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. Read More