Violette Leduc

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ISABELLE de COURTIVRON

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[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. (pp. 98-9)

The themes of her work—acute consciousness of a body which is used as a protective barrier between herself and the world, the tortured quest for the indifferent mother's attention mocked by the constant reenactment of the mother's rejection, the effort to create from loneliness, madness, destruction, to offer herself as both victim and heroine of her own fiction—reappear in all of her novels but are particularly evident in L'Affamée.

Ugliness, traditionally considered an unforgivable taint in women, lies at the root of Leduc's self-hate and becomes the major symbol of her initial rejection and subsequent life-long alienation. Whether actual or imagined, this stress on ugliness is undeniably a literary resource in the author's desire to inscribe her body into the text. (p. 100)

[Characteristic] of Leduc's style, [emphasis is laid] on the impersonal, the objective, the detached, the descriptive, even on the merely enumerative. Her face is dough or earth, inanimate matter; pain inhabits limbs, features, entrails which hardly seem to belong to her. Leduc constantly uses this stratagem to separate herself from a body which is hateful to her, and from emotions which are too painful to be experienced directly. Because it is her mouth, stomach, arms, hands, lips which experience the pain, and because these are, in a sense, separated from Leduc herself, she can objectify and thus protect herself….

Leduc, who frequently compares herself to various forms of inanimate and organic matter, reflects in repulsive natural imagery the disgust she has for her own biology. Such images are usually summoned during a violent crisis which reenacts the initial experience of rejection, at moments when the abandoned child in Leduc screams for attention, while the presence of an indifferent adult merely punctuates and intensifies this rejection. (p. 101)

[The] ability to transform such inner chaos into rich, if horrifying, visual and tactile imagery is one of Leduc's greatest gifts and points to the surrealistic quality of her work, even recalling Rimbaud's particular definition of the visionary writer. (p. 102)

The narrator's need for the mother's attention and the bitter inevitability of subsequent rejection are acted out through her unreciprocated fixation on some unreachable "other." Passion for the impossible thus becomes not only the dominant pattern in her life, but her claim to grandeur, her personal...

(This entire section contains 972 words.)

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masterpiece…. Each relationship takes her further into the tortuous intricacies of humiliation and betrayal….

Her attraction to male homosexuals marks the next step in this quest for the unattainable. Loving them represents a more sophisticated form of rejection, not only because they cannot reciprocate her feelings but because she is so totally excluded from the contacts they experience with one another; here, again, she encounters the indifference which sustains her. With complete lucidity, she recounts her hellish cohabitation with Maurice Sachs during the war years, a situation which recreates the initial trauma: Violette loves Maurice who loves a young boy, just as the bastard child Violette loved her mother who preferred her legitimate son. (p. 103)

Imagination and confession, hallucination and autobiography, intermeshing in her work, allow the alienated, isolated, desperate Leduc to use her own books as the objects through which she establishes indirect contact with other human beings; through them, she attempts the most ambitious quest for love and rejection by transforming her readers into the cruel mother. Her style, breathless, aggressive, suffocating, reflects the draining energy with which the narrator challenges and solicits the reader into becoming the most inaccessible yet in the long series of love-objects. Should her books be considered ugly and repulsive, should they be rejected, then the ultimate failure which she both craves and fears will have occurred. Leduc, the writer, treats her readers with the same defiance, the same shamelessness and jarring honesty, yet with the same desperate need for attention we have detected in her heroine's life pattern….

Leduc's originality lies not only in the fearless experimentation with her visions, but in the ability to recreate and expand such moments through a dense, jarring, and innovative language, through the creation of images, rhythms, repetitions which correspond to the violently imaginative quality of her inner states. Her talent lies in the exploration of a world fashioned from suffering and sickness, visions and imagination; it lies in the recreation of this world through the sharp and relentless control over the tools of her craft to portray successfully a multidimensional consciousness. (p. 105)

Isabelle de Courtivron, "Violette Leduc's 'L'affamée': The Courage to Displease," in L'Esprit Créateur (copyright © 1979 by L'Esprit Créateur), Vol. XIX, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 95-106.

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Michael Wood