Ravages

Lightly fictionalized account that’s also covered by La Batarde (and is much more readable there, loads less dialog that makes Ravages a clunky read).

Skimmed through this quickly, just wanted to note that this is a weaker, first attempt at what comes out more perfectly formed in her autobiography.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

My first taste of Leduc’s fiction made me giddy with delight. As Deborah Levy says in the Foreword, “Violette Leduc’s novels are works of genius and also a bit peculiar.”

This is the story of a 60 year old woman who “was handling her sixtieth year as lightly as we touch the lint when dressing a wound.” She rents an attic room in Paris but is desperately poor, walking the streets and imagining life without living in the real world. She frequently opts to use money to ride the Metro instead of eating food, sustaining herself on the sights and sounds of the crowd that rushes past. At home she has a meager stock of a few sugar cubes, coffee beans, and potatoes that keep her going. It is February, bitterly cold, and she reminisces about a summer day wherein she woke at dawn to rummage through the garbage looking for a piece of orange to suck on. Instead she found a fox fur, which she then kisses and treats like her husband. Now that it’s winter, the time has come to try and sell it, and she’s rejected. Instead of getting much needed money, she whirls around in ecstasy that she’s been reunited with her love, the fox fur. She sticks her hand out and begs for a few coins which she turns into food. Back at home, she tucks the fox away, marches around, lies on the bed, and sinks into her own world. As she says herself, “her world consisted of nothing but what she had invented.”

“Living was simple: it was no more than a few habitual actions strong on to a routine.”

Excellently translated by Derek Coltman.

Mad in Pursuit (La folie en tête)

I’m tired of discovering amazing women writers then browsing used bookstores pretending there’s a chance to find a stray copy of their work. Leduc is a new favorite with the double burden of being both woman and French, so having to suffer the pain of translation may have sapped history’s ability to keep her in memory.

Her pal Jean Genet said, “She is an extraordinary woman. She is crazy, ugly, cheap, and poor, but she has a lot of talent.” And yet she was mostly overlooked during her lifetime, only achieving crumbs of fame with the first part of her autobiographical La Batarde (1964). Mad in Pursuit was part two (1970), picking up after WWII was over and detailing her creative struggles, continuing adoration of Simone de Beauvoir, describing life as a middle-aged single woman, claiming a desperate love for Jacques (gay factory-owning businessman who privately published some of her work).

Waiting for Simone de Beauvoir, her punctuality is oh too familiar:

I was early. I am always early. I waste my time with an excess of punctuality… I am early, I wait, I am nonexistent. It’s not boring, I nibble at myself. I imagine other minutes between the minutes, other seconds between the seconds. I double the money of the time that is rotting me minute by minute, second by second. An insect advances slowly across my grave: the needle of the clock. I am early, I spin time out, I have time to sell.

She watches mothers with their babies and muses on what her life would have been like:

Our daily lives were too different. I could never enter theirs. I am a little more than they are and yet much, much less: a writer steering her way, a woman crazy with love, a crackpot refusing to follow her madness to its conclusion… They were living, they weren’t writing. Their walk, their outing was enough for them. Whereas I was exploiting them, since I had gone looking for them, since I am now describing them. To write is to inform against others.

The reality of being alone as an old woman:

I walk, I look for trees with bark twisted into strange shapes; clouds stretch themselves in the sky: sensual delights. They keep me company, they are all I have. I have an appearance of happiness, I have an illusion of foreboding when the stay a little longer than usual over me. I am less abandoned than I thought before. I wait for them, I observe them, I compare them, I interpret them… I should lose my reason if I didn’t have you, little white clouds. I should go home dull-eyed, leaden-footed, bent-backed. Old women, so unfortunate, still have aspirations. Is she cold? Is she e’soo co’d? my mother would say to me when I was little, as she pulled on a sixth woolly. What made me warmest of all? That excision of the letter l from the word ‘cold.’ Is she co’d, is she e’soo co’d, I repeat along the roads while no one in the world looks out for me.

Her descriptions of writing:

Finding the exact word means concentrating oneself into a single point, but it also means wandering through labyrinths of impotence.

And my writing? It saps me. What does it inspire in me? Laziness, hollow hours, excuses for lazying my life away. I am literature’s parasite. I must write. Then I change my mind. I spend my time at the cinema, in empty churches, in grimy little parks. I run away from my exercise book. It is my refuge. Yet I search for places where I can take refuge from it. I neglect it without abandoning it entirely. I am sickened by it all. I ought to be making a new life; all I do is write about my past life. I sink further and further into the silt of my past.

How innocent. How ignorant. I write… I write three notebook pages a day. It’s too much and it’s not enough, that’s the root of the problem and there I am chained to my anxieties, there I am coveting the sweeper’s broom, the street cleaner’s wheeled bin… I admire them: they have a job… I stagnate in Paris, I am wasting my time in Cocteau’s country house. ‘How well you will be able to work here!’ Yes, if work meant unloading sacks of flour from morning till night. I’m not ambitious, and yet I have great expectations when I write: I live with the hope of placing the mind-blowing word exactly in the place that awaits it. I can’t find it, I splatter about in my sweet whipped cream… Write? I haven’t the time. The setting sun races bleeding down the sky and carries me with it. Why, why add my name to the list of authors who are not read?

Ah, Violette, you are read, you are adored. (Translated by the excellent Derek Coltman.)

La Bâtarde

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.”

On writing

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.

Occupied France

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