For more Violette Leduc at The London Magazine, read the opening of her debut novel Asphyxia, an extract from Gallic Books’ new translated edition published in December, 2020. The following article is adapted from the Publisher’s Note to the edition highlighting Revolutionary Women in literature.
Isabelle Marie Flynn
Most bibliophiles will name Simone de Beauvoir, George Sand and Colette among the greats of French literature. Yet they represent the tip of a subversive, transgressive and deeply political iceberg of women writers who have changed the literary and social landscape.
As women’s voices grow louder and more diverse in modern publishing, it is vital to recognise that their writing is not new, nor has it just now become important. The words of women are sadly more vulnerable to dismissal and forgetting than those of men, creating the impression that those women writers of the past who are still in bookshops today were a chosen few in a male-dominated field, as opposed to the equal and vital contributors that they were.
Through the Revolutionary Women collection at Gallic Books we aim to celebrate French and Francophone women writers who have been overlooked, and to restore these important voices to their rightful place in the canon. Violette Leduc’s name appears in many books and articles about the mid-twentieth century French literary scene. However, those books are almost always centred around other people. She ran in the glittering literary circles of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, yet her own extraordinary work has slid from the spotlight and now sits in the side-lines. In some ways this is an apt reflection on her life both as a writer and as an individual. Violette Leduc was the result of her mother’s extramarital affair with the son of a rich family. Blamed and resented by her mother for her own social exclusion, Leduc grew up with a deep sense of shame and unbelonging, themes that are examined with raw intensity in her work.
Her adult years saw a self-destructive spiral in which Leduc replicated the emotional abuse of her mother through her romantic attachments. A desperately unhappy marriage, several hopeless infatuations with homosexual men and an unrequited adoration of de Beauvoir, who in turn called her ‘brutally ugly’, meant that Leduc lived in a state of constant rejection. Though her sexuality can be (perhaps anachronistically) described as bisexual, it seems as though her desires were oriented most firmly towards anyone who was guaranteed not to love her back.
Her one outlet for this endless cycle of emotional self-harm was a powerful, passionate talent for writing about her experiences. When Leduc’s remarkable work came to the attention of the literary circles in France, her status exploded, and she became one of the most scandalous writers of the time. Her account of a childhood love-affair with a female classmate was censored before publication. Her novel La Bâtarde sold 125,000 copies but was so controversial – both loved and reviled – that the juries of both the Goncourt and the Femina had to publicly disqualify the text and bestow awards on safer options.
Leduc has perhaps fallen away from public consciousness because reading her work can be so uncomfortable in its relentless, suffocating intensity. Her writing holds up a mirror at unflattering angles so that the reader must see themselves, society and Leduc herself in lights that are unpleasant and unsettling. Though her work is not explicitly feminist, Leduc uses her own life to explore the ways in which misogyny festers not only in the actions of men against women, but in the ways in which women treat one another. In the details of her mother’s harsh treatment of her own daughter we see the pain suffered by a young woman scorned and ostracised for actions from which a rich man may walk away unblemished.
When Leduc recounts the sexual abuse she suffered as a child the incident is simply subsumed into a larger story about a society that is all too willing to look away and allow her suffering to happen. A pioneer of autofiction, she allows women to have seething emotions, deep flaws and ugliness, by admitting to them within literary depictions of herself.
Isabelle Marie Flynn is the marketing coordinator at Gallic Books. Her writing has been featured in NB Magazine, Shelf Unbound and Severine Literary Journal.
For more information and to buy Asphyxia by Violette Leduc, visit Gallic Books’ website.
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