At one point in Asphyxia (2020, tr. Derek Coltman. Original: L’Asphyxie, 1946), the unnamed narrator is standing on the sidewalk, peeking through a window at a girl who is playing the piano in the drawing room. Our narrator is mesmerized by the girl’s performance, and feels “overwhelmed with emotion because I was observing the private life of an extraordinary being”. This is more or less what we feel when reading your fictional autobiographies: as though we were peeking through the ordinary events in an extraordinary woman’s life.
When the book opens, our narrator is about to cross the street in the company of her mother, who refuses to hold her hand. In this refusal, as charted in the very first paragraph, we can have a glimpse of the novel’s entire narrative arc: a daughter’s struggle to escape the grasp of her mother’s refusal to grasp her hand. “My mother never gave me her hand. She always helped me on and off pavements by pinching my frock or coat very lightly at the spot where the armhole provides a grip. It humiliated me. I felt I was inside the body of an old horse with my carter dragging me along by one ear (…) I pushed the hand away right in the middle of the road. She pinched the cloth even tighter and lifted me off the ground like a chicken being carried by one wing. I went limp. I refused to move. My mother noticed my tears.”
As the story progresses, we learn that our narrator’s mother had fallen pregnant by the son of her wealthy employer, and the family had refused to recognize the child. Our narrator is seen as a blemish on this rich family, due to what they perceive as her mother’s ‘lower social status’ as a domestic servant. To make matters more complicated, our narrator is seen as a blemish on her mother’s reputation, who feels branded as a ‘fallen woman’ for having had a baby out of wedlock.
Unfortunately for the child, she will be made to carry the burden of what others perceive as a blemish. It’s a matter of class and power – and, in particular, the power to choose who to blame and how. Our narrator’s mother never misses an opportunity to remind the child that she is an unwanted burden – a ‘beast’, a ‘halfwit’, a ‘monster’, an ‘ugly child’, an ‘idiot’. And our narrator constantly struggles to find room to breathe, even if only inside her mind. “She had pulled up my dress and petticoat behind. But when I fidgeted, to ease the discomfort of the fibres embedding themselves in my flesh, she fixed me with her eyes. They were blue and hard. In my mind, I tore off the ribbon and the broderie anglaise dress. I ran off to splash about round the water pump, to join the gang that was always lurking there to douse the dignity of passers-by. But it was in my mind only”.
What follows is the narrator’s attempt to grapple with maternal rejection and abuse – and to do so by breaking with narrative linearity, to allow for a breath of fresh air into what would otherwise be the hermetically sealed room of her mother’s ‘hard blue gaze’. We hop from one brief chapter to the next; from one incident to another; from a number of forms of abuse to random anecdotes and even some acts of compassion and love – everything held loosely together by our narrator’s imagination, her will to live to tell the story. “The tears I was holding back were food enough”.
She will eventually refuse to be transformed by her mother into the worst kind of murderer: she will refuse to become the child who ‘murders her own mother in her imagination’.
The book is a collection of fragmented childhood memories, where scenes of abuse are interspersed with local anecdotes, adventures with school friends, and the redeeming bond between our narrator and her loving grandmother.
Men are conspicuously absent from the narrative: their influence can only be felt from the outside, by what they refuse to be, and the power they have to be able to do so. The story is peopled by women: mother, grandmother, sister, classmate, teacher, a random girl playing the piano. At one point, the grandmother refers to the narrator’s ‘real’ grandfather as the maternal one; and, even then, when she speaks of his death, the grandmother says that she had been set free by it.
In another scene, the child is chilled by the contrast between the loveless way her mother treats her and the loving way her mother treats a stranger: “She no longer deigned even to look at me. They were playing ‘The Skater’s Waltz’. She was apologising to the stranger in a quite unrecognisable voice. Her face was sickly with the desire to please. The hard blue gaze had gone. Her burst of laughter scarcely seemed to come from her. This unknown mother frightened me”.
There is a particularly moving scene, where the child sees her mother crying in public and understands her suffering, but remains forever locked outside the mother’s field of vision – her mother’s “single-minded fury”. In this scene, as if happening in parallel and in sharp contrast, the child is reminded of all the times she and her grandmother had lived through a moment of sadness as something they shared: “My grandmother would have called me to her. She would have pressed her forehead against my temple. Her tears had often run down my cheeks. When she wept, she did so silently, but she held me in her arms. She wiped away our grief with the same handkerchief. That was our scale of things.”
Only illness will be able to break the strong bond between the child and her grandmother: “She turned her head towards me. I didn’t dare smile. I didn’t dare to kiss her. We gazed at one another gravely, without the shadow of a thought in our heads. At last, she smiled; but was it intended for me, that smile? It was difficult for her to express anything other than her pain, to evade it even for a moment! She was perhaps smiling, with resignation, at her illness. My grandmother was above all else thoughtful of others. But what she offered me at that moment scarcely reached me”.
The grandmother will eventually succumb to consumption, whereas the child will continue to struggle against a less literal form of asphyxia – her mother’s rejection and oppressive gaze. Relief will often be provided by the temporary absence of an absence: love, for our narrator, will be something that happens when her mother is not there; her mother not being there, however, is the very tail around which our narrator will be always spinning; and she might well come to risk some form of suffocation, when trapped inside this in-between of what is and what is not there. “I belonged to that accomplice sky above, to those scowling clouds, to the front of our house bathed in so appropriate a light, to that cherry tree harried by the wind. I belonged to what I had lost.”
Our narrator will eventually stumble upon the pianist she had listened to from the sidewalk. This time, the unknown girl will be in a concert hall, and there will be an orchestra accompanying her. Our narrator will be grasped by the redeeming power of the girl’s mastery of her craft: “What mystery, an adolescent girl, knowing so little, yet able on the keyboard to make you understand bravery, passion, rebellion, love, humility. We lived only through her as we listened”. Our narrator may be talking about the pianist. But we know that, to us, she is also talking about the novel we have just read – and about herself.
With her free hand she flattened my chest against the wall. I would have been happy to blow on that hand and watch it float away like the petal of some unheeded little flower … That hand would never humiliate me again. – Violette Leduc, Asphyxia
My mother kept saying between her sobs: “We’ll never get anywhere, any where!” I ran out and threw myself into her arms. She pushed me away: “Look at your bare feet on the tiled floor! You’re just trying to kill me with worry!” The hard blue look flashed out again as she said it. I left the room and went to sleep. When I opened my eyes I saw a dark patch moving on the ceiling. My grandmother was coming into the bedroom holding the big lamp. In her long nightdress she looked like an ageless village priest. I laughed out loud, I muffled my laughter against her. I raised my head. Her gaze was a vast gentle pool. Her gaze was the fulfilment of my every wish. Her greying hair, her serene face fascinated me. It seemed to me that she was floating a little above the bedside rug, that she had been lowered down to us on a gossamer thread. – Violette Leduc, Asphyxia
About the book
- Gallic Books, 2020, tr. Derek Coltman,144 p. Goodreads
- The same translation was also published under the title In the Prison of Her Skin (1970)
- Original: L’Asphyxie (1946)
- My rating: 4 stars
- Projects: Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; European Reading Challenge, hosted by Gilion; Revolutionary Women series, by Gallic Books