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literature

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Leduc, Violette (1907-1972)  

The bisexual novelist and memoirist Violette Leduc is an astute psychological observer and a dramatic chronicler of women's issues.

Despite the rediscovery of women writers and the gay and lesbian literary tradition, few writers continue to be as underappreciated by both critics and the public as Leduc. Is it because of her untimely death and her unstable, neurotic personality? Or is it the unevenness of her work coupled with its predominantly female subject matter?

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The irony is that Leduc is arguably a stronger stylist and more candid erotic explorer than Marguerite Duras; a more astute psychological observer than Nathalie Sarraute; and a more dramatic chronicler of the woman's condition than Simone de Beauvoir.

Leduc was born April 7, 1907, in Arras, where her mother Berthe had gone to give birth to her illegitimate daughter fathered by the son of a couple she worked for. In Valenciennes, the young Violette spent most of her childhood suffering from an ugly self-image and from her mother's hostility and overprotectiveness. Her two most tender friendships were with her grandmother Fideline and her maternal aunt Laure.

Her formal education, begun in 1913, was interrupted by World War I. After the war, she went to a boarding school, the Collège de Duoai, where she experienced lesbian affairs with a classmate and a music instructor who was fired over the incident. In the meantime, her mother married, bringing an unwelcome end to the all-female family.

In 1926, Leduc moved to Paris and enrolled in the Lycée Racine. That same year, she failed her baccalaureate exam and ended up working as a telephone operator and secretary at Plon publishers, where she eventually became a proofreader and publicity writer.

In 1932, she made the acquaintance of the writer Maurice Sachs, who urged her to write professionally. She then began her career as a freelance journalist whose stories, features, and editorials were published in various magazines. In 1939, she married Gabriel Mercier, who was soon drafted; she divorced him after World War II.

During the war, Leduc hid out in a small town in Normandy with Sachs, a homosexual with whom she grew infatuated but who never reciprocated her sexual attraction. (Similar incidents of "impossible love" occurred after the war with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet, and are recounted in detail by Edmund White in his biography of Genet.)

Leduc herself used her thinly disguised infatuation with Beauvoir in L'Affamée (Starved). When Sachs left, she took up black marketing and made a small fortune. But when the war ended, she lost her money and was imprisoned briefly.

Leduc's one stroke of post-war good fortune was that de Beauvoir read the manuscript of her first novel, L'Asphyxie (In the Prison of Her Skin) and became her mentor, helping her get the novel published in 1946. It received critical raves from Albert Camus, Jean Genet, and Marcel Jouhandeau among others.

Leduc continued to write and publish other works, including L'Affamée in 1948, Ravages in 1955, and La vieille fille et le mort (The Old Maid and the Dead Man) in 1958. But popular and commercial success eluded her until 1964 when La Bâtarde (The Bastard) was published--minus the Thérèse et Isabelle section, which her publisher deemed too explicit in its depiction of lesbian lovemaking. ( Thérèse et Isabelle was finally published in 1966 and made into a film in 1968.)

La Bâtarde nearly won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and became a bestseller, and its success enabled Leduc to buy a house in the town of Faucon in the Vaucluse region. She settled there and completed the second and third installments of her projected four-volume autobiography--La Folie en tête (Mad in Pursuit, 1970) and La Chasse à l'amour (The Hunt for Love, 1972)--neither of which approached the mastery of La Bâtarde.

Leduc developed breast cancer and, after two operations, died on May 28, 1972.

One reason success and esteem may have escaped Leduc for so long is that so much of her work is autobiographical and blurs the distinctions between fact and fiction. Her life was indeed a history of calamities, each of which became grist for her fiction. Many critics accused her of writing self-indulgent confessions, even though her "in extremis" characters and controversial subject matter should have made her seem a natural part of the post-war flowering of French existentialism.

As their titles often suggest, Leduc's books are filled with images of deprivation and defeat. Yet her work is never merely documentary or therapeutic. To read the best of her novels and memoirs--In the Prison of Her Skin, Ravages, La Bâtarde and Thérèse and Isabelle--is to see how Leduc reworks and revises each character and each incident for purely literary purposes.

The subtlety of her work lies both in its stylistic originality--as in the metaphorically charged language of the talking Metro steps scene in La Bâtarde and the powerfully lyrical love-making scene in Thérèse and Isabelle--and in its ability to transform friends, family members, and even Leduc herself into absurdist parables of female identity and the social conditions that women of her generation faced.

If any writer can be described as the female Kafka that writer is surely Violette Leduc.

Jacob Stockinger

     

 
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A portrait of Violette Leduc provided by Peter Owen Publishers.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Benkov, Edith J. "Violette Leduc." Gay and Lesbian Literature. Sharon Malinowski, ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. 220-223.

Bree, Germaine. Women Writers in France. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

De Courtivron, Isabelle. Violette Leduc. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Flanner, Janet. Paris Journal: Volume 2, 1965-1971. William Shawn, ed. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Marks, Elaine. "Lesbian Intertextuality." Homosexualities and French Literature. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks, eds. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. 353-377.

White, Edmund. Genet: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1993.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Stockinger, Jacob  
    Entry Title: Leduc, Violette  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 4, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/leduc_v.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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