by Deborah Levy
“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.
Selected Works by Violette Leduc in Translation:
La Bâtarde. Trans. Derek Coltman. Dalkey Archive Press, $15.95.
In the Prison of Her Skin. Out of Print.
Mad in Pursuit. Out of Print.
The Taxi. Out of Print.
Selected Untranslated Works:
L’Asphyxie. Éditions Gallimard, €6.40.
La chasse à l’amour. Éditions Gallimard, €11.92.
La femme au petit renard. Éditions Gallimard, €39.64.
Folie en tête. Éditions Gallimard, €11.92.
Thérèse et Isabelle. Éditions Gallimard, €11.43.
Trésors à prendre. Éditions Gallimard, €22.11.
La vieille Fille et le Mort. Éditions Gallimard, €18.29.