Violette Leduc 1907–1972
French novelist and memoirist.
A protégée of Simone de Beauvoir, Leduc produced writing which focused on the alienation of individuals. Her fictionalized autobiographies, La bâtarde and Mad in Pursuit, describe her obsession with loneliness and insecurity.
(See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
SIMONE de BEAUVOIR
Violette Leduc does not try to please; she doesn't please; in fact, she alarms people…. Leafing through [her books] you glimpse a world full of sound and fury, where love often bears the name of hate, where a passion for life bursts forth in cries of despair; a world laid waste by loneliness which, seen from afar, looks arid. It is not in fact. (pp. v-vi)
[In La Bâtarde, Violette Leduc's autobiography, she is a] schoolgirl of fifty-five … writing down words in an exercise book. And sometimes, when her memories do not suffice to illumine her emotions, she whirls us off into strange flights of fancy; she exorcises the absence that tortures her with violent and lyrical phantasmagoria. Under its real-life covering, the dream life shows through, running like filigree through stories of the utmost simplicity.
She is her own principal heroine. But her protagonists exist intensely. (pp. xii-xiii)
Because she is "never satisfied" she has always remained open to new experiences; any encounter can appease her hunger or at least distract her from it: everyone she meets is an object for her acute and attentive observation. She unmasks tragedies and farces concealed behind facades of apparent banality. In a few pages, in a few lines, she can bring to life the characters who have established a claim to her curiosity or her friendship…. Moving, unusual, they take the same hold on our interest as they...
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[La Bâtarde] was not only a succès de scandale … but was acclaimed by many as the most striking book of imaginative literature in a rather lean year. Its faults are glaring, and they will more than once exacerbate a fastidious or an impatient reader. The bâtarde is also a bavarde: she never wearies of recording her woes, her mad sexual and spiritual yearnings, and the petty doings of daily life, in what some male readers may regard as inexhaustible prattle.
Though it is too long, the volume is never dull, and it is much less monotonous and annoyingly complacent than most autobiographies and personal records. The lack of restraint or of pudeur—that "wrapping of the body by the soul," in the phrase Nietzsche admired and stole from another woman … the candor in the totally uninhibited description of the author's Lesbian loves has contributed not a little to the success of the book…. But it was not Mme. Leduc's design … to titillate the pruriency of readers or to indulge any lewdness. This, the story of the author's first forty years, is a courageous confession and a work of art….
Her long confession is a weird mixture of burning, naïve, lucid, and unadorned sincerity … and of poetic inner monologue.
Time and again, in high-flown passages, she invokes the reader, her grandmother and her mother, and the women whom she has loved. But these rhetorical...
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The Times Literary Supplement
There are a number of similarities, both literary and personal, between Violette Leduc and Jean Genet…. Both are brilliant writers without the slightest interest in constructing a coherent work of narrative prose. Both use literature for essentially personal and autobiographical motives, and both write virtually the same book again and again. Both feel themselves rejected by normal society through the misfortunes of their childhood and the nonconformity of their sexual tastes, but, both have been surprisingly successful in reintegrating themselves into society through literature. Both are completely indifferent to conventional moral values, and describe their thefts, homosexual exploits or black market profiteering with a strange innocence that is only partly the result of a deliberate pose. And both of them, in England at least, are probably bought in the first place for what moralists would describe as the wrong reasons….
La Bâtarde may be bought by voyeuristic readers in search of salacious details. Such purchasers, it need hardly be said, are in for a disappointment. There are descriptions of women making love to each other, as there are references to menstruation and abortions, but these take up only a very small part of the book. The love affairs, moreover, are described with such a wealth of poetic images that only the most determined immoralist could find them sexually exciting….
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[In Ravages, we] are supposed to be seeing a young woman who demands absolute union and being unable to find it, desires absolute solitude. What the reader sees, however, is a young woman incapable of love, a completely selfish woman who rejects love when it is offered and then tries to force herself upon [others] when they have either been hurt too much by her or have livings to earn…. Certainly Mlle Leduc has a poetic way, with some passages, and because of this some people consider her the female Jean Genet. But unlike Genet she has no sense of the ridiculous and missing this gift of grace one laughs at the poor woman and not with her. (p. 736)
Stanley Reynolds, "Artful Dodger," in New Statesman (© 1968 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 75, No. 1942, May 31, 1968, pp. 735-36.∗
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With less imagination than Proust but with a frankness that makes Proust and most autobiographers seem positively Pecksniffian, [Violette Leduc] writes five pages of her journal every day, wrestling with her soul and her sanity for le mot juste. Poverty, frustration in love, doubts about her capacity to write, have given her the stuff from which books can be made without resorting to the masks and evasions of popular fiction.
La folie en tête [Mad in Pursuit] carries her through World War II, a nightmarish imprisonment, friendship with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet, the will o' the wisp allurements and disappointments of the literary life, and a passion for a book collector whose indifference to her provoked one of those crises usually leading their victims to suicide or cynicism.
Her book sometimes resembles a cluttered Victorian house whose jumble of knicknacks drew the eye away from what was useful and beautiful. But there is no overlooking the art with which she bodies forth a person, an incident, an atmosphere. A gift for comedy struggles with her taste for hero worship and even the admired Genet is diminished in her story of their checkered relationship. Comic in effect if not in intention is her account of the seduction of a young man who had courted her friendship so he might learn how to write. She experiments with point of view, drops occasionally into stream-of-consciousness, and handles...
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If "La Bâtarde" describes the weight of a malediction—the stigmata of [Leduc's] birth, rejection by her mother, guilt and will to self-annihilation, narcissism and first homosexual loves—"Mad in Pursuit" is the story of this malediction redeemed and forged into a vocation…. The book is in part the story of a salvation through writing, through assumption of the risks of confession and the effort to fix one's perception of the world on paper, and daily struggle with pen and notebook to render exactly what has been seen. This is the interior "madness" referred to in the original title, "La Folie en tête." She chooses imprisonment—in the "black den" of her room, in the solitary labor of writing—in order to escape the inner prison.
A phrase runs through the book like a leitmotif: Simone de Beauvoir's question, "Have you been working?" By working she means writing. At the start of the book, we are in Paris after the Liberation, and everyone seems to be writing: Sartre, Camus, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Simone de Beauvoir herself….
This was, of course, a rare moment of literary effloresence, and Violette Leduc creates some striking, original, intuitive portraits of the masters: an aging Cocteau falling asleep after lunch as two beautiful young companions play volleyball on the lawn outside; Sartre complaining that Hegel's chapter titles are more tiresome than the text…. (p. 4)...
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"The Taxi" was something of a departure from [Violette Leduc's] previous work, and it is a remarkable achievement. In "The Taxi" she takes a vacation from literary exhibitionism to tell a marvelous fairy tale of incest and sexual initiation. The story is cast in the form of a dialogue between brother and sister in the back seat of a taxi-cab which they have transformed into a bower of love…. All day they talk to each other, as only the French can, ecstatically, elegiacly, tenderly, while they make love like two dryads in a tale by Ovid.
The fairytale quality of the story never flags. With well-bred exactness, he and she have planned this day for months….
There is a comic undertone in this petit-bourgeois thoroughness. But the poetry of adolescent sexuality, which Violette Leduc renders so beautifully, the defiant complicity of two young bodies, the mirrorlike responsiveness of the incest itself, makes the comedy infinitely tender…. The story throughout is simple and resonant as a folk myth, although Violette Leduc has rendered it with all the liveliness of contemporary dialogue.
Paul Zweig, "From the Far Erotic Left," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 9, 1972, p. 6.
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[In The Taxi two] children, brother and sister, sixteen and fourteen respectively, decide, one day on a merry-go-round on the boulevard de Clichy, to take three months of lessons in sex from a pimp and a prostitute, and then to dedicate themselves to each other for one whole day, in a taxi driving around Paris. The book is composed of their dialogue on this day.
The point, I take it, beyond the trickery and dainty pornography (incest thrown in for those who like their vicarious kicks lightly spiced), is a gamble with language: you speak the unspeakable, you have two characters talk when what they are up to is seemingly beyond talk. Indeed, the book is all talk. The children lapse into significant silences now and then, while they get down to other things, but they are out of them like lightning. There is something desperate here, which Mme Leduc's technical virtuosity releases but cannot hold. Language is being used not only to quicken an otherwise dead reality, and not only to suggest how incapable we are of silence, but to make do somehow in reality's total absence.
Here and in other works, Mme Leduc suggests that mediocre lives can have their intensities, their fine moments which will not die on them. We can even organize our intensities, in the way that the children in The Taxi set up their day as a glory to remember, a provision to see them through a tedious normal life to come…. And to...
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ISABELLE de COURTIVRON
[It] remains true that until the last twenty years, there are few women writers known for having defiantly translated their inner chaos into visionary, surrealistic, hallucinatory works expressive of their own perceptions…. [But at the same time, there are] those women writers who defied the norms and overcame the pressure to "please" in lifestyle and in writing, those who are exceptions to de Beauvoir's contention that women lacked the courage to displease. Violette Leduc represents an outstanding example in this feminist tradition. Not only is Leduc unafraid "to disarrange, to investigate, to explode," her entire work rests on a defiant affirmation of precisely these subversions. Her insistence on screaming out her ugliness, her self-hate, her solitude, and her obsession with death underlies each of her books…. Leduc was one of the first women writers in France whose work was published because its originality lay in an honest, powerful and frightening confession, in the transformation of fear, violence and desire into the verbal transcription of hallucinatory visions. Leduc deserves serious attention in her triple roles of misfit woman, anguished human being and visionary poet. Out of the interaction of these roles she creates a complex mixture of introspection, impulsive lunges toward destruction, and painstaking attempts to give personal chaos meaningful artistic form in a style completely expressive of her complex hallucinations....
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