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.)

Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar

There he is, glower-smiling at you on the cover, standing in Washington Square Park (SF) and wearing his hat and vest, clothes that he apparently found lucky and refused to stop wearing. I’m not so sure of this trick of packaging together 3 of his works into one, but just like the other 3-pack I read, they were of varying quality. This one starts with his breakout book, Trout Fishing in America, the one that got him into all sorts of trouble by making him famous and that fame puffing up his head so he couldn’t think straight. It’s the strongest piece in this collection, followed by The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (a book of entertaining poems) and the unreadable In Watermelon Sugar.

Some of my favorite of the poems in The Pill:

Xerox Candy Bar
  Ah,/ you’re just a copy/ of all the candy bars/ I’ve ever eaten

Love Poem
It’s so nice/ to wake up in the morning/ all alone/ and not have to tell somebody/ you love them/ when you don’t love them/ any more.

In a Cafe
I watched a man in a cafe fold a slice of bread as if he were folding a birth certificate or looking at the photograph of a dead lover.

Our Beautiful West Coast Thing

 We are a coast people
There is nothing but ocean out beyond us.
— Jack Spicer

I sit here dreaming/ long thoughts of California/ at the end of a November day/ below a cloudy twilight/ near the Pacific/ listening to The Mamas and The Papas/ THEY’RE GREAT/ singing a song about breaking/ somebody’s heart and digging it!/ I think I’ll get up/ and dance around the room./ Here I go!

The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson

The more I learn about Lynn Hershman’s work, the more I miss a San Francisco teeming with artists, writers, weirdos. I recently remembered Hershman after encountering a writeup in a July 1977 Art in America article that described her 1976 Bonwit Teller window displays—a mannequin’s hand bursts through the window in one, in another a crime of passion is on display (one mannequin shoots another).

This book is a collection of her major works and films, showing you at a glance how much her work investigates how people interact with technology, her interest in sociology, feminism, capitalism.

As a young woman artist, she wrote art reviews and essays under 3 pseudonyms, gaining columns in the local paper and as an editor at Artweek, writing for national art magazines and European art journals. She wrote about the work of Lynn Hershman and took these reviews in to galleries where she was able to get her first exhibitions and real evaluations.

Several of her pieces took place in SF, like Roberta Breitmore, the Dante Hotel, and Two Stories Building (images of fire projected onto windows of a downtown building along with fog machine billowing smoke, dancers leaping out of windows. A passerby actually called the fire department who showed up and aimed hoses at the projected images of fire).

Another window display, something that would never get done today? Philadelphia location of Wanamaker’s department store, Hershman showed an image of woman luxuriating contrasted with a darker image of someone who couldn’t quite reach the credit card out of his grasp (Non Credited Americans, 1981), slide show of elderly, minorities, and women who had been denied credit, endless audiotape loop of interviews of unsuccessful attempts to get credit.

Feminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death

I love getting surprise packages to my PO Box! This one was waiting for me, a present from a feminist pal, and I tore through it quickly, hungry for laughter in an age of insanity. Erin Gibson is hilarious and will make you feel like you’re sitting across the table from her at a long boozy ladies’ brunch, taking pot shots at Mike Pence, Betsy deVos, her moronic gynecologist, herself, her family. It’s the type of book that’s entertaining without being overly fluffy, a good blend of educational topics with sass and sarcasm.

No Thanks

e.e. cummings serves us a master class in petty retribution with this, his sixth book of poems, self-published in 1935 and dedicated (with “no thanks”) to the 15 publishers who rejected his manuscript. His mom ponied up the $300 to privately publish this; his previous publisher had only sold 11 copies of Is 5 that year (sales down also due to the Depression). From the introduction, a few random bits of trivia: a reminder that cummings was pals with Joe Gould (immortalized by Joseph Mitchell), and he always referred to Samuel Goldwyn of MGM as Samuel Goldfish, which was his earlier name. cummings also thought about getting rid of the word “poem” to substitute “fait,” French for “the thing made,” thinking of himself as a faiteur.

Many delicious poems in here, including 21:

all those who got
athlete’s mouth jumping
on&off bandwagons

23 is also great, containing bits that are apt today:

he does not have to feel because he thinks
(the thoughts of others,be it understood)
he does not have to think because he knows
(that anything is bad which you think good)

I’m now eyeing my copy of Is 5 for a re-read.

My Life as a Work of Art: The Art World from Start to Finish

I bumped into this book while nosing around the 700s at the library and loved it. Co-written by Katya Tylevich (based in LA) and Ben Eastham (based in London), they provide well-written behind-the-scenes analysis of the art world, showcasing work by and interviews with Marina Abramovic (Dream House), Martin Creed (Lights Going On and Off), Camille Henrot (Grosse Fatigue), Barry McGee (The Sound Wall), Erwin Wrum (One Minute Sculptures), and more.

Henrot was invited to do a residency at the Smithsonian. “By exhausting the possibilities offered to her, and by exploring every avenue open to her during her time at the museum, Henrot hoped to buy herself the opportunity to ‘become stupid’ when the research period ended and the creative process began. Then, in the manner of Wordsworth’s dictum that poetry is the ‘spontaneous overflow of personal feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’, the chaos of information that she had complied would resolve itself into form.”


Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World

I broke my rule of reading the book after seeing the movie, but I enjoyed the movie so figured why not? Great story although Tobey Maguire’s petty ridiculousness got a bit tedious, charging rent for the shuffle machine in each game and complaining about how much money Molly was making. Still, an entertaining romp through the high stakes poker world of highly curated games she ran in LA and NYC, all ending with the FBI bust and confiscation of her cash.

Girl With Curious Hair: Stories

I tried to read this again, only realizing that I’d made the attempt once before when the first story seemed so familiar, the mother-daughter team who work behind the scenes at Jeopardy! and the daughter’s relationship with the woman who’s been a reigning champion for too many weeks to count (Little Expressionless Animals). One detail in that story was eerily similar to something I just learned about Richard Brautigan this week, his mom left him and his sister alone in Great Falls, ID, abandoning them in a hotel room when he was 9 and sister was 4. In this story, the Jeopardy! champion is abandoned by her mother with her brother, left by the side of the road and told not to take their hands of a fence post until she returned, which she never did.

The other story that I admit to enjoying was Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR, a dreary basement garage life saving attempt by one executive of another. Other than that, his stories are wild flights of fancies that demand you to buckle up and get seasick for the ride through DFW’s dancing mind. I prefer his non-fiction.

The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings

Well, I can’t help myself. Even though I ended my last post about Brautigan wondering if we really need to listen to jerks, I can’t resist the work. This is a collection of his writing that surfaced in the late 1990s from a woman he knew growing up in Oregon. “When I am rich and famous, Edna, this will be your social security.” And it was, Edna Webster sitting on a treasure trove of his earliest work. Lucky for me, this is a tightly edited selection, dropping out the crap and keeping the good bits, like “all the cities at once:”

a city
than New York,
all the cities
at once.

You can almost forgive the misogynist as long as the writing holds up. These stories and poems were from a simpler time before his head swole up with fame and turned him into a huge asshole.

Revenge of the Lawn, The Abortion, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away

Walking past the Presidio branch library on a recent weekend stroll, I dipped in and spotted a display case with letters written from people to the library, asking if it really existed. These were readers of Brautigan’s The Abortion, where the narrator works as a librarian at the 3150 Sacramento Street location. A copy of this book was on the shelves upstairs, soon to be in my possession.

The book was bundled with two others, which went from Bad to Better to Best. I was disappointed in Revenge of the Lawn, a collection of his stories from the 1960s that seemed to have as much talent as you’d expect from a team of monkeys pounding away at typewriters, albeit with occasional glimpses of greatness, like The Gathering of a Californian:

Like most Californians, I come from someplace else and was gathered to the purpose of California like a metal-eating flower gathers the sunshine, the rain, and then to the freeway beckons its petals and lets the cars drive in, millions of cars into but a single flower, the scent choked with congestion and room for millions more.

California needs us, so it gathers us from other places. I’ll take you, you, you, and I from the Pacific Northwest: a haunted land where nature dances the minuet with people and danced with me in those old bygone days.

I brought everything I knew from there to California: years and years of a different life to which I can never return nor want to and seems at times almost to have occurred to another body somehow vaguely in my shape and recognition.

It’s strange that California likes to get her people from every place else and leave what we knew behind and here to California we are gathered as if energy itself, the shadow of that metal-eating flower, had summoned us away from other lives and now to do the California until the very end like the Taj Mahal in the shape of a parking meter.

He has a great description of my credit union, which used to be the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, on the site of one of California’s most famous cemeteries before they shipped the dead off to Colma, but still some tall cypress trees linger. “Perhaps these questions are too poetic. Maybe it would be best just to say: There are four trees standing beside an insurance company out in California.”

I was fully prepared to not like The Abortion, and yet it was simply good. The librarian accepts random books 24 hours a day, has been locked inside the library for three years until he gets his girlfriend pregnant and they head to Tijuana for an abortion. There is, of course, that terrible streak of misogyny that seems to taint all the Beats, but if you hold your nose or just sigh and skim through those parts, it’s almost worth it.

But best of all was So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, an intriguing look back to his Oregon childhood with dramatic flashes (the decision to buy bullets for his gun instead of a hamburger, then the accidental shooting of his friend) and theatrical descriptions of the pond he’d fish in and watch a fat couple drive up to and unload their living room furniture night after night so they’d be comfortable while doing their own fishing from the overstuffed sofa.

I guess I’m on a Brautigan quest now, an irresistible blend of decent writing mixed with San Francisco history.


Hmm. I’m having second thoughts after reading the Rolling Stone writeup after he suicided, with choice quotes like:

  • “A lot of Richard’s male friends blamed women for his death, but they admitted that he was impossible to live with.”
  • “Although he hated feminists, Richard understood women’s frailties and fears.”
  • “he became frighteningly violent” to one of his wives.
  • “Richard bought a house in Bolinas, upsetting many people in the community when he dispossessed poets David and Tina Meltzer and their children.” Michael McClure elsewhere noted “It was Richard buying the house that David and Tina [Meltzer] lived in right out from under them and their two children that was the straw that broke my camel’s back. I thought he should have bought it and let them live in it for nothing. Or even have given it to them.”

Does the world need to continue to read the works of jerks?

Inside the Painter’s Studio

I enjoyed Joe Fig’s interviews and photographs of 24 visual artists (in NYC and Long Island) mostly for the descriptions of their typical day and advice to people just starting out—it reminded me of the Paris Review series that asks writers about their writing process (who writes standing up, etc.). The questions posed to each artist: when did you first consider yourself a professional artist and dedicate yourself to that full time? How long have you been in this studio location? Does it have any effect on your work? What’s your typical day? Do you listen to music or TV while you work? Do you have any special tools you use? Do you work on one thing at a time or several pieces? How often do you clean your space? How do you come up with titles? (I loved the artist who mentioned that she enlisted the help of a Title Muse) Do you work with assistants and have you ever worked for other artists? Do you have a motto or a creed? (No one had a good answer to that one) Advice to artists just starting out? (Mostly it was around sticking together with your peers, seeing their shows, creating noise and vibration from your group, and working always working)

Actually, Chuck Close’s answer to the motto question was best: “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Barnaby Furnas‘s advice resonated with me, as I tend to immerse myself in 19th and 20th century literature: “Stay in your time. You need to participate in what’s going on now.”

As for the daily routine, it was eerily similar (although a few outliers liked to sleep late): up by 7 or 8, a bit of puttering, some breakfast, then to work until lunch, work four more hours then break. All preferred no interruptions and didn’t want telephones nearby (the interviews were in 2006 before cellphones were absolutely ubiquitous).

April Gornik had some great things to say about photography. When people tell her that her paintings look just like photographs she thinks how revolting a comment that is, “Don’t you see how different this is?” And she thinks it’s hard for people to see art now, because photography has become the “common visual denominator in all the arts. And people tend to see things as images, and they don’t understand or even experience the somatic import of the art. They’re seeing it only with one of their senses—they just see the image. They don’t know how to read into it…. people are accustomed to seeing things as kind of a quick fix. So when they see representational, figurative painting, they tend to reduce it to an art historical past or they see it in terms of simply being an image. I don’t know of any so-called realist painters that, in fact, aren’t riddled with abstract notions about what they are doing. Even plein-air painters that I have known will talk about painting in the same way I will, which is about an investment in time, a building up of surface—that’s an entirely abstract activity that then arrives at something that looks recognizable, but it’s as much of a surprise to you as anybody. I think we are on the brink of visual illiteracy even though we have so much visual information culturally.”

I loved Bill Jensen‘s story, how he stayed in Minneapolis after graduating, working as a mason to make money to come to NYC in 1971. He describes showing at a big gallery but feeling terrible about it because his work was purchased by the people who had financed the Vietnam War, so he dropped out of the art world for five years, working as a carpenter and mason (painting at night in the Williamsburg studio). “To support myself I could ride my bicycle from Williamsburg with my mason tools on the handlebars and do jobs on the Upper East Side. I could do a job for three weeks and take off six weeks to two months to just work on my painting.

Matthew Richie called art grad schools a scam, “the professionalization of something that is not a profession… I always got the feeling that a successful person would have done just as well having not gone to grad school and the other 80 percent of that group have no reason to go and will go nowhere afterwards.”

Dana Schutz’s work looks incredible (and I just realized that I know her controversial “Open Casket” shown at the Whitney) and she’s so young in this book! She has been making art since she was 15 and comes across as a nice, fun spirit. I liked the story she related about de Kooning supposedly asking Gorky how he could afford such great paint during the height of the Depression and Gorky saying, “Priorities.”

Glass, Irony and God

I’m late to the Anne Carson party but I loved her poem The Glass Essay so figured I should go straight to the source and read the collection it was in. The Glass Essay is so meaty and rich that it deserves to be read on paper instead of online anyway, her overcoming grief from a relationship ending by carting the collected works of Emily Brontë out to her mother’s home on the moor in the north.

Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see
over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps
once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.
A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.

Also in this collection: The Truth about God, TV Men, The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide, Book of Isaiah, and an essay: The Gender of Sound, which is a roundhouse kick to the face of those misogynistic patriarchal assholes, the ancient Greeks and Ernest Hemingway. Apparently Socrates described Echo as “the girl with no door on her mouth.” Amazing how many examples she packs into a tight 18 pages.



Book of poems from the British poet Kayo Chingonyi in 2017; the name means “initiation,” the rites boys from tribes in NW Zambia must pass through before considered men. Most deal with trying to understand identity in a place where his roots seemed stripped away, plus a jab or two at Eminem (who gets to be dubbed a poet because of his white skin and blue eyes) instead of just a brother who can rhyme.

My favorite of the bunch has to be Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly:

You’re on an Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir

I love Parker Posey but this one goes in the trash bin as another example of why artists should stick to their usual medium and not attempt to write. Her voice comes through every page, making me wonder if she dictated the book instead of typing it out. Some hobnobbing with celebrities but particularly tone deaf rhapsodies over Louis CK and Woody Allen. Probably the most interesting celeb gossip was finding out that Wiley Wiggins (Mitch from Dazed and Confused) worked as an Apple genius and fielded a call from Jason London, his co-star in the movie, who was having software issues.

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