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 ...