography that is full of animals and children and plants and food and weather and girls falling in love with girls. It’s true that Violette Leduc was the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant who was seduced by theconsumptive son of her employer, but to choose such a melodramatic and reductive title, “The Bastard,” tells us how hard it was for Leduc to escape from the way her mother described her, and in that description gave her daughter an internal crucifix on which to nail her life’s story.
It’s not surprising, then, that the furnace at the center of Leduc’s autobiography, and indeed all her writing, is stoked by her ambivalent steely-eyed mother, of whom she writes, “You live in me as I lived in you.” Yet if the young Violette’s tears spill from eyes that are open to the sun, the older Violette’s words spill from the same place too. She is not blinded by her tears, nor are her eyes shut to the pleasures of being alive. Which is to say Leduc was a writer very much in the world despite the distress she suffered all her life. What’s more, she was a writer who was going to give maximum attention to the cause of her distress and create the kind of visceral language that often irritates men and makes women nervous.
This is because Leduc experiences everything in her body:
As Isabelle lay crushed over my gaping heart I wanted to feel her enter it. . . . She was giving me a lesson in humility. I grew frightened. I was a living being. I wasn’t a statue.
She doesn’t just (infamously) describe the physical sensations of sex between women, she describes the physical sensation of being unloved, the physical sensation of poverty, of snow, of war, of peacocks chuckling in a meadow—she is tuned in to the world with all her senses switched on. This is an extraordinary (and impossible) way of being in the world, but for Leduc it was ordinary. She is a writer who energizes whatever she gives her attention to, an orange shriveling in the sun, an ink stain on a table, the white porcelain of a salad bowl. Leduc refused to bore herself. Nothing is decoratively arranged to suggest atmosphere or a sense of place or to set a scene. Everything on the page is there because the narrator perceives it as doing something.
Even as a young girl, Leduc knew she had to find her own point to life. Her mother wanted her to be a Protestant, the religion of her absent father, but every time Violette tries to hear God, He is absent too. When she describes watching her beloved grandmother pray in church, Violette is shocked to realize that although she is sitting next to her, she has lost her. At that moment her grandmother is not there; she is in communion with somewhere else while Violette is doomed to be here, to be present, to be in this world. This is no small matter if you’re poor, female, a bit bent, not that attractive (Simone de Beauvoir referred to her as “the Ugly Woman”), and have nothing but your cunning and your talent to buy you a loaf of bread. We know that Leduc’s equivalent of the prayers that transported her grandmother elsewhere will be language. For Leduc was a born writer, a genius, as good as James Joyce, sometimes better. With words she not so much found the point to life as sharpened life to a point.
The French essayist Antonin Artaud, who was sometimes mad, wrote, “I am a man who has lost his life and seeking to restore it to its place you hear the cries of a man remaking his life.” Is that why people write autobiographies? Are they attempting to remake their lives? La Bâtarde is not an attempt to remake Leduc’s life, although there is no doubt that writing books was her salvation.
It is probably an attempt to stage her life and in so doing witness herself as its main performer—and what a performance. By the time she wrote her autobiography, Leduc had lived through two world wars, had intense and volatile affairs with women—the end of a love affair, she says, “is the end of a tyranny”—been married and separated, written and published a few novels (in between lugging heavy suitcases of black-market butter and lamb from Normandy to sell to the rich in Paris), worked as a telephone operator, secretary, proofreader, and publicity writer. She also had her relationship with the writer Maurice Sachs to make sense of. It was Sachs, a flamboyant homosexual, one-time reader for Gallimard, admirer of Apollinaire, Kant, Cocteau, Duras, and Plato—not to mention fresh cream cakes, apple brandy, and cigarettes—who encouraged Leduc to write instead of “sniveling” all over him. Leduc portrays him as a sort of French Oscar Wilde, a man both bewildered and fascinated by women, who filled her with terror because of “the gentleness in his eyes.” Leduc became infatuated with him because she has a “passion for the impossible.” What kind of accommodation can be found, she wonders, with people we deeply love but who cannot give us all we want? What Sachs can do is tell her to get on with what she is best at. “Your unhappy childhood is beginning to bore me to distraction. This afternoon you will take your basket, a pen, and an exercise-book, and you will go and sit under an apple tree. Then you will write down all the things you tell me.”
There’s a fairy godfather if ever there was one.
It was under that apple tree that she wrote the wonderful first line of her first novel, L’Asphyxie—“My mother never gave me her hand.” Simone de Beauvoir read the manuscript and was so impressed she became Leduc’s mentor, using her contacts to help get it published in post-Second World War Paris. When Leduc’s editor Jean-Jacques Pauvert offered her 100,000 francs for the manuscript, she demanded the sum in cash, preferably in small bills.
By the time Leduc wrote La Bâtarde, she was going to return to themes she had written about before (her mother, the deprivations of her childhood, the erotics of lesbian sexual passion, the erotics of everything, coffee, shoes, hair, landscape), but as a writer at the peak of her literary powers. In fact, she was uniquely placed to write an autobiography because she was a novelist who knew how to make the past and present seamlessly collide in one paragraph. Leduc also knew something that lesser writers do not know. She knew the past is not necessarily interesting. Eight lines into La Bâtarde she declares, “there’s no sustenance in the past.” This made me laugh, because I was on page one with 487 pages of “the past” to go. But I laughed in bittersweet recognition too, and here is a confession. When I read autobiographies I usually skip the early chapters that describe the house the subject was born in, her parents and early childhood. I start when the subject is about seventeen and begins to make choices for herself rather than react to the choices that have been made for her. I see no reason why I should be forced to meet aunts and uncles who are of no interest to me in the hope that I will better understand the subject’s motives and psychology.
To observe so soon into her life story that there is no sustenance in the past is to give the past an edge. To make us curious about what the past lacks in sustenance for the narrator. What is the past anyway? What kind of place is it? Yes, it’s a series of events that happened before now, but the past, like writing, is mostly a way of looking.
La Bâtarde is the first autobiography I have read all the way through. This is mostly due to Leduc’s cunning decision to begin a work of tremendous narcissism by pretending she has no self-esteem and is a totally hopeless case. The first thing she tells the reader is that she is not unique, which is a relief—most people write autobiographies to persuade us that they are. She then goes on to wish she had been born a statue—presumably because if she were made from bronze rather than flesh she would not have to feel the painful things she is going to tell us about. Still on page one, she tells us she is sitting in the sunshine outside, surrounded by grapevines and hills, writing in an exercise-book. Suddenly she imagines her own birth. She is in a dark room. The doctor’s scissors click as he separates the child from her mother—“we are no longer the communicating vessels we were when she was carrying me.”
“Who is this Violette Leduc?” she asks. And then it’s the next day, she’s picked some sweet peas, collected a feather, and is now writing in the woods, staring at the trunk of a chestnut tree. Every moment has breath and every breath pushes the narrative on to a surprising place, to somewhere that matters because it matters to Leduc. When she steals flowers “always blue” from a park, she connects the action to a perception. She says the flowers are her way of “taking her mother’s eyes back,” by which I think she means she wants to find her mother’s image in something beautiful. And when she is convalescing from an illness in the countryside, she writes, “Whenever I looked round at the objects and furniture in the room I felt I was sitting on the point of a needle. So much cleanliness was repellent.” Her prose is kinetic and it is poetic, but it never collapses into poetry. In fact, her books are much more grounded in the realities and uncertainties of everyday life than her existentialist contemporaries.
Despite being acclaimed by Camus, Genet (who Leduc described as a burglar poet), Simone de Beauvoir, and Sartre, Leduc’s books are not to be found alongside theirs. If in my view she stands shoulder to shoulder with them as a writerly equal, she certainly does not stand spine to spine with them in Barnes & Noble. Perhaps this is because nothing had taught her (or Genet) that life or literature was respectable. Literature for Leduc was not a comfortable sofa or a seminar room in a university—nor was it a place where flawed human beings undergo some sort of catharsis and emerge happy, whole, healed, miraculously cleansed of anger, lust, and pain. For Leduc, literature, like life, was a place where some people damage us and some people save our lives—and then it is lunchtime. Referred to as “France’s greatest unknown writer,” it is time to stop fetishizing Violette Leduc as a female outsider existing on the fringes of everything and allow her to take her place in the canon of great writing.
To declare there is no sustenance in the past is of course a half-lie. What sustained Leduc is that she wrote out her life with an audience in mind. It is for this reason she “bit into the fruit” of her “desolations”—that’s what many writers do, and Leduc is no crazier than them for having the audacity to believe that she too could spin some ideas into the world. I disagree with de Beauvoir, astute as she is, when she describes “the unflinching sincerity” of La Bâtarde as written “as though there were no one listening.” De Beauvoir certainly did not write her own books thinking no one was listening to her, and she must have been aware that even in an uninhibited autobiography such as this one, there is no such thing as an absolutely true memory—all writing (except for diaries, but that too is debatable) is shaped with an audience in mind. Leduc, who addresses the reader throughout as “Reader, my reader,” felt more entitled to be listened to than perhaps de Beauvoir unconsciously thought she should feel. Given the turbulent historical time in which she lived, Leduc did not have a particularly remarkable life. It is how she crafts language that made her life remarkable.
“To find relief in what has been,” Leduc whispers to her reader, “we must make ourselves eternal.”
I am staring at a photograph of Violette Leduc now. She is smiling, a wry half smile, an expression I recognize in her writing too. I reckon she laughed out loud when she wrote, “I was afraid of having to present my big nose to strangers” or “I thought one’s personality could be changed by wearing expensive clothes.” She has a dry, camp wit, rarely discussed in a critical atmosphere that has often reduced her work to unstable female tragedy on a grand scale. Her eyes are slightly narrowed (is she flirting with the photographer?), her chin resting on her left hand. She holds a pencil between her fingers—or is it a cigarette? Violette. An old-fashioned name. She was born in 1907, after all. The very beginning of the twentieth century. She was seven years old when Freud told us the most interesting secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves—but Leduc knew that anyway. The secrets we keep from ourselves were her material.
Violette Leduc had to spend a lifetime unlearning how to see the world as her mother saw it. Most of us choose to be less alert to the things that grieve us. This was just not possible for Leduc. Reading La Bâtarde is like discovering a whole new nervous system. - Deborah Levy

La Bâtarde, the book which finally gave Violette Leduc the success she craved, is a condensation of all her earlier novels, translated back into autobiography. Mad in Pursuit, which followed it, is simply a second volume of that autobiography in which she declares, "To write is to inform against others," "To write is to prostitute oneself." Her terrible candor in both these books is true to those definitions while at the same time going far beyond them, for, if her work were nothing but a betrayal of others and a prostitution of herself, her books might attract sensational, but not serious attention. She asks herself, "Will you sell your sex for the sake of your pen?" She answers, "I would sell everything for greater exactness." The cost is outrageous, but she has produced the most exact, sensual, emotional, and psychological record there is of a woman defined and diminished by her sexuality. By means of it, she can, even in the extremes of her degradation, reflect in fact what is perhaps true only in the horrified and secret imagination of most of us. We perceive in her life our own prostituted selves, frightened, confessional, self-justifying, obsessive against the revelation that we are women.
Born the bastard of an orphan serving girl, Violette Leduc was the evidence of the crime against her mother's sexuality as well as the punishment for her mother's sexuality, and therefore Violette was taught not only that men were untrustworthy and heartless, but also that she was, in her mother's eyes, identified with that enemy. In the poverty and isolation of their lives, Violette Leduc focused on her mother with a courtly possessiveness which was to last, along with her critical anger at her mother, all her life. The mother who had taught her to fear men betrayed her for one, marrying and sending Violette away to boarding school. In Thérèse and Isabelle, which is also admittedly autobiographical, Thérèse responds to the news of her mother's coming marriage with, "I told her that I was engaged to her myself." Her mother tries to reassure her. "There's no one on earth but you, there's no one on earth I love but you, she told me, but she had someone else." "I was Isabelle's. I didn't belong to anyone anymore."
This explanation of Thérèse's willingness to be seduced by her schoolmate Isabelle is not really what absorbs Violette Leduc's attention in Thérèse and Isabelle. Her own description of the book is given later in Mad in Pursuit with unbecoming accuracy. "A load of sticky jam with two adolescent girls embalmed in it." Her method of writing is far from a psychological analysis of the lesbian experience of schoolgirls. "I wrote with one hand, and with the other... I loved myself to love them." Violette Leduc sexually rediscovers her adolescent experience in the process of writing about it and records moment by moment all its erotic urgency, just as she rediscovers herself as a middle-aged woman masturbating as she writes about her adolescence.
Thérèse and Isabelle are not beloved friends so much as young, sexual animals, so entirely absorbed in the experience that they care about nothing else. They keep each other awake all night in Isabelle's cubicle, each new erotic discovery more wonderful and exhausting than the one before until they learn to identify each other's bodies so thoroughly that they hardly distinguish between the toucher and the touched. "To give oneself, one must annihilate oneself," Thérèse explains, and this discovery, though it comes from sexual ecstasy, is not limited to that sphere. Thérèse is nothing but a used and yearning body, sleeping through classes, sleepwalking through the day unless Isabelle is with her, snatching at, touching, taunting in lavatory, hallway, empty classroom. Their only awareness of the world beyond their lovemaking is the fear of discovery either at the school or in the room in town they rent for an hour. Isabelle is too abandoned to care even about that, taking her pants off in an empty classroom at noon in order to instruct Thérèse in the art of using her tongue. Isabelle's only terror is the loss of Thérèse, their inevitable separation because they are children, not in charge of their own fates. They do not talk together except as a way of making love. They don't have much understanding of, or sympathy for, each other's fears.
Because the book is written from Thérèse's point of view, her own sexual discoveries are more important. And, since Thérèse is the young Violette Leduc in the intensity of her first prolonged sexual experience, what Thérèse discovers is linked with the person Violette will become. Licking on command and direction from Isabelle, feeling aroused herself in the act, she interprets her experience under the obviously later influence of Freud. "The pearl wanted what I wanted. I was discovering the little male organ we all of us have. A eunuch taking heart again."
The book ends with the removal of Thérèse from school by her mother, but Violette Leduc continues the story of herself as protagonist in Thérèse's place in La Bâtarde. Once Violette and Isabelle are separated, in fact by Isabelle's leaving school, Violette gives little thought to her and concentrates instead on a young music teacher. The one night they spend together in Hermine's room does leave Violette missing Isabelle because the sexual experience doesn't live up to her high expectations. As a result of that night Hermine is sent away from school, but they exchange secret letters and finally meet outside the school. Violette wants to make love in an open field. Hermine is reluctant, and now she is scornfully compared to Isabelle, who made no confessions, who had no inhibitions in pleasure. Violette's correspondence with Hermine is discovered, and she is expelled from school. "Morals, as they say in the newspapers." "Everything made rotten, everything poisoned." She goes to live with her mother and stepfather in Paris; they neither discuss the expulsion with her, nor interfere with her continued correspondence and occasional visits from Hermine. In school in Paris, feeling stupid because she has never bothered to learn anything and ugly because of her large nose, she has to keep her one power hidden, the superiority of her experience, which comes through her senses. "I had to hide that fact from everyone." That sense of superiority, of morality as something in the newspaper or in the head mistress's office having nothing to do with experience, is not something Violette Leduc was able to maintain. Later, involved in writing about this period of her life, she worries about what her neighbors will think of her, and she tells her mother she would be ashamed to have her read what Violette is writing. "Why upset people?" "Why shock people?" "I was and I always shall be hampered by what I think other people will say." "What repelled and will always repel them: homosexuality."
Perhaps the sexual detail in her books does shock some readers, but even at the time she was writing, the explicit scenes would not have been as upsetting to many as the quality of the relationships she involved herself in. Violette and Isabelle as fifteen-year-olds used each other for sexual discovery without concern, more surprising between two girls than two boys or a girl and a boy, but ordinary enough even so, given the needy and lonely egotism of adolescence. Violette's relationship with Hermine is far more difficult to deal with, not because they are lovers, but because of the greedy and guiltless abuse Violette makes of Hermine's love.
Before Hermine is able to join Violette in Paris, Violette involves herself in an ambiguous relationship with a young man named Gabriel. Though she does not tell Hermine about Gabriel, she does tell Gabriel about both Isabelle and Hermine. Gabriel understands. He is apparently willing to spend his time with, and his little money on, Violette without involving her sexuality. When her mother warns her against him, as against all men, Violette reassures her that Gabriel isn't like other men. He calls her "little fellow," encourages her in masculine dress and behavior and never urges her sexually. When Hermine comes to town, he follows them, flaunting his presence to Violette, as if it were giving him some real pleasure to watch them together. In this secrecy, Violette does feel guilt. Throughout her life, she feels guilty about caring for more than one person, but sexual involvement has nothing to do with that guilt. It is as if her model for love stayed that between herself, an only child, and her mother before her mother's marriage.
Once Hermine comes to Paris and she and Violette are living together, Hermine does become aware of Gabriel and seems to accept his presence, even occasionally to seek comfort from him in her trials with Violette, but Violette sees them as rivals not only for her attention but for her identity. While Gabriel encourages her in her masculine role, Hermine does not. She tells Violette that she doesn't look like a man even when she imitates men. "Hermine was turning me into a woman, and that infuriated him." "I was his man, he was my woman in our friendship." But Hermine's influence is stronger, partly because Violette has given up a job with a publishing house because of ill health and is now entirely dependant on Hermione, who teaches at a school and also takes extra pupils to make enough money for them both.
Bored, with nothing to do all day to entertain herself, Violette encourages Hermine to take more and more pupils in order to have more money to spend. "The more I veered in practice toward masculine attire, the more I was gnawed inwardly by a desire for frivolities, for beautiful cars, for fine furs." Hermine saves her money, buys Violette elegant clothes, but the more she gives, the more Violette wants. She wanders the streets accepting rides from strangers, but always her fear of men makes her escape. Telling Hermine of these adventures, Violette is irritated that Hermine is not jealous. Gabriel is, or seems to be, and finally his disgust drives him away. As Violette abuses Hermine's generosity and tolerance more and more, Violette cries out, "She is killing me and there's nothing I can accuse her of." Except, of course, turning Violette into a woman: useless, dependant, bored, and greedy. Finally seeing a very expensive table she wants, Violette can't persuade Hermine that there is enough money to buy it. Then in an encounter with a strange man, Violette explains her relationship with Hermine, and he offers to pay her to make love with Hermine in front of him. Hermine is not easy to persuade, but at last she agrees even to this in order to indulge Violette in getting the money for her table. It is, however, a test of love Hermine does not pass in her heart. She forms an attachment with one of the other teachers at the school as a way out and leaves Violette, abject and enraged, asserting, "Who, in the end, gave most to the other? I did." What she gave was expulsion from school, the loss of her job and her health. Giving, for Violette Leduc, means nothing but sacrifice, the annihilation of self which she learned from Isabelle. Hermine is dismissed as a failed saint because she made a religion of Violette and then lost faith.
Violette seems to have survived the rejection by resorting to masturbation, a practice she learned from Hermine, who "told me she'd learned from reading a book by Freud." "At first I believed I was damning myself. I didn't say to myself: chastity and repression drive people mad. I said: these are nasty habits that you must rid yourself of or keep quiet about." In later years she says, "I desire, am only able to desire, myself."
If she had other relationships with women, she does not write about them. She might have liked a sexual relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, who befriended her and encouraged her writing through long years of some recognition in the literary world but no success in the marketplace. Simone de Beauvoir was not interested, and Violette Leduc was so grateful for her loyalty and help with writing that she did not resent Simone de Beauvoir's lack of erotic interest, which would not seem curious, of course, was not, except as seen in the light of Violette's relationships with homosexual men, whose attention to her work did not matter to her, from whom she always wanted instead the sexual attention they would never offer her.
Aside from Gabriel, to whom she was finally married for a brief and unhappy time, all the men she cared about were homosexual. And even her relationship with Gabriel was sexually confusing. Once she decided to conquer her old fear of sperm she still did not want to play the role of a woman with Gabriel. She asked Gabriel to make love to her as a man would make love to another man. Gabriel's solution was simpler. On their wedding night he suggested that they love each other like brother and sister. Though she tried and was sometimes successful in seducing him, he was never really interested in her sexually at all, and, because he was also bitter about the years in which she mistreated him, he had little sympathy for her suffering. "Why did I marry?" she asks herself. What a commonplace and depressing answer it is. "The fear of being an old maid, the fear that people might say: she couldn't find anyone, she was too ugly."
In some of the comments she makes, it would be easy to assume that she really wanted to be a man. "Women are not men, I said to myself with inward desolation." Women are inferior creatures. In reviewing her relationships, she says that Gabriel, Hermine, and Isabelle, she remained a child to be taken care of, "an idiot woman jammed in neutral gear." She bewails not only her ugliness but the feminine shape of her hips. During the period when she tried to make friends with Genet, she is abjectly flattering and servile, accepting his rude mistreatment of her. Her final ecstasy about Genet is to dress herself in a light body stocking and wear a false penis to attract his attention. As a house guest of Cocteau's, she tortures herself with the grief that she is "a mere woman." Two male homosexuals at different periods of her life briefly took on responsibility for supporting her, but in their presence she had to subdue her own sexual desires and become, as she mockingly calls herself, "a sort of bluestocking made up mainly of runs." When her mother suggests that she should find the sort of man really willing to take on the responsibility of a woman, Violette thinks such an attempt would be deceitful, an extraordinary piece of moral reluctance given her behavior in most intimate relationships. In one of the arrogant moods she uses to pull herself out of depression and self-pity, she says that she came into the world and vowed to entertain a passion for the impossible. To be a man? Or perhaps better, a beautiful boy? At moments, but for all her paranoid self-pity and enraged need, Violette Leduc chooses impossible relationships because they are impossible. However painful sexual indifference is, it keeps her free of the annihilation of self that sexual passion has been for her. Only in impossibility is there the space for herself that she needs to write, to love herself, to recreate herself as she has been and is, "intact, loaded down with defects that have tormented me."
Very few people have abused themselves and others with such continuous rage, dragged such a defective spirit through the slums of human emotion, where self-respect is a concept never entertained, suffered it all with only one dream left, "To write the impossible word on the rainbow's arc," with this consolation: "I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of the summer. My bank of wild grass is majestic and full of music. It is a fire that solitude presses against my lips," the fire of the onanist giving herself finally, in her books, to the world, not the genius as Gertrude Stein would be taken, not the martyred savior Radclyffe Hall offered herself to be, but simply an ugly bastard of a woman who will have her say. - Jane Rule
 
THERESE AND ISABELLE

Violette Leduc, Thérèse and Isabelle, Trans. by Sophie Lewis. Salammbo Press, 2012.     excerpt

Charged with metaphors, alternating with precise descriptions of sensations and human relationships, Thérèse and Isabelle was censored by its publisher in France in 1954, first published in a truncated version in 1966 and not until 2000 in its uncensored edition, as Violette Leduc intended.
“I'm trying to express as exactly, as minutely as possible the sensations of physical love. There's something here that a woman can understand. I hope this won't appear more scandalous than the thoughts of Molly Bloom at the end of Joyce's Ulysses. Every sincere psychological analysis deserves to be heard, I think.”  Violette Leduc
  
 

Admired by Jean Genet, Nathalie Sarraute and Albert Camus, Violette Leduc (1907-1972) was championed by Simone de Beauvoir when she published her scandalous autobiography La Batarde (1964). Like Thérèse and Isabelle, many of her audacious novels are largely inspired by her life. Her vibrant and lyrical prose continues to fascinate new generations of writers around the world

With so much to recommend Leduc’s work, it is a mystery as to why she doesn’t receive more accolades. Perhaps it is due to Leduc’s trademark forthright style; as de Beauvoir commented in her foreword to Leduc’s most well-known work, La Bâtarde, she “she doesn’t please; in fact, she alarms people”.  Violette Leduc deserves to be reclaimed and enjoyed by a new generation of readers; these are lesbian classics, patiently waiting to be re-discovered. Sarah Cope, DIVA magazine 

Thérèse and Isabelle is written with unflinching sincerity and Leduc's progressive attitude and experimental style confirm it as one of the greatest examples of French-language erotic literature.’  Olivia Heal, TLS
 
 ‘But if the uncensored Thérèse and Isabelle reads like a fever-dream, to many it represents a long-awaited panacea.’ Thea Lenarduzzi, Literary Review


‘Thunderbolts of illicit love. A classy new translation of Leduc's masterpiece on the tyranny of love.’  Independent

‘Lesbian story ban is lifted.’ Observer  
‘Violette's prose, hirsute and grating as always, throws itself into faces more spiritedly than today's provocateurs, and above all more authentically. The reticence and languor of Thérèse and Isabelle renews an erotic tradition that today has become banal.’ Libération

‘Perhaps her most sulphurous novel. But who's better at describing the first innocence of desire, the beauty of clandestine and shared love, the force of female tenderness?’  Matricule des Anges

‘This unabridged version restores, breathless, the intimate crescendo of an erotic journey, the murmur of each emotion. A woman's body discovers sensuality under the pen of a writer who's given her flesh to her writing.’  
Magazine Littéraire
 

I was tempted, at first, to start this review with some clunking irony along the lines of "Like most men, I have no prurient interest whatsoever in contemplating a highly sexual love-affair between two pupils at an all-girls' boarding-school, so the subject matter of this novella held little appeal ..." But having read Thérèse and Isabelle and been deeply moved by it, I don't think it appropriate to make jokes; and the impulse to have done so might in itself be a side-effect of the pornification of culture, or at least of myself.
Then again, it was horror and fear on the part of the publishers which kept this work, first written as the opening section of Leduc's novel Ravages (1955), unpublished in its original form until 2000 – and in French, at that. Leduc, a friend of Simone de Beauvoir (who also had a crush on her), had spent three years writing Thérèse and Isabelle – and it shows, in a good way. So when Gallimard said, in effect, "no way" in 1954 ("impossible to publish openly," said Raymond Queneau, of all people), Leduc nearly had a breakdown. The publishers had, in De Beauvoir's words, "cut her tongue out," and although the work was reshaped and inserted, piecemeal, into subsequent books (and circulated in a private edition among friends), it hasn't appeared in English before this edition.
It's a brave thing to do, and if there's one good side-effect of prurience, it's that in the pursuit of something rude, good art can be discovered. (I remember being steered to Les Biches as a teenager by someone who had heard it was full of dirty stuff; I ended up discovering the genius of Chabrol early.) And Thérèse and Isabelle is, unquestionably, great.
And its interest in the sexual side of things is crucial. Such affairs as the book describes happen; they are part of what makes people the way they are; and so they have to be written about. In this country, we have a particularly immature attitude to this kind of thing: just look at the smirking adolescence betrayed by the inaugurators and keepers of the flame of the Bad Sex Awards, a prize whose point has always been unclear to me – is it for good writing about bad sex, bad writing about bad sex, or bad writing about good sex? (The main point of the prize, it seems, is that some things simply should not be written about.)
So here we have extraordinary writing about sex; and, more importantly, about love, and the way it makes us feel. "Now is a night of obstacles. Her smell belongs to me. I have lost her smell. Give me back her smell." Who has not felt like that, as the odour of the beloved evaporates from the sheets? "'I wish you would look at me when I'm looking at you,' she said behind me." Who has not felt a similar kind of possessiveness? "It's too stupid. A moment ago we understood each other." Who hasn't sometimes been astonished at the vertiginous nature of love, the way it is an unstable equilibrium, a magical but precarious balancing act? And: "My eyebrows brushed her eyebrows. 'It's incredible the way I'm seeing you,' she says." I don't think I have ever read physical intimacy better described, or evoked. (One thing that comes across pretty quickly is that this is a damned fine translation, that can't have been easy to pull off; and dispels any misgivings that the translated quote in the press release, from Libération, inspires: "Violette's prose, hirsute and grasping as always, throws itself into faces more spiritedly than today's provocateurs ..." Eh?)
So we are, in fact, a long way from pornography, although perhaps not too far from what pornography (written pornography, that is) tries to do: which is to make us believe in plausible minds behind the genitals, so that there is some agency behind the act. Anaïs Nin, obliged to write porn to make ends meet, had a natural instinct to make it more "artistic"; here, the art is the point. And it's funny how the people who do this kind of thing best are the French. -
Then again, it was horror and fear on the part of the publishers which kept this work, first written as the opening section of Leduc's novel Ravages (1955), unpublished in its original form until 2000 – and in French, at that. Leduc, a friend of Simone de Beauvoir (who also had a crush on her), had spent three years writing Thérèse and Isabelle – and it shows, in a good way. So when Gallimard said, in effect, "no way" in 1954 ("impossible to publish openly," said Raymond Queneau, of all people), Leduc nearly had a breakdown. The publishers had, in De Beauvoir's words, "cut her tongue out," and although the work was reshaped and inserted, piecemeal, into subsequent books (and circulated in a private edition among friends), it hasn't appeared in English before this edition.
It's a brave thing to do, and if there's one good side-effect of prurience, it's that in the pursuit of something rude, good art can be discovered. (I remember being steered to Les Biches as a teenager by someone who had heard it was full of dirty stuff; I ended up discovering the genius of Chabrol early.) And Thérèse and Isabelle is, unquestionably, great.
And its interest in the sexual side of things is crucial. Such affairs as the book describes happen; they are part of what makes people the way they are; and so they have to be written about. In this country, we have a particularly immature attitude to this kind of thing: just look at the smirking adolescence betrayed by the inaugurators and keepers of the flame of the Bad Sex Awards, a prize whose point has always been unclear to me – is it for good writing about bad sex, bad writing about bad sex, or bad writing about good sex? (The main point of the prize, it seems, is that some things simply should not be written about.)
So here we have extraordinary writing about sex; and, more importantly, about love, and the way it makes us feel. "Now is a night of obstacles. Her smell belongs to me. I have lost her smell. Give me back her smell." Who has not felt like that, as the odour of the beloved evaporates from the sheets? "'I wish you would look at me when I'm looking at you,' she said behind me." Who has not felt a similar kind of possessiveness? "It's too stupid. A moment ago we understood each other." Who hasn't sometimes been astonished at the vertiginous nature of love, the way it is an unstable equilibrium, a magical but precarious balancing act? And: "My eyebrows brushed her eyebrows. 'It's incredible the way I'm seeing you,' she says." I don't think I have ever read physical intimacy better described, or evoked. (One thing that comes across pretty quickly is that this is a damned fine translation, that can't have been easy to pull off; and dispels any misgivings that the translated quote in the press release, from Libération, inspires: "Violette's prose, hirsute and grasping as always, throws itself into faces more spiritedly than today's provocateurs ..." Eh?)
So we are, in fact, a long way from pornography, although perhaps not too far from what pornography (written pornography, that is) tries to do: which is to make us believe in plausible minds behind the genitals, so that there is some agency behind the act. Anaïs Nin, obliged to write porn to make ends meet, had a natural instinct to make it more "artistic"; here, the art is the point. And it's funny how the people who do this kind of thing best are the French.
Then again, it was horror and fear on the part of the publishers which kept this work, first written as the opening section of Leduc's novel Ravages (1955), unpublished in its original form until 2000 – and in French, at that. Leduc, a friend of Simone de Beauvoir (who also had a crush on her), had spent three years writing Thérèse and Isabelle – and it shows, in a good way. So when Gallimard said, in effect, "no way" in 1954 ("impossible to publish openly," said Raymond Queneau, of all people), Leduc nearly had a breakdown. The publishers had, in De Beauvoir's words, "cut her tongue out," and although the work was reshaped and inserted, piecemeal, into subsequent books (and circulated in a private edition among friends), it hasn't appeared in English before this edition.
It's a brave thing to do, and if there's one good side-effect of prurience, it's that in the pursuit of something rude, good art can be discovered. (I remember being steered to Les Biches as a teenager by someone who had heard it was full of dirty stuff; I ended up discovering the genius of Chabrol early.) And Thérèse and Isabelle is, unquestionably, great.
And its interest in the sexual side of things is crucial. Such affairs as the book describes happen; they are part of what makes people the way they are; and so they have to be written about. In this country, we have a particularly immature attitude to this kind of thing: just look at the smirking adolescence betrayed by the inaugurators and keepers of the flame of the Bad Sex Awards, a prize whose point has always been unclear to me – is it for good writing about bad sex, bad writing about bad sex, or bad writing about good sex? (The main point of the prize, it seems, is that some things simply should not be written about.)
So here we have extraordinary writing about sex; and, more importantly, about love, and the way it makes us feel. "Now is a night of obstacles. Her smell belongs to me. I have lost her smell. Give me back her smell." Who has not felt like that, as the odour of the beloved evaporates from the sheets? "'I wish you would look at me when I'm looking at you,' she said behind me." Who has not felt a similar kind of possessiveness? "It's too stupid. A moment ago we understood each other." Who hasn't sometimes been astonished at the vertiginous nature of love, the way it is an unstable equilibrium, a magical but precarious balancing act? And: "My eyebrows brushed her eyebrows. 'It's incredible the way I'm seeing you,' she says." I don't think I have ever read physical intimacy better described, or evoked. (One thing that comes across pretty quickly is that this is a damned fine translation, that can't have been easy to pull off; and dispels any misgivings that the translated quote in the press release, from Libération, inspires: "Violette's prose, hirsute and grasping as always, throws itself into faces more spiritedly than today's provocateurs ..." Eh?)
So we are, in fact, a long way from pornography, although perhaps not too far from what pornography (written pornography, that is) tries to do: which is to make us believe in plausible minds behind the genitals, so that there is some agency behind the act. Anaïs Nin, obliged to write porn to make ends meet, had a natural instinct to make it more "artistic"; here, the art is the point. And it's funny how the people who do this kind of thing best are the French. -

Violette Leduc, described as "France's greatest unknown writer", has been posthumously stalking me for nearly a decade now. In 2003, I was asked to write the introduction to a reprint of her bestselling autobiography, La Bâtarde, alongside the preface by Simone de Beauvoir who, for a while, was Leduc's mentor. What a "lucky strike" (as Freud remarked when he discovered the unconscious) it must have been for Leduc, who was broke, unknown and thought herself plain, to have France's most formidable female intellectual tell the world she had a great talent.
Then in 2006, keen to help pull a genius like Leduc out of obscurity, I agreed to write the introduction to a reprint of The Lady and the Little Fox Fur (1967), her bittersweet novella about a dispossessed old woman who finds herself forming a relationship with everyday objects as she walks the streets of Paris.
Now Salammbo Press has published a classy new translation of Leduc's 1954 masterpiece on the tyranny of love, Thérèse and Isabelle: the first uncensored, unabridged version in English. This is the manuscript Gallimard refused to publish in its original form in 1954, fearing that Leduc's sexed-up love affair between two adolescent girls at a French boarding school would "call down the thunderbolts of the law". As de Beauvoir saw it, Leduc's tongue had been cut out.
Why exactly was Thérèse and Isabelle considered so shocking? After all, nearly 30 years earlier, Georges Bataille had published in France The Story of the Eye, a philosophical, pornographic, surreal tour de force involving necrophilia, coprophilia and a severed eyeball. Compare this kind of caper to the sort of things Thérèse and Isabelle think and say to each other: "I wish you would look at me when I'm looking at you", "the fleshiness of her tongue frightened me", and then the bald assertion that "her strength made me sad".
If sexual intimacy is graphically described, it is not exactly obscene. It seems as if the female libido that drives the narrative in Thérèse and Isabelle – "sex was filling our minds" – made Gallimard uneasy. Yet in her own words, Leduc was attempting "to express as exactly, as minutely as possible the sensations of physical love". Unlike Bataille, and de Sade for that matter, Leduc does not just subject the reader to a relentless choreography of sexual positions. Her female protagonists experience sexual love as a "devastating enchantment"; they have opinions, problems and even parents. Leduc wote about her possessive mother in all her work, and seemingly never escaped her grasp.
I suspect that Leduc's sometimes hypermanic and metaphor-laden prose has actually been done a few favours by Sophie Lewis's clever deadpan translation. It has found language that stands up to the original, audacious French without being allusive or coy. - Deborah Levy
17083

Violette Leduc, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, Trans. by Derek Coltman, Peter Owen Publishers, 2006.

Trapped in the depths of poverty, an old woman escapes into an existence where objects, streets, and entire cities have voices and personalities. Told with a feather-light touch and masterful compassion, this is a story for those moments when we catch ourselves talking to the furniture.

"The narrow focus and the compactness of Leduc's prose mean that, line for line, this book is as richly humane as anything else you're likely to read."  — Independent 

Recently at work my colleague Sarah started telling me about a book she hadn't read, but heard might be interesting. It was about an old spinster who starts to invest her household objects with personalities, and is obsessed with her fox fur... Sarah was still in the middle of her sentence when I ordered a copy of The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc. It ticked lots of boxes for me, and I was quite excited - that very brief synopsis could have been written with me in mind.
Violette Leduc wasn't very well known until she wrote her autobiography La Batarde, at which point she apparently became the darling of French literary culture. I hadn't heard of her, but 1960s France is hardly my area of specialist knowledge. The Lady and the Little Fox Fur (originally La Femme au petit renard) was published in 1965, and became a bestseller. My edition is translated by Derek Coltman, and was published in 1967. It's back in print, still with Peter Owen and Coltman's translation, but
the cover was so hideous that I had to get an earlier copy. And accidentally tore the dustjacket when I opened the package.
I'm always a bit cautious about saying characters are unnamed, because I never notice or remember names in novels, but I'm *pretty* certain that the old-ish lady (

'She was handling her sixtieth year as lightly as we touch the lint when dressing a wound') is unnamed. The plot of this novella (104pp) is very simple - this unnamed narrator is living in dire poverty. She subsists on bits of sugar and dry rolls, and scrounges through bins and gutters. What money she has tends to be spent on travelling on the Metro, rather than food - she gains her nourishment from the company of others. She is, I should add, rather unhinged. Everyday events and insignificant acts by others are interpreted as being of great importance. As the novel continues, she gets more and more unbalanced - developing a deep closeness with the inanimate objects in her flat (somehow she scrapes together rent, but fears this may be last month there). Above all, she is besotted with an old fox fur that she once found, thrown out by someone else. Let's have a quick glance at how she treats it:

As each day passed, she kept him more and more closely confined, eventually refusing him even the flattering light of the moon. She would squander a match for him on dark and moonless nights; she would move the flame to and fro along his length, enchanted at burning her fingers for his sake. Then, in the same dark night-time, he would warm up that place behind her ear where we need other people so much. What had to happen happened: he grew more beautiful as he acquired greater value, and he gave her what she asked of him.

I had, in my mind, the sort of novel I was expecting. A bit like Barbara Comyns, perhaps, but a bit madder. Well, it was certainly pretty mad, but sadly it didn't click for me quite in the way that Comyns does. I enjoyed reading The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, and thought there were some brilliant and poignant moments - but Leduc's style rather defeated me. It's not quite stream-of-consciousness, but it veers in that direction - a style that I often love, but has to be done really well to succeed. In Leduc's novel it comes paired with an attempt to portray mental instability through language - which I always find a bit hazardous. I love the idea in theory, but I don't think I've read any novel where it really worked - I'll have to think on that and get back to you; that might deserve a post of its own.
Part of the issue might well be Derek Coltman's translation - or maybe just the fact that it was in translation at all. It's unfair of me to bad-mouth Coltman's work without knowing what the original is like; either Leduc or Coltman is responsible for the stilted feeling I got whilst reading the novella.
Do you ever get the feeling that you should go back and re-read a novel very slowly? I have an inkling that's what I should do to get the most out of The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. Perhaps I'm being critical because I had such high hopes for loving this novella - I don't want you to come away this review thinking it's bad. The idea is lovely and quirky; the unhinged mind of the lady is convincing - to the extent that I didn't always know what was going on! It just wasn't quite the gem I was hoping I'd found. Still, a much more interesting book to read than the latest top ten hardback - I love throwing a quirky little book into my reading now and then - and I think I'll re-read it in ten or twenty years' time, and perhaps come to a different conclusion.
In an awkward fashion, I'm going to peter out with a quotation - the lady is standing outside a cinema. I liked these paragraphs, and it's also fairly representative of the style, and of the woman's character. What's your response to Leduc's writing?

 
On Wednesdays they always changed the programme, so that on Tuesdays the photographs outside were always neglected, abandoned: she could pretend they were her transfer. A dark-haired man, a blonde woman; a blonde woman, a dark-haired man. The actors' names left her utterly indifferent: their real names for her were the names of the people she saw kissing one another on the streets. Her forefinger followed the broken line of the hair, stopped up the eyesockets, crushed the mouth, or paused if the lovers' mouths were pressed together in a kiss. Prudish and indiscreet, at those moments she would look down with blind eyes at the drawing-pin in one corner of the photograph. She was a sack of stones holding itself up of its own volition, this woman who had never had anything, who had never asked for anything. If the edge of the wind had caressed her neck at that moment, had caressed her neck just below the ear, then her heart would have stopped. She would have given her life and her death for another's breath that close. - stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.com/

1770827

Violette Leduc, In the Prison of Her Skin. Trans. by Derek Coltman, Panther / Granada; 1973.

99088

Violette Leduc, Mad in Pursuit. Trans. by Derek Coltman, Riverhead Trade, 1999.

She stunned the literary world with La Batarde. Now her second remarkable book of memoirs will galvanize and inspire a new generation of readers.
With La Batarde, Violette Leduc described a turbulent Paris of World War II--where she struggled to survive, to create an identity, and to find a voice.

In the second remarkable volume of her life story, Mad In Pursuit, the war is finally over. A new generation of writers has appeared in Paris, among them Camus, Genet, Sartre, and Cocteau, and every day, they can be seen writing at the marble-topped tables of the Cafe de Flore. Already in her thirties, Leduc burns with hero-worship and an obsession to become a celebrated writer herself. When she finds a mentor in none other than Simone de Beauvoir, she is pulled into the center of Parisian literary life--"a beehive gone mad." In the no-holds-barred style that made her a legend, Leduc paints a vibrant picture of the brilliant minds around her--and the dark passions and insecurities that drove her to write.

"It is hard to know whether the incalculable distress she has suffered all her life is the price she has had to pay for writing so beautifully." --The Times Literary Supplement

"The richness of her narratives comes less from the circumstance depicted than from the burning intensity of her memory: at each moment she is completely there through all the thickness of the years."--Simone de Beauvoir

4376185

Violette Leduc, The Taxi. Trans. by Helen Weaver, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.

A brief and poetic story of love told entirely in dialogue, and dialogue of the most elliptical nature. Gradually the story emerges of an adolescent brother and sister who have discovered their classic, eternal, old-fashioned love for each other and who decide to spend one day, and one day only, making love. And where will this take place? In a taxi, the driver of which they will bribe to convey them, with drawn blinds and a hamper full of champagne and exotic foods, from one Paris landmark to another, while they make love in the back of his cab. They will not commit heroic suicide afterward, but return to their adjoining rooms in their parents' flat and carry on their lives as before. Such is the plan of the story, and in writing it, Violette Leduc shows an unexpected versatility. She has interrupted her autobiography (La Bdtarde, Mad in Pursuit) to produce a modern myth, a work of pure poetic imagination. The story creates its own atmosphere, the reader is gently conditioned into accepting it. It is touching and it is believable, and Helen Weaver's translation matches the flashing lyricism of Leduc's text in masterly fashion.

3418661

Violette Leduc, Ravages, Panther Books, 1968.

On Violette Leduc

Violette Leduc was often known as the “most famous unknown writer in Paris”. Her work becomes, for each new reader stumbling upon her, a heightened excitement of discovery -- as if Leduc is one’s very own find, a genius who has been lost and buried and now pulled from obscurity at long last. And now it is up to you, the reader, one thinks, to shout Violette Leduc’s name out so loud it will never be forgotten again. And to make sure it is finally deservedly paid appropriate tribute. Soon, however, one will discover she has already been recognized, albeit in a unique, unorthodox literary way. For Violette Leduc, it can be said, has been discovered, forgotten, discovered again, forgotten again almost continuously, since her very first novel was discovered by Simone de Beauvoir and published by Sartre’s Librairie Gallimard in 1946.
One wonders if Leduc’s mysterious disappearances and reappearances on the literary landscape are part of the seduction her work proffers. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote of Leduc’s writings: “The richness of her narratives comes less from the circumstances depicted than from the burning intensity of her memory; at each moment she is completely there through all the thickness of of the years”. In the same way, perhaps, Leduc has survived and triumphed as an author who has gone in and out of print and fashion, but has never not been “there through all the thickness of the years”.
In my first reading of Violette Leduc, the issue of her famous “unknown-ness” seemed to be the unfortunate result of the personal and deceptively simple nature of her work -- her outpourings full of diary-like confessions. As a young woman, unremarkable except for her unabashed neediness, her fictionalized persona seemed easy to dismiss, and to subvert the important chronicle of her times her work recorded. But, then, I grew to believe that it was that very recognizable and identifiable vulnerability which also elevated Leduc’s work, allowed it to transcend the trappings of temporal particularity. She was an everywoman in a sense: provocative, childish perhaps at times, but deeply and profoundly redeeming the fierce female vitality rendered illegitimate by the society she lived in. As she struggled to survive, to create an identity and find a voice, her words painted a vibrancy which was as brilliant as the other minds who surely occupied the same corner of Cafe de Flore in Paris with her in the mid-1940’s, among them: Camus, Cocteau, Sartre, Genet, de Beauvoir, and Nathalie Sarraute.
“Leduc isn’t interested in what isn’t there,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir (quoted in Elizabeth Locey's excellent collection of essays The Pleasures of the Text: Violette Leduc and Reader Seduction), “she’s interested in what is there.” Indeed, Violette Leduc set down to writing “what’s there” in all its raw, unrelenting ugliness and pain but, as she was a writer of life’s extremes, the beauty of growth from wounds and wounding realities was there for her too. She often felt less than others, reduced, she hungrily sought the admiration of others, and she obsessively tried to fill herself with unattainable, idealized love. Emotional extremes don’t need much drama to create intensity, and her work rarely suffered from melodramatic, false structure or narrative artifice. As de Beauvoir had pointed out its “burning intensity” sufficed to make her prose both poetic and climatic without circumstances to frame it.
In the Prison of Her Skin was Violette LeDuc’s first published novel. As she movingly describes in a subsequent book, Mad in Pursuit, she had found herself on the Rue Bonaparte in Paris directly after World War II. It was time when there was very little “dramatic structure”, more chaos and confusion -- neither victory nor defeat but, simply, a time to move on and repair oneself after the war. Leduc had resorted to selling goods through the black market to survive during the war in France. She describes being taken inside a police station in Mad in Pursuit humiliated and body-searched by the new French guard. She was finally set free to wander the war-impoverished streets and to shoulder the guilt of her passivity and means of self-survival. In her first novel the prison is in “her own skin”. There is a kind of emotional existentialism to Leduc’s work, as there is in both Sartre and Camus but, unlike these men, it is not a cerebral reasoning or questioning about the meaning of existence, it is a confrontation with an overflow of memory and emotion. Leduc was not burdened by the larger global questions of war and genocide, but by her intimate memories of sexual abuse as a child, of a mother who denigrated and criticized her every movement relentlessly. Violette, also fatherless, was forced to live only with her embittered, male-abandoned mother.
In contemporary fiction, memoir and Oprah Winfrey-type confessionals have become commonplace, if not simply irritating and narcissistic (to me anyway) -- what sets Leduc apart from these?
In the Prison of Her Skin: the title alone expresses the intense demand Leduc puts on her reader to enter a dark world full of personal demons. But it isn’t a world of soap opera. It is a world that also reconstructs a European society that had allowed a young girl is be molested in a garden by an old man, a society where cruelty festered not only in political terms, the terms of the State that is, but also in microcosms, through the individual and family. In so many ways, Leduc’s young character becomes the harrowing and haunting reminder of how this society viewed the easily disposable and “useless” among them. And how one person survived through her art and writing, and from a spirit of resistance to the State. A fatherless orphan, one can’t say Leduc roamed the Parisian streets with the romantic eclat as Genet, or a Rimbaud, but she did roam those streets equally dispossessed.
I tried to understand how she had achieved, despite moments in her work when she herself seemed swamped by the fierceness of emotions within her, a pathos in her readers strong enough to hold them in such dark places of the self. Indeed, more than a created pathos, her work literally seduces her reader. There is a kind of skin-to-skin relationship the reader begins to experience with Leduc and her words. It would be sexual if not for the same-sex lovemaking that would demand, so it was, for me, an invitation towards self-love, self-recognition, but also unabashed and sensual. And as such it offers redemption, as it did for Leduc herself. This is, I believe, is the elevating, almost quasi-religious quality about her work. Confession and absolution. As Sartre had discovered Jean Genet’s writings from prison, Genet’s masturbation and fantasies of his warden guards brought to the work a self-love and transcendence, eventually a redemption through the flesh. One wonders his Simone de Beauvoir did not feel competition with Sartre, as one reads her discovery, Violette Leduc a similar, feminine parallel can easily be drawn to Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and to Genet’s transformations through guilt and shame into self-acceptance.
However, the questions I had about Leduc’s first novel, In the Prison of Her Skin, were far more prosaic. This partly because this first novel is written with less poetical flourish, it is not as language-dense as Leduc’s later works. In exploring this first book, though, the early rudiments of her prose style shine showing us how, despite the swamp of feelings and memories, Leduc managed to achieve what she did so masterfully. So much more can be and should be written about Leduc’s work, this is only a sketchy, at best, introduction to one of our most brilliant of writers, but I hope it will, at least, introduce in a preliminary way, Leduc’s style and invention.
I think there is a quiet, subtle reason for Leduc’s power in this first novel, it can be too easily overlooked because it is so silent, so subtle. When Leduc describes any details involving the cruelty of the adults around her as a child, she consistently remains merely incidental in tone. She never embellishes the events with extreme reactive feelings, she remains entirely reticent about any feelings she may have had, but she spares us no details about what actually happened. This technique, affectless but clear, creates the space for the reader to react and respond, to feel what has happened poignantly. Despite Leduc’s supra-personal and intimate style she remains reserved, as if holding in for our sakes, leaving room for a reader’s identification and allowing us to become as enveloped as she by letting us know all the major details of each abuse, without dictating, predigesting or controlling our reaction.
“My mother never took my hand,” she begins her novel, and then she conscientiously describes a simple street-crossing where she is chided by the same mother who ignored and neglected her as a child, forcing her to cross the street unaided. In another scene Leduc depicts an old man in a garden forcing her to undress and then bringing her, half-naked between his knees. When the little girl’s grandmother arrives on this scene, the man claims that the child had undressed herself in order to “Show Off”. That is all that Leduc says about this horror, she give us the details, almost flatly, but concretely, she doesn’t add exclamations or tears or narrative intrusions. As so many critics have observed, Leduc is interested in what is “there”, not in what “isn’t there”. And that is the what happened rather than the analysis of why. She remains dumb about the reasons, but not untouched. It is a challenging balance to achieve in prose, a modesty perhaps which allows us, when we read Leduc, to think: yes, I could write this. I could live this, too. And not know why it happened, and be quite unable to to even integrate into my psyche and soul. Whereas Sartre, Camus, Genet and so many other writers exuded philosophical axioms, Leduc left her readers as riddled by and as wounded as her narrator. Her themes were lovelessness and not being loved in return; insecurity, inferiority, feeling belittled by those she idolized. Life was continually threatening her with its reminders of how insignificant and unlovable she was, even how unattractive (much was made about Leduc's “long nose”, when I finally saw a photo of her I was alarmed to discover that she had an average-sized nose and was quite attractive!) She presented the facts of her early abuse, she held back the feelings. And that is, I think, how Violette Leduc created an everywoman. This everywoman, through writing, found identity, meaning, purpose, salvation. Perhaps this is what contributes to her longeity and genius -- she gives us, at last, what we most want to hear, the once tragically wounded girl became a woman who achieve presence. The very reasons why literary history tries to bury Leduc’s work (it’s too “dark”, too “turbulent”, too “ambiguously complex”) are also the same reasons why Leduc’s work will survive through time. Over and over again readers will discover her dark depth, explore with her what is unspeakably personal and feminine, what is, indeed, shamed an shameful. It will never be easy for any reader to live through the written page inside the “prison” of their own skin, but through modest narrative skills often taken for granted, Leduc made it possible , even a kind of salvation. She allowed shadows become whole beings. She was annoyingly helpless sometimes, even irritating, but she was also truthful.
In later works, Leduc transmuted the more straightforward prose in this first book into a poetically denser prose, but that is another essay.
“To write,” Leduc says at the end of her later novel Mad in Pursuit:
... means to dip one's pen in seawater on the first day of one's holiday. The rest is tricks and permutations...The rough diamond belongs to everyone: the sun when we open a window. Everyone can see the sky, so everyone is a writer. Anything after that is done with mirrors. Everyone is a poet when dusk is falling and the lamp is lit. To run in a certain way trying to catch a butterfly, that's having a style.
No, I shan't be Verlaine, No, I shan't be Rimbaud, No, I shan't fire a revolver shot in London. No, I shan't be Genet. I shan't go to prison in Mettry, in Fontrevault. The stakes are down, too late to change. My pen and clothbound book. Let's eat a palmier together.
To write or to remain silent?
To write the impossible word on the rainbow's arc. Then everything would have been said ...

    - Leora Skolkin-Smith

Violette Leduc: Mothers, Lovers, and Language By Alex Hughes

The Pleasures of the Text: Violette Leduc and Reader Seduction By Elizabeth Locey
 

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across & beyond - a transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions

Daïchi Saito proposes a personal reflection on language and the image, a meditation that does not strive to theorize practice, but to recount it.

Thor Garcia - By turns defiant, paranoid, brooding, absurd and knock-down funny. Like Hunter S. Thompson meets Russ Meyer’s Under the Valley of the Supervixens meets Daft Punk – wearing a press pass and a smiley badge to a San Francisco gangbang