an excerpt from Lesbian Images
Courtesy of The Crossing Press Feminist Series
La Bâtarde, the book which finally gave Violette Leduc the success she craved, is a condensation of all her earlier novels, translated back into autobiography. Mad in Pursuit, which followed it, is simply a second volume of that autobiography in which she declares, "To write is to inform against others," "To write is to prostitute oneself." Her terrible candor in both these books is true to those definitions while at the same time going far beyond them, for, if her work were nothing but a betrayal of others and a prostitution of herself, her books might attract sensational, but not serious attention. She asks herself, "Will you sell your sex for the sake of your pen?" She answers, "I would sell everything for greater exactness." The cost is outrageous, but she has produced the most exact, sensual, emotional, and psychological record there is of a woman defined and diminished by her sexuality. By means of it, she can, even in the extremes of her degradation, reflect in fact what is perhaps true only in the horrified and secret imagination of most of us. We perceive in her life our own prostituted selves, frightened, confessional, self-justifying, obsessive against the revelation that we are women.
Born the bastard of an orphan serving girl, Violette Leduc was the evidence of the crime against her mother's sexuality as well as the punishment for her mother's sexuality, and therefore Violette was taught not only that men were untrustworthy and heartless, but also that she was, in her mother's eyes, identified with that enemy. In the poverty and isolation of their lives, Violette Leduc focused on her mother with a courtly possessiveness which was to last, along with her critical anger at her mother, all her life. The mother who had taught her to fear men betrayed her for one, marrying and sending Violette away to boarding school. In Thérèse and Isabelle, which is also admittedly autobiographical, Thérèse responds to the news of her mother's coming marriage with, "I told her that I was engaged to her myself." Her mother tries to reassure her. "There's no one on earth but you, there's no one on earth I love but you, she told me, but she had someone else." "I was Isabelle's. I didn't belong to anyone anymore."
This explanation of Thérèse's willingness to be seduced by her schoolmate Isabelle is not really what absorbs Violette Leduc's attention in Thérèse and Isabelle. Her own description of the book is given later in Mad in Pursuit with unbecoming accuracy. "A load of sticky jam with two adolescent girls embalmed in it." Her method of writing is far from a psychological analysis of the lesbian experience of schoolgirls. "I wrote with one hand, and with the other... I loved myself to love them." Violette Leduc sexually rediscovers her adolescent experience in the process of writing about it and records moment by moment all its erotic urgency, just as she rediscovers herself as a middle-aged woman masturbating as she writes about her adolescence.
Thérèse and Isabelle are not beloved friends so much as young, sexual animals, so entirely absorbed in the experience that they care about nothing else. They keep each other awake all night in Isabelle's cubicle, each new erotic discovery more wonderful and exhausting than the one before until they learn to identify each other's bodies so thoroughly that they hardly distinguish between the toucher and the touched. "To give oneself, one must annihilate oneself," Thérèse explains, and this discovery, though it comes from sexual ecstasy, is not limited to that sphere. Thérèse is nothing but a used and yearning body, sleeping through classes, sleepwalking through the day unless Isabelle is with her, snatching at, touching, taunting in lavatory, hallway, empty classroom. Their only awareness of the world beyond their lovemaking is the fear of discovery either at the school or in the room in town they rent for an hour. Isabelle is too abandoned to care even about that, taking her pants off in an empty classroom at noon in order to instruct Thérèse in the art of using her tongue. Isabelle's only terror is the loss of Thérèse, their inevitable separation because they are children, not in charge of their own fates. They do not talk together except as a way of making love. They don't have much understanding of, or sympathy for, each other's fears.
Because the book is written from Thérèse's point of view, her own sexual discoveries are more important. And, since Thérèse is the young Violette Leduc in the intensity of her first prolonged sexual experience, what Thérèse discovers is linked with the person Violette will become. Licking on command and direction from Isabelle, feeling aroused herself in the act, she interprets her experience under the obviously later influence of Freud. "The pearl wanted what I wanted. I was discovering the little male organ we all of us have. A eunuch taking heart again."
The book ends with the removal of Thérèse from school by her mother, but Violette Leduc continues the story of herself as protagonist in Thérèse's place in La Bâtarde. Once Violette and Isabelle are separated, in fact by Isabelle's leaving school, Violette gives little thought to her and concentrates instead on a young music teacher. The one night they spend together in Hermine's room does leave Violette missing Isabelle because the sexual experience doesn't live up to her high expectations. As a result of that night Hermine is sent away from school, but they exchange secret letters and finally meet outside the school. Violette wants to make love in an open field. Hermine is reluctant, and now she is scornfully compared to Isabelle, who made no confessions, who had no inhibitions in pleasure. Violette's correspondence with Hermine is discovered, and she is expelled from school. "Morals, as they say in the newspapers." "Everything made rotten, everything poisoned." She goes to live with her mother and stepfather in Paris; they neither discuss the expulsion with her, nor interfere with her continued correspondence and occasional visits from Hermine. In school in Paris, feeling stupid because she has never bothered to learn anything and ugly because of her large nose, she has to keep her one power hidden, the superiority of her experience, which comes through her senses. "I had to hide that fact from everyone." That sense of superiority, of morality as something in the newspaper or in the head mistress's office having nothing to do with experience, is not something Violette Leduc was able to maintain. Later, involved in writing about this period of her life, she worries about what her neighbors will think of her, and she tells her mother she would be ashamed to have her read what Violette is writing. "Why upset people?" "Why shock people?" "I was and I always shall be hampered by what I think other people will say." "What repelled and will always repel them: homosexuality."
Perhaps the sexual detail in her books does shock some readers, but even at the time she was writing, the explicit scenes would not have been as upsetting to many as the quality of the relationships she involved herself in. Violette and Isabelle as fifteen-year-olds used each other for sexual discovery without concern, more surprising between two girls than two boys or a girl and a boy, but ordinary enough even so, given the needy and lonely egotism of adolescence. Violette's relationship with Hermine is far more difficult to deal with, not because they are lovers, but because of the greedy and guiltless abuse Violette makes of Hermine's love.
Before Hermine is able to join Violette in Paris, Violette involves herself in an ambiguous relationship with a young man named Gabriel. Though she does not tell Hermine about Gabriel, she does tell Gabriel about both Isabelle and Hermine. Gabriel understands. He is apparently willing to spend his time with, and his little money on, Violette without involving her sexuality. When her mother warns her against him, as against all men, Violette reassures her that Gabriel isn't like other men. He calls her "little fellow," encourages her in masculine dress and behavior and never urges her sexually. When Hermine comes to town, he follows them, flaunting his presence to Violette, as if it were giving him some real pleasure to watch them together. In this secrecy, Violette does feel guilt. Throughout her life, she feels guilty about caring for more than one person, but sexual involvement has nothing to do with that guilt. It is as if her model for love stayed that between herself, an only child, and her mother before her mother's marriage.
Once Hermine comes to Paris and she and Violette are living together, Hermine does become aware of Gabriel and seems to accept his presence, even occasionally to seek comfort from him in her trials with Violette, but Violette sees them as rivals not only for her attention but for her identity. While Gabriel encourages her in her masculine role, Hermine does not. She tells Violette that she doesn't look like a man even when she imitates men. "Hermine was turning me into a woman, and that infuriated him." "I was his man, he was my woman in our friendship." But Hermine's influence is stronger, partly because Violette has given up a job with a publishing house because of ill health and is now entirely dependant on Hermione, who teaches at a school and also takes extra pupils to make enough money for them both.
Bored, with nothing to do all day to entertain herself, Violette encourages Hermine to take more and more pupils in order to have more money to spend. "The more I veered in practice toward masculine attire, the more I was gnawed inwardly by a desire for frivolities, for beautiful cars, for fine furs." Hermine saves her money, buys Violette elegant clothes, but the more she gives, the more Violette wants. She wanders the streets accepting rides from strangers, but always her fear of men makes her escape. Telling Hermine of these adventures, Violette is irritated that Hermine is not jealous. Gabriel is, or seems to be, and finally his disgust drives him away. As Violette abuses Hermine's generosity and tolerance more and more, Violette cries out, "She is killing me and there's nothing I can accuse her of." Except, of course, turning Violette into a woman: useless, dependant, bored, and greedy. Finally seeing a very expensive table she wants, Violette can't persuade Hermine that there is enough money to buy it. Then in an encounter with a strange man, Violette explains her relationship with Hermine, and he offers to pay her to make love with Hermine in front of him. Hermine is not easy to persuade, but at last she agrees even to this in order to indulge Violette in getting the money for her table. It is, however, a test of love Hermine does not pass in her heart. She forms an attachment with one of the other teachers at the school as a way out and leaves Violette, abject and enraged, asserting, "Who, in the end, gave most to the other? I did." What she gave was expulsion from school, the loss of her job and her health. Giving, for Violette Leduc, means nothing but sacrifice, the annihilation of self which she learned from Isabelle. Hermine is dismissed as a failed saint because she made a religion of Violette and then lost faith.
Violette seems to have survived the rejection by resorting to masturbation, a practice she learned from Hermine, who "told me she'd learned from reading a book by Freud." "At first I believed I was damning myself. I didn't say to myself: chastity and repression drive people mad. I said: these are nasty habits that you must rid yourself of or keep quiet about." In later years she says, "I desire, am only able to desire, myself."
If she had other relationships with women, she does not write about them. She might have liked a sexual relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, who befriended her and encouraged her writing through long years of some recognition in the literary world but no success in the marketplace. Simone de Beauvoir was not interested, and Violette Leduc was so grateful for her loyalty and help with writing that she did not resent Simone de Beauvoir's lack of erotic interest, which would not seem curious, of course, was not, except as seen in the light of Violette's relationships with homosexual men, whose attention to her work did not matter to her, from whom she always wanted instead the sexual attention they would never offer her.
Aside from Gabriel, to whom she was finally married for a brief and unhappy time, all the men she cared about were homosexual. And even her relationship with Gabriel was sexually confusing. Once she decided to conquer her old fear of sperm she still did not want to play the role of a woman with Gabriel. She asked Gabriel to make love to her as a man would make love to another man. Gabriel's solution was simpler. On their wedding night he suggested that they love each other like brother and sister. Though she tried and was sometimes successful in seducing him, he was never really interested in her sexually at all, and, because he was also bitter about the years in which she mistreated him, he had little sympathy for her suffering. "Why did I marry?" she asks herself. What a commonplace and depressing answer it is. "The fear of being an old maid, the fear that people might say: she couldn't find anyone, she was too ugly."
In some of the comments she makes, it would be easy to assume that she really wanted to be a man. "Women are not men, I said to myself with inward desolation." Women are inferior creatures. In reviewing her relationships, she says that Gabriel, Hermine, and Isabelle, she remained a child to be taken care of, "an idiot woman jammed in neutral gear." She bewails not only her ugliness but the feminine shape of her hips. During the period when she tried to make friends with Genet, she is abjectly flattering and servile, accepting his rude mistreatment of her. Her final ecstasy about Genet is to dress herself in a light body stocking and wear a false penis to attract his attention. As a house guest of Cocteau's, she tortures herself with the grief that she is "a mere woman." Two male homosexuals at different periods of her life briefly took on responsibility for supporting her, but in their presence she had to subdue her own sexual desires and become, as she mockingly calls herself, "a sort of bluestocking made up mainly of runs." When her mother suggests that she should find the sort of man really willing to take on the responsibility of a woman, Violette thinks such an attempt would be deceitful, an extraordinary piece of moral reluctance given her behavior in most intimate relationships. In one of the arrogant moods she uses to pull herself out of depression and self-pity, she says that she came into the world and vowed to entertain a passion for the impossible. To be a man? Or perhaps better, a beautiful boy? At moments, but for all her paranoid self-pity and enraged need, Violette Leduc chooses impossible relationships because they are impossible. However painful sexual indifference is, it keeps her free of the annihilation of self that sexual passion has been for her. Only in impossibility is there the space for herself that she needs to write, to love herself, to recreate herself as she has been and is, "intact, loaded down with defects that have tormented me."
Very few people have abused themselves and others with such continuous rage, dragged such a defective spirit through the slums of human emotion, where self-respect is a concept never entertained, suffered it all with only one dream left, "To write the impossible word on the rainbow's arc," with this consolation: "I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of the summer. My bank of wild grass is majestic and full of music. It is a fire that solitude presses against my lips," the fire of the onanist giving herself finally, in her books, to the world, not the genius as Gertrude Stein would be taken, not the martyred savior Radclyffe Hall offered herself to be, but simply an ugly bastard of a woman who will have her say.