Violette Leduc

Violette Leduc (7 April 1907 – 28 May 1972) was a French author.

Born out of wedlock to the son of a wealthy family for whom her mother worked as a maid, Leduc was never recognized by her father and grew up in poor circumstances. In 1918, Leduc was sent off to a boarding school in Valenciennes, and, in 1924, switched to boarding school in Douai, where she had an affair with a classmate and with a music teacher, Denise Hertgès, four years her senior. When the affair was discovered, Hertgès was fired and Leduc expelled from the school.

In 1926, she moved to Paris, where she briefly attended the Lycée Racine. That same year, she failed her baccalaureate exam and started working as a secretary for a publishing company. While in Paris, Leduc lived with Hertgès, and their relationship lasted until 1935.

In 1939, Leduc married an old friend, the photographer Jacques Mercier, whom she had met in 1927, while still living with Hertgès. Their marriage lasted only a year, and, in 1940, after their separation, Leduc discovered that she was pregnant. She underwent an abortion and almost died.

Meanwhile, during the war, she tried to make a living by trading on the black market. In 1940, Leduc started to write for the magazine Pour Elle and for the daily Paris-Soirn, after the recommendation of the writer Maurice Sachs, a friend whom she had met (and fallen in love with) in 1938. Leduc and Sachs moved to a village in Normandy, where they pretend to be a couple. In 1942, Sachs moved to Hamburg, where he worked as an informer for the Gestapo. In 1943, after refusing to report a Jesuit priest engaged in the Resistance, Sachs was arrested by the Gestapo and murdered.

Meanwhile, in Normandy, Leduc begun writing her childhood memories, which would later be published as L’Asphyxie, in 1946. She returned to Paris around 1944.

In 1945, she was introduced to Simone de Beauvoir, who agreed to read the manuscript of L’Asphyxie. Leduc falls in love with her, and the two develop a lifelong, complex friendship. De Beauvoir would prove fundamental to the publication of Leduc’s first book.

In 1955, Leduc published an abridged version of the novel Ravages, whose first section, depicting a lesbian affair between two classmates, had been censored as obscene by the publisher. The censored section was eventually published as a novella, Thérèse et Isabelle, in 1966, and it was made into a movie in 1968 (IMDb), directed by Radley Metzger. The full text of Thérèse et Isabelle was only published by Gallimard in 2000.

Throughout her life, Leduc had suffered from bouts of depression. From 1956 to 1957, she struggled with a severe mental breakdown and was confined to a clinic. “I am a desert that speaks to itself”, Leduc wrote to de Beauvoir in 1958.

Although praised by critics and fellow writers, Leduc’s commercial breakthrough would only come much later, in 1964, with the publication of La Bâtarde. It sold 170.000 copies in a few months, was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, and immediately translated into several languages.

Around 1968, Leduc developed breast cancer and underwent two unsuccessful operations. She died on May 28th, 1972, at the age of 65.

In her novel La Folie en tête (1970. English: Mad in Pursuit, tr. Derek Coltman, 1971), Leduc wrote about her craft: “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.”

Books

  • L’Asphyxie (1946)
    • English: In the Prison of Her Skin, tr. Derek Coltman (1970), reissued as Asphyxia (2020)
  • L’affamée (1948)
  • Ravages (1955)
    • English: Ravages, Derek Coltman (1969)
  • La vieille fille et le mort & Les Boutons dorés (1958)
  • Trésors à prendre (1960)
  • La Bâtarde (1964)
    • English: La Bâtarde, tr. Derek Coltman (1965)
  • La Femme au petit renard (1965)
    • English: The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, tr. Derek Coltman (1968)
  • Thérèse et Isabelle (1966)
    • English: Thérèse and Isabelle, tr. Sophie Lewis (2015)
  • La Folie en tête (1970)
    • English: Mad in Pursuit, tr. Derek Coltman (1971)
  • Le Taxi (1971)
    • English: The Taxi, tr. Helen Weaver (1973)
  • La Chasse à l’amour (1973)
  • Thérèse et Isabelle (full text, 2000)
  • Je hais les dormeurs (2006)
  • Correspondance 1945-1972, ed. Carlo Jansiti (2007)
  • La Main dans le sac, ed. Catherine Viollet (2014)

About her

  • Lire Violette Leduc aujourd’hui, by Mireille Brioude, Anaïs Frantz, Alison Péron (2017)
  • Violette Leduc, la Chasse à l’amour (2013, documentary, dir. Esther Hoffenberg)
  • Violette (2013, film, dir. Martin Provost, IMDb)
  • Le complexe d’Éve. La pudeur et la littérature. Lectures de Violette Leduc et Marguerite Duras, by Anaïs Frantz (2013)
  • Madness in twentieth century French women’s writing: Leduc, Marguerite Duras, Simone de Beauvoir, Marie Cardinal, Jeanne Hyvrard, by Suzanne Dow (2009)
  • Lesbian Inscription in Francophone Society and Culture, ed. Wendy Michallat, Renate Günther (2007)
  • Violette Leduc la mal-aimée, by Colette Hall (2004)
  • Liberty, equality, maternity in Beauvoir, Leduc and Ernaux, by Alison S. Fell (2003)
  • The Pleasures of the Text. Violette Leduc and Reader Seduction, by Elizabeth Locey (2002)
  • Violette Leduc: la mise en scène du Je, by Mireille Brioude (2000)
  • Damned Women: Lesbians in French Novels, 1796-1996, by Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters (2000)
  • Violette Leduc, by Carlo Jansiti (1999)
  • Violette’s Embrace, by Michele Zackheim (1996, novel)
  • Violette Leduc, éloge de la bâtarde, by René de Ceccatty (1994)
  • Violette Leduc. Mothers, Lovers and Language, by Alex Hughes (1994)
  • French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, ed. Eva Martin Sartori and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman (1991)
  • Women in French Literature, ed. Michel Guggenheim (1988)
  • Masks of Tradition: Women and the Politics of Writing in Twentieth-Century France, by Martha Noel Evans (1987)
  • Violette Leduc, by Isabelle de Courtivron (1985)
  • Bilder und Schatten. Die lesbische Frau in der Literatur, by Jane Rule (1979)

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