Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
In the summer of 1956, Violette Leduc, the autofiction pioneer and protegée of Simone de Beauvoir, began inpatient psychiatric treatment. She was forty-nine and suicidal. Her first two novels, L’asphyxie (translated as In the Prison of Her Skin) and L’affamée (The starving woman), both published in the late forties, were read and admired by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Genet. “She is an extraordinary woman,” Genet would tell people. “She is crazy, ugly, cheap, and poor, but she has a lot of talent.” Albert Camus, who had accepted L’asphyxie for his series at Éditions Gallimard, likewise considered Leduc a brilliant writer. But critics were underwhelmed, and the public all but ignored her work. “I don’t think of myself as not understood,” she writes. “I think of myself as nonexistent.”
In 1954, her third book, Ravages, which had taken six years to complete, was deemed too shocking to be published in its entirety. The male reading committee for Gallimard characterized the opening section, an autobiographical portrayal of the passionate romance between schoolgirls named Thérèse and Isabelle, as “enormously and specifically obscene” and liable to “call down the thunderbolts of the law.” Summarily excised, the section wouldn’t be published for another forty-five years. Yet Leduc’s dreamy, metaphor-burnished rendering of adolescent desire, which conveys as much emotional as physical sensation, is erotic but neither graphic nor coarse. “I was reciting my body upon hers,” Thérèse narrates, “bathing my belly in the lilies of her belly, finding my way inside a cloud. She skimmed my hips, she shot strange arrows.”
It’s difficult to imagine such lines corrupting twentieth-century sensibilities any more than, say, Joseph Kessel’s Belle de Jour (published by Gallimard in 1928) or Genet’s gay classic Lady of the Flowers (published by Gallimard in 1951, albeit with some of the more pornographic scenes cut). As the novelist and Leduc champion Deborah Levy has said, the publisher’s prudishness seemed to rest on the fact that Leduc’s narrative is driven by the female libido—almost unique in literature then and hardly more commonplace today.
It was also a time of conflicting and shifting attitudes around literary license. In 1955, the French authorities brought obscenity charges against the publisher and anonymous author of Story of O, a paean to BDSM and winner of a major literary prize. Meanwhile, the succès de scandale of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse led, in some quarters, to a call for more literary censorship. In London, a shopkeeper was sent to prison for stocking copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover around the same time as the French film adaptation’s arrival in theaters. (The film was promptly banned in New York for “promoting adultery.”) Regardless, Leduc was devastated by the “mutilation” of Ravages, which felt to her like “a murder.” In de Beauvoir’s words, they had “cut her tongue out.”
The book did, at least, receive a few enthusiastic reviews on publication. Anne Cécile Desclos, the journalist who wrote under the pseudonym Dominique Aury (and who was the secret author of Story of O), tells readers of the influential Nouvelle revue française to “jump into the fire” of Ravages, with its “fierce resolution to say everything, tone of uncompromised truth, cruel and clear language.” But sales, again, were negligible, and Leduc fell into a deep and paranoiac depression. Blighted by migraines and insomnia, she believed that journalists on the radio were ridiculing her literary failures and her ugliness. Her biographer Carlo Jansiti reveals that she even sought an “investigation” into the media’s targeting of her, imploring de Beauvoir to help arrange it. Alarmed, de Beauvoir instead persuaded her to check into a clinic in Versailles (and paid the bills). Leduc remained there for six months, undergoing a “sleep cure” and electroconvulsive therapy. Afterward, she said, “I had to learn to walk again, to work my eyelids, and I wasn’t cured. I had to do it all myself.”
Over the next few years, Leduc published another two books, and both met with the same fate as the rest of her work. Her mental health remained fragile; she was lonely, poor, and losing faith in writing as a path to redemption. De Beauvoir, stalwart in her commitment to Leduc’s genius, urged her to “go back to her birth” and write her life story. The result was La bâtarde, the first volume of Leduc’s autobiography (billed as such, but no more or less an artistic reworking of her life than her previous books), published in 1964 with a glowing preface by de Beauvoir. “A woman is descending into the most secret part of herself,” de Beauvoir writes, “and telling us about all she finds there with an unflinching sincerity, as though there were no one listening.”
At long last, the French reading public started listening, and the book was a sensational hit. In just a few months, a hundred seventy thousand copies were sold, many of those readers no doubt enticed by conservative critics’ accusations of “unparalleled obscenities and pornography” and “scandalous immorality.” Nominated for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, La bâtarde was immediately translated into several languages, with American publishers competing for the rights. The English edition, translated by Derek Coltman, garnered Leduc comparisons to Rimbaud and “Genet at his best” in the U.S. and to Rousseau in the UK. But for the fifty-seven-year-old author, financially comfortable for the first time in her life, success had come too late. “I’ve lived through too many hopeless moments,” she said, “and needed the recognition twenty years ago.” Nevertheless, before her death from breast cancer at age sixty-five, she published two further volumes of her autobiography, La folie en tête (translated, also by Coltman, as Mad in Pursuit) and La chasse à l’amour (Hunting for love), as well as more stories and novellas.
“My case is not unique: I am afraid of dying and distressed at being in this world,” begins La bâtarde. “I haven’t worked, I haven’t studied. I have wept, I have cried out in protest. These tears have taken up a great deal of my time.” With prose by turns visceral and immediate, poetic and philosophical, Leduc tells of her illegitimate birth as the daughter of a seduced domestic servant; her rapturous sexual awakening in the arms of another girl; her first serious relationship, with one of her schoolmistresses; her job at a publisher in Paris; her doomed marriage and abortion in her early thirties; and—the book’s climax—how she found her salvation and, sometimes, her undoing: turning her life into literature.
Enmeshed in a dysfunctional wartime friendship and black-market smuggling operation with the writer Maurice Sachs (one in a series of gay men she masochistically fixated on), she would bore him “to distraction” with endless lamentations on her unhappy childhood. One day, exasperated, he ordered her “to go and sit under an apple tree” and “write down all the things you tell me.” She began L’asphyxie, realizing to her joy that through writing, she could resurrect her grandmother, her sole source of affection as a young child and the only person she’d ever loved without pain and complication. “The birds suddenly stopped singing and then I sucked my pen: the pleasure of foreseeing that my grandmother was about to be reborn, that I was going to bring her into the world.” Like her foremost literary descendant, Annie Ernaux, whose best-selling books alchemize the quotidian and the personal into high art, Leduc discovered that aestheticizing her emotions, crafting her memories with language, mitigated the injustice of fate and the tyranny of longing.
In Paris after the war, Leduc contrived an introduction to de Beauvoir, whose first impressions of Leduc were of a “tall, elegant, blonde woman with a face both brutally ugly and radiantly alive.” De Beauvoir, who was just beginning to make her mark as a writer and thinker, arranged for the publication of L’asphyxie and for excerpts to appear in Les temps modernes, the journal she was launching with Sartre. Leduc, instantly besotted with her wonderful new mentor, turned her infatuation into a novel, L’affamée. (“I will give her my life. She doesn’t care … I will kill her. I will kiss both her hands … ”) De Beauvoir was unfazed, describing L’affamée to her American lover Nelson Algren as “a diary in which she tells everything about her love for me. It is a wonderful book.” Leduc’s love was, all too typically, unrequited. The pattern went back to her anguished relationship with her embittered, guilt-tripping mother. The heartbreaking first line of L’asphyxie is: “My mother never held my hand.”
Although de Beauvoir did not return Leduc’s intense feelings, she was intellectually inspired by their affiliation. She cites Leduc frequently in The Second Sex and drew on her life and work for the book’s analysis of lesbianism—a chapter that Leduc, according to a friend, found unsuccessful. Leduc also derided the lesbian literature that came before her own, with its heroines always, in her opinion, “unhappy” and “insipid.” Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, though, had delighted her when she read it at age twenty-one. “Two young girls fell in love,” she marveled, “and a woman had dared to write about it.” Of her own work, describing the painstaking creation of the lesbian scenes cut from Ravages, she writes: “I am trying to render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love. In this there is doubtless something that every woman can understand. I am not aiming for scandal but only to describe the woman’s experience with precision. I hope this will not seem any more scandalous than Madame Bloom’s thoughts at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses. Every sincere psychological analysis, I believe, deserves to be heard.”
Leduc eventually got her wish, but the victory was partial. After the success of La bâtarde, she announced that Jean Jacques-Pauvert—the trailblazing editor of Story of O and authors such as Georges Bataille, Salvador Dalí, and Albertine Sarrazin—wished to publish the suppressed segment, which had previously been printed only for private circulation by a wealthy patron. Only then did Gallimard, which retained the rights, finally release Thérèse and Isabelle as a separate, though still truncated, volume. It was a commercial success, and the film adaptation, directed by the soft-core auteur Radley Metzger, appeared in 1968. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Gallimard published the full unbowdlerized version. In 2012, an English translation by Sophie Lewis came out from Salammbo Press in the UK, followed by a U.S. edition from the Feminist Press in 2015. English-language review coverage, though sparse, was uniformly positive. In the Guardian, Nicholas Lezard declares, “Thérèse and Isabelle is, unquestionably, great … I don’t think I have ever read physical intimacy better described, or evoked.”
Leduc is often referred to as a writer’s writer, which carries connotations of highbrow experimentation. Yet her oeuvre, far from being tricksy or inaccessible, contains some of the rawest and most authentic conjurations of human subjectivity—self-loathing, vanity, lust, greed, joy, despair—that readers will ever encounter. Leduc’s fellow writers, however, will derive particular pleasure (the kind accompanied by wincing recognition) from her brutally frank meditations on the writing life. In La folie en tête, she reflects:
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.
Leduc has been hailed as France’s greatest unknown writer. An excellent 2013 film about her life, Violette, starring Emmanuelle Devos and directed by Martin Provost, raised her profile in a moderate way. But in the popular imagination, she is eclipsed by the Left-Bank literary eminences who were her friends and fans. An outsider in life thanks to her no-filter personality, her status as a “bastard,” and her forthright bisexuality, Leduc had the gift of the true artist: an inability to compromise. Of course, that gift is also a curse. Had she been less committed to telling the stark, unpalatable truth about being female when no one else would, she might have won membership to the temple of French literature. But self-censorship was never an option. Her stated mission was: “To write the impossible word on the rainbow’s arc. Then everything would have been said.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications. Read her previous Feminize Your Canon columns, about Olivia Manning and Dorothy West.