May 25, 2015
Image: White Azaleas by Romaine Brooks
Violette Leduc’s The Bastard is a wonder -- a “fictional” autobiography written in the early 1960s in which Leduc, an intellectual, a fashion journalist and a bisexual, draws upon her life in Paris and its environs during both world wars and the period in between. It is told with astringent honesty and humility:
I didn’t dare cry out that we were two monsters of indifference safe by our fireside. On my Aryan maiden’s helmet there perched a parrot that would keep croaking: how lucky that we’re not Jews, how lucky that we’re not Jewish at this moment. Having been suppressed, reduced to zero at birth by members of the wealthy classes, I was by no means unhappy, now we were at war, to see the rich being forced to escape into the Unoccupied Zone. It was only in a Paris stripped of all its really able people that I, an office mediocrity, was able to write editorials for the ladies and young girls who needed something to read in the Métro as a distraction from their work. At night I dreamed that the war was over, that the people with real ability had returned, that I was scurrying like a mangy dog to the refuge of an unemployment bureau. I would wake up soaked with sweat, convince myself with a stammering voice that it was a nightmare, then fall asleep again. (p. 348)
Regarding her own bisexuality, Leduc’s transparency is extraordinary given French society’s discriminatory attitudes toward homosexuals and bisexuals in the early 1960s when Leduc was writing The Bastard:
Isabelle stroked my side. My flesh as she caressed it became a caress, my flank as she stroked it sent a soft glow seeping down into my drugged legs, into my melting ankles. My insides were being twisted, gently, gently.
Like the most intricate of etchings, the precision of Leduc’s descriptions seem almost otherworldly:
I can still see the cemetery… It is a garden run wild in which singing is forbidden. Here the urns are never bored. They receive their guests. Bustling ants and slow, hermetic snails. The wreaths look like men who have huddled to the ground in sleep, just where they fell. The place is a plentitude of pale purple, gray, and violet, all faded by the harshness of the weather. Grasshoppers leap onto the pearls of the wreaths. The porcelain flowers, miniature holy-water stoups pressed one against the other, collect the raindrops in their petals. One feels the flowers made of cloth were cut from the tear-soaked shirts of mourning wives. As for the dates, as of the names… one reads, one deciphers, one sees the marks of time’s eraser. (p. 388)
Leduc’s language uses repetition and opposition in a measured, pleasing way, devoid of gimmickry:
I changed trains at D, in the cold, in the dark night. The station near the school, the streets outside the school, the school itself had all been spirited away. I was coming to see Hermine. I got up into a nice old compartment in the local train and admired my felt hat, my topcoat, the collar on my man’s shirt, my gloves, and my suitcase, picked out with my mother’s help at L’Innovation on the Champs-Élysées. I tidied myself up. The dilapidated glow of the light bulb threw its light far beyond my hat, far beyond the collar of my shirt, far beyond my pail beige suitcase (p. 146)
…the workers shouted heart-warming good nights to one another. They were dispersing, but they still were joined together by the well-earned rest they would all be sharing next day. (p.147)
For its honesty, its place in French social and cultural milieu, and its simply beautiful writing The Bastard merits serious consideration to win the 2015 Daphne nonfiction prize.
Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFeathers.