Violette Leduc’s Asphyxia was first published by Albert Camus for Gallimard in 1946 and praised by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genetin. The following extract is the opening of Gallic Books’ 2020 edition, translated from the French by Derek Coltman.
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… One afternoon, as a gleaming carriage sped past, splattering the leaden summer with its reflections, 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.
‘You try to get yourself killed and now you cry!’ It was she who was killing me.
She always dressed me first. When I was ready I had to turn round and round in front of her. She appraised me. I stopped turning. Like a painter stepping back from his easel then returning to it, she advanced upon me, toned down the sheen of a satin bow by retying the loops inside out, arranged my curls farther forward on my cheeks, then sat me up on a straw-bottomed chair.
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… It was a habit with her to put on her hat when she was still dressed only in her drawers, with her high boots laced up to just below her knees. She would swim towards the mirror, then retreat again, wholly absorbed in her own face and the immense pancake that swayed above her invisible chignon. Then came the fantastic ritual of the veil. But first she had to select one, from a box that contained a whole sea of tulle. The veil had either to soften or to emphasize her features.
‘What do you think of this one?’
I said I thought it was pretty, gazing at the delicate grey trellis and the tiny bees, even more unreal than the veil itself, with which it had been decorated.
‘I want to know what you think of it in relation to me.’
In relation to her, I thought nothing.
She handed me a tray covered with hairpins. I held them out to her clumsily, because of my clammy fingers.
At last I was allowed to get down. Pearly handbag and sunshade in one hand, she seduced the mirror. It was the dress rehearsal. For implacable as she was in the matter of dress, she would sometimes take off an entire grey ensemble and replace it with a black one; or sometimes the strictly tailored jacket with its frothy jabot would be forced to abdicate in favour of a summer dress.
One day we saw an old man coming towards us. He crossed to the other side of the street. He didn’t look very pleased, either with us or with himself.
‘That man is your grandfather.’
‘I haven’t got a grandfather.’
‘I’ve just told you you have!’
‘I haven’t got a grandfather, I’ve never seen him.’
‘Just be quiet!’
I didn’t argue, but I thought to myself that a real grandfather isn’t the sort of man who hypocritically changes pavements when he sees you. I saw him again one day when I was sent out to buy bread. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, like an animal caught doing something wrong. I didn’t tell my mother.
In early September, the Place Poterne, which was out on the dismal fringe of our town, became the centre of attraction: it was the site of the great mop or fair.
While the stalls and roundabouts were being erected my mother retired into pitch-darkness for a rest cure. She would go to bed at five in the afternoon. Her book, How to Stay Beautiful, was never out of her hands. She took great care not to talk or vex herself. She drank clear soup or mineral water and ate fruit. All of which delighted me, because it meant I could spend every evening with my grandmother. On our way to the Place Poterne she stopped at the best sweetshop. She bought boiled sweets, the sort that took a long time to dissolve, so that we could suck them while we watched the fair being put up. Occasionally, she would walk a little way away from me down an overgrown path. She took hold of her long skirt in the middle, pulled it slightly forward away from her, and standing there quite straight relieved herself with the majesty of a horse. Apart from the sound of the flowing liquid you would have thought she was posing for her picture to be painted. When we got home she offered a boiled sweet to her daughter, who refused it.
‘Go and lie down. It keeps you young.’
Feeling sufficiently young as it was, my grandmother set about fashioning a chausson aux pommes. With all the caution of someone intent on blowing up a whole city, she slid her arm into a cupboard and withdrew it holding a bottle of anisette. She soaked two lumps of sugar in her glass for me and we huddled together in delightful conspiracy. Ringed by darkness, we consumed half of her remarkable chausson. I could recognize my grandmother herself in that plain, light pastry of hers. She had the touch.
For economy’s sake, she blew out the mantle lamp and lit the little fan-tailed one, then wrapped my legs up in the piece of flannel she used for ironing on. All I needed to do then was let my head fall forward on to the table. The oilcloth covering the table was cold. She sensed this, and moved my cheek over to the warm spot where the chausson had stood, hot from the oven.
‘You never knew my sister Fanie. What a pity. Her fingers, they were like a fairy’s. Her head, well there was nothing wrong with that. But her heart, I don’t know how to put it… they’d married her off to a pork butcher. That’s what killed her. At night, when it was freezing hard, she had to help him, she had to hold the pig. A piece of thistledown Fanie was. A piece of thistledown who gave him six children… She caught a chill. You’re not cold, are you? Tighten the cords of your cape. She could see she was dying. It appears that makes you die quicker. People used to come for miles to admire her work.’
‘What did she do?’
‘Embroidery and trimming. She’d designed the trimming for an actress’s dress. The actress’s manager had invited Fanie to his park. She told me all about it: “Just imagine, Fidéline…”’
There was someone moving about. I signalled to my grandmother to be quiet.
‘Nonsense! Your mother is keeping herself young.’ And she continued: ‘“…Fidéline, imagine a park, beautiful grass all neatly kept, clumps of hydrangeas. You know, I felt I was disturbing it all with the noise of my new boots. Imagine a terrace, tables, chairs, cakes, freshly made tea… I could see the steam…” But I don’t remember it all any more,’ my grandmother murmured. ‘It’s such a long time now since she died. When they brought your grandfather back she was living with me.’
‘I haven’t got a grandfather.’
‘You had one though. Of course he’s dead now.’
‘He’s not dead, because I met him.’
‘Ah, I see!…That one’s not your real grandfather. My husband was that.’
I gave up.
‘Tell me some more about Fanie.’
‘The doctor knew straight away that she was doomed, and that she wasn’t just an ordinary patient. He came every day. He allowed her to pay him, because he didn’t want to offend her, but the next day he would bring her books, catalogues, partridges… He used to tell her: “You think too much. Stop thinking.” They were always bursting into laughter, because they were in love with one another as well. He held her hand all through the end. They caught his pony out in the fields. He never drove past the pork butcher’s after that. He used to take the lane round the graveyard, standing up in his little cart. He could see her grave, with the flowers I always put on it.’
This time there was really someone moving about in my mother’s room. We were afraid.
She flung open the door. A hurricane.
‘Get off to bed,’ she told me, with her hard blue look.
I went, but I left the door open. That way I felt I was still in contact with my grandmother, I felt we were still protecting one another from a distance.
The quarrel gathered, then broke. My mother reproached her about the anisette, about the chausson, about the lateness of the hour. The bottle and the remains of the pastry were still lying on the sideboard.
My grandmother began to cough. She no longer made any attempt to defend herself. I wept as I got undressed, weighed down by the thought that she was unhappy because of the sweet things she liked to eat, the sweet things she liked to whisper in the dark… My bed depressed me, so I slipped into hers. I listened. The silence and the darkness had disarmed them. They were weeping. That filled me with distaste for my own tears. My mother kept saying between her sobs:
‘We ’ll never get anywhere, anywhere!’
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.
She laid my head down on her fleshless shoulder, felt my feet, pulled the clothes up over our mouths, turned down the lamp. I was shaken by another explosion of laughter.
Again, the door opened:
‘Get into your own bed!’
My mother did not even come through the doorway. I was awed by this order given from so far away; but I didn’t stir. My grandmother squeezed my fingers. We had become two tiny fleas. To ease the situation, I said:
‘There’s a smell of burning…’
She wasn’t to be tricked. She came over:
‘Get into your own bed! Your grandmother is ill. You’re tiring her. It’s infectious. Do you hear me: it’s infectious! Don’t you think you’re delicate enough as it is? I’m waiting.’
This time I didn’t move because she filled me with despair.
Finally, I wriggled my way out of my grandmother’s bed and into my own.
She patted my eiderdown.
‘Your hair’s gone dull. It must be brushed tomorrow. Two hundred strokes.’
And quick as the swish of a cane she was gone.
In the darkness, I interrogated my grandmother as she fidgeted about in her bed and plumped up her pillows.
‘How did he die then, that grandfather?’
‘He wasn’t “that” grandfather. He was your grandfather! He sold cattle. He drank. A heifer killed him. When I heard, I made signs to Fanie to close all the doors and windows. I asked her… Ought I to tell you? I asked her to sing me a little song. I’d been set free.’
We plunged into sleep.
Violette Leduc was born in Arras in 1907, the illegitimate daughter of a serving girl. Encouraged by Maurice Sachs and Simone de Beauvoir, she wrote her first novel, Asphyxia, which was published by Albert Camus for Gallimard in 1946 and praised by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet. Her 1964 memoir La Bâtarde, a frank depiction of lesbianism, poverty and loneliness, sold more than 150,000 copies and was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. Leduc died in 1972.
Derek Coltman translated several novels by Violette Leduc into English in the 1960s and 1970s. He also translated The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare, from the French version of the Albanian.
For more information and to buy Violette Leduc’s Asphyxia, visit Gallic Books’ website.
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