Violette

The city, despite all its flickering lights, was yielding itself up to the silence of the trees along the avenues, to the desert of the transparent cafes. In a flood of gentleness, the grey statues on the Right Bank and the grey statues on the Left Bank were all posing for the same photographer: the night. The statues were dreaming that they were smiling as the river towed past its vessels built from darkness.

Since reading The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, I have been thinking non-stop about Violette Leduc. She is the real deal. Breathlessly poetic. Despite being eighty pages long, the writing makes this book feel more like a novel. Every passage, every sentence has an intensity, a depth about it. Attending to the details, to the essence of what makes an object or experience, her writing has an all-encompassing, surrounding quality to it. Deborah Levy writes: ‘It is because Leduc profoundly understands how mysterious human beings are that her attention as a writer is always in an interesting place.’

Leduc does not sanitize and flatten a perception and make it more literal than it is; she accepts its own language. Life, like language, is coherent and incoherent, and Leduc knows the only way to do justice to this dynamic is to fold into the texture of her narrative the strange in-between bits of experience.


Deborah Levy, ‘Introduction’

The subject of the book is an old woman in Paris,  who lives in a room in a small corner of the city, with the continuous roar of the métro trains passing overhead.  Existing at the edges and living entirely in her mind, she spends her days hungry and wandering the city streets, its cafés and métro stations; unheard and unnoticed. One day while searching for an orange in the dustbins, she finds the little fox fur and takes it home with her; a cherished companion in the great city.

It had become an obsession: the summer was burning implacably in her throat, the whole city was hatching out a drama beneath its broody weight, the dawn was a layer of insipidity over a grey desert. […] Paris at that hour in the morning, with its crushed cabbage leaves lying in the gutters, is a place forlorn. […]

The dustmen were secret people; they searched the silence with their hooks; they were important; they separated the light from the darkness inside the dustbins. 

Reading this, I am thinking of Agnès Varda’s film The Gleaners and I, and of walking through Montmartre and seeing real gleaners at work. I see two women opening the lid of a large wheeled bin full to the top with fine cheeses. Their hunch correct; they salvage this uncovered treasure from its senseless designation as squandered waste, in a city full of hungry people.

She was so thirsty for an orange. Have a little patience, little girl. But she didn’t want to be patient, she wanted to steal back into her room with furtive steps. The main road was a dungeon with wide-open doors through which floods of light would soon come rushing in. The little side streets were escaping towards the sea.

Leduc’s attentiveness to her marginal subject, and the way she writes about the city reverberate with me. Like the transient figures in Jean Rhys’s novels, she exists in the same fine line between inside and outside; and occupies the city as another layer of its movement. She exists side by side with the residents of the city, the passersby; and yet is so invisible. They only see her when she reaches out her hand to beg…

…she turned back towards the street and held out her hand. … She took refuge in mendicity: the warm feel of the coin that someone would place in her palm – a hand in hers.

Leduc was greatly admired by Simone de Beauvoir, who promoted her work, and by Jean Genet, Albert Camus and other prominent writers, but unlike these figures she remains distinctly marginal. You can read more on Violette Leduc’s life and work here.

Deborah Levy writes that she, ‘wrote her way out of isolation and invisibility’. Watching the film Violette, about her life, I glean an understanding about where all this might come from: her preoccupation with the invisible and forgotten and the loneliness she felt throughout.

Violette, I am drawn to you in all your chaos, need, anger and despair. Living and writing, alone in your little bedsit room in the city. The harshness of life, your drama and raw emotion. The money you needed to give you some freedom, the success you craved in recognition of your writing. How you admired Simone, and then compared yourself to her. Despite her wealth and success, you saw yourself as her equal.

It is like this. You pick up the pen and paper and write it all down. … ‘To write the impossible word on the rainbow’s arc. Then everything would have been said.’

She walked on, she opened her eyes, she discovered once again that a glow in the sky at the end of a street is the most fragile of prayers when we are not in prison.

Violette Leduc (1907-1972), French writer. Paris, 1970. Photograph by Georges Kelaïditès (1932-2015).

Paris, with its thousands and thousands of splintering lights, was dancing on the water. She opened her coat and compared. The little bell, the chain, the links, the dark brown silk cord. She wrapped the little fox up in his paper again, deciding that she preferred the stillness of death to the glittering movement. The charcoal smudges of the trees beside the Seine brought her reassurance. What cause could she possibly have for apprehension? Her world consisted of nothing but what she had invented.

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