Violette Leduc’s autobiography swept me into a dreamlike state and, better yet, re-ignited my own passion for writing, ideas flowing furiously through my head whenever I put the book down and puttered around my own boxed existence. The last time I felt this ignition was from Gail Scott’s My Paris—there must be something about these intellectual French (or French-speaking) women that inspires. Perhaps it is the openness about their own flaws that coaxes me to follow them into revealing.
Deborah Levy’s introduction to the book mentions that she normally skips over the early chapters of childhood, genealogy, etc., only starting when the subject is nearly an adult and making her own decisions. Amen to that! It’s usually so tiresome to creep through branches of the family tree and pinch oneself awake to listen to tales of earliest memory. Like Levy I enjoyed the early bits of this because of Leduc’s writing style. Levy: “The first thing [Leduc] tells the reader is that she is not unique, which is a relief—most people write autobiographies to persuade us they are.”
The title refers to the fact that Leduc was the illegitimate and unrecognized daughter of a grand family for which her mother had been a housemaid. Her mother is both mother and father to her, and they make their way as a twosome through several years (including during WWI) before mother marries and Leduc obtains a stepfather. “Why don’t bastards help each other? Why do they avoid each other? Why do they detest each other? … They should be able to forgive each other everything since they all hold the most precious, the most fragile, the strongest, the darkest part of themselves in common: a childhood twisted like an old apple tree… I should like to see written in letters of fire: ‘Bakery for bastards.’ Then I needn’t feel that stupid prickling in my throat anymore when people ask for the big loaves that French people refer to as ‘bastards.’ I have always wished that in that wonderful American film Marty, the two shy people who come together at the end were bastards.”
Violette Leduc as a reader
Part of my love for Leduc comes from her absorption with reading. She would stay up reading Gide by flashlight under covers at boarding school. “As I held my shoe in the shoe shop and spread the polish on it, I muttered: ‘Shoe, I will teach you to feel fervor.’ There was no other confidant worthy of my long book-filled nights, my literary ecstasies.” When someone gives her Van Gogh’s letters to read, she calls it “one of the greatest moments of my life.” And yet she struggles with some of the same weighty stuff that has perplexed my brain:
To be able to read Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza the way people read thrillers. The more I kept trying, the more I forced myself, the more I weighed each paragraph, each word, each punctuation mark, each sentence, the more the sentences, the punctuation, the words eluded me…. The recalcitrant adjective was raising bumps of ignorance on my brow. My narrow brow, how wretched it made me feel. I mangled the flesh on it with my fingers because it was so puny, so degenerate… I was an old oak tree, old like an oak tree, old like an old woman. Adequate, inadequate. My hair began to get longer and longer; if it were all icicles …then I would die of cold with my futile desire to become intelligent. Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza: my promised land was disappearing, my promised land was vanishing. To have an inner life, to think, to juggle and leap, to become a tightrope walker in the world of ideas. To attack, to riposte, to refute, what a contest, what acclaim. To understand. The most generous verb of all. Memory. To retain, a geyser of felicity. Intelligence. The agonizing poverty of my mind. Words and ideas flitting in and out again like butterflies. My brain …a dandelion seed blown in the wind. I would read, and forget what I had read while I was still reading it. (p 258)
Another along the same lines (p 460):
Philosophic discussion is the promised land which I shall never attain. Things I cannot understand always fascinate me. Whenever I met [Maurice’s best friend] after that, full of despair at my inadequacy, I inevitably produced an impression of stupidity, muddleheadedness, and vanity. A sort of bluestocking made up mainly of runs.
Various relationships and work
She falls in love with a girl at school (in reality her music teacher, who gets fired for being caught with Leduc). Eventually Leduc is also expelled, and the two begin to live together in Paris, making a home together for 11? years before “Hermine” abandons her. Hermine is constantly sacrificing herself and her money for Leduc, buying her expensive clothes and suffering Leduc’s scorn. L also is involved with Gabriel, a somewhat homeless artist who calls her his “little man.” Eventually she marries Gabriel and they have a drama-infused yet unconventional life.
After Hermine abandons her, she gets a switchboard operator job at a film producer’s office but is wildly incompetent at connecting calls, so the (female) producer has her become an errand runner instead. This is how Leduc finds herself delivering a box to Colette, the writer. This spins her into a trance of sorts, “I observed a cyclist sitting on a bench, resting near his bike, I observed the shape of a flower in a pot, I thought I was already writing, without paper and pencil, because I was hearing, because I was memorizing the caress, the delicacy, the romance of the wind in the leaves. I left the gardens of the Palais-Royal, I was carrying the city on my shoulders, I was shriveling up again as I walked back to the office.”
She jumps into cars with strange men who demand to kiss her and hike up her skirt. Fleeing one, she walks home. “What was it I wanted? To do nothing and possess everything.”
Her descriptions of Paris made me swoon:
Paris was still on vacation, even though one had to kick aside the falling leaves of a departed summer, for Paris was a faded rose that evening. The silky decadence of a great city at seven in the evening.
She befriend Maurice Sachs, who loves her letters and implores her to write articles, stories. He sets her up with an assignment at a magazine but Leduc tunes out as she’s being told what to do: “The woman editor of the magazine explained the subject of the story I was to write. I didn’t listen to her but I could hear a babble of syllables streaming across the sheets of paper all stuck over with printed columns ringed with big blue pencil marks. It was terrible, she was telling me the theme of the story, I was sure of it, and she thought I was all ears… That confusion of syllables was my chance of earning a living. And yet I couldn’t listen, I didn’t like her, someone had pulled out a plug and cut us off.” She leaves the office and decides “If the worst came to the worst I could always throw myself in the Seine if I couldn’t think of a first sentence.” Heading out of the waiting room, she feels better, the “thorn is out of my foot. Gummed paper, enigmas of the printing press, embryo sentences, truncated paragraphs.”
She attempts to write about fashion shows, but her editor hates her imagery. “Dresses are not springs or breezes or tempests. Nor are they bushes or violins.” Women aren’t allowed unaccompanied at the cabaret, and no one’s supposed to be out after curfew, but Violette gets past those two rules while writing articles for magazines.
Along comes war again (this time WWII). She and her mother flee the city: “We followed the procession streaming along both sides of the road. There were mothers nursing their infants in the ditches, vain young girls tottering along on Louis Quinze heels, soldiers singing as they were driven past in trucks. One of the soldiers threw some cigarettes to an old man, who ran out into the road and salvaged them despite the drivers’ curses. Scaffolding, mountains perched on the tops of cars. One man was making his solitary way with a mattress on his back. Our misfortune had become a funeral cortege. Suburbanites hung out of their windows to watch us pass. Market gardeners were deserting their plots with their horses and carts. Butterflies still fluttered and alighted on the flowers in vacant lots.”
This provided great detail of what life in occupied France was like, retreating into the countryside and selling black market butter/meat/sundries while building up a huge bankroll and hoping for the best while shipping packages via the post until that got too risky and then schlepping suitcases full of meat to Paris. She and Maurice head out to Normandy together, where as usual everyone is charmed by him and ignores her. She stays “stagnating” in the kitchen, living “permanently on the defensive… an idiot woman jammed in neutral gear… a praying mantis devouring herself.”
It is here in the country that Maurice convinces her to start writing books, telling her: “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.” She remembers the sparkles on the Metro stairs in Paris that spoke to her. “Lucid sparkles, I have not forgotten you. The poem that swells my throat until it is as big as a goiter will be the poem I like best. Let me not die before the music of the stars is enough for me.” Maurice is shown her work that evening and says “there is nothing left for you now but to continue.” And thank god, she does.
Translated from French by Derek Coltman