Translated by Derek Coltman
Review by Karen Langley
There’s been a buzz recently about Penguin’s (re?) launch of their European Writers series, with the first two books by Mercè Rodoreda and Cesare Pavese garnering much online attention. The series has been described as an initiative to promote European literature to British readers; radical, perhaps, in the current volatile political climate, but definitely laudable.
One should never look at what one loves too early in the morning – the things we love are too fragile so early in the day, as fragile as the thread a spider is spinning at the edge of a wood.
The third book to be issued is by an author who shot to prominence briefly in the latter part of the 20th century, as much I think from the fact that she was endorsed by Simone de Beauvoir as by anything else. Violette Leduc produced a number of novels, considered to be autobiographical, which were promoted in lurid covers and with lurid blurb. Back in the day, it seems, championing female sexuality was perhaps considered problematic. However, the short work issued here has a different focus to Leduc’s longer books and may well be being offered to the public now to help them find a way into the writings of Violette Leduc.
Leduc (1907-1972) had a troubled childhood (her relationship with her mother was particularly complex) and suffered all her life from low self-esteem. Despite this, she managed to carve herself a literary life, mixing with such luminaries as Simone de Beauvoir (who encouraged her to write), Albert Camus (who published her first novel, L’Asphyxie), Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet. Her transgressive works courted controversy because of her explicit writings about lesbianism. However, this slim book moves into very different territory.
“The Lady and the Little Fox Fur” is set in Paris, Leduc’s stomping ground, and tells the story of an ageing, impoverished woman and her relationship to the fox fur of the title, as well as to her surroundings and the city in which she lives. The woman is dismissed as old at the age of 60 (something which seems rather unusual in this day and age, where old age is reckoned to be much later than that) and described as “handling her sixtieth year as lightly as we touch the lint when dressing a wound.” And the woman is starving; any funds she comes into get spent on riding the metro, as at least this assuages her hunger for company. Living in poverty, owing money and scraping an existence, the one possession which gives her any joy is the fox fur, discovered when she was grubbing in bins for food.
To grow old is to wrap ourselves up well so we can wander warmly through our private catacombs.
The fox fur becomes her treasures, described in passionate terms, almost regarded as a living entity. Therefore, the prospect of having to sell it to avoid starvation is agonising, but one the woman considers, and we follow her attempts to do so – but will she succeed?
Living was simple: it was no more than a few habitual actions strung onto a routine.
“Lady…” is an elegant and captivating novella, which captures the simplification of existence as you age, where life is reduced to the essentials as you realise that much of what came before is simply unnecessary baggage. The woman survives with next to nothing, on the edge of total starvation, and that heightened state may be represented by the impressionistic, almost hallucinatory prose of the story. Events merge together, lines are blurred, until it’s often unclear as to when these things happened or if they happened at all. It’s an unusual, experimental format that lingers in the mind long after the reading experience has finished, and the ambiguity of the end heightens that mood. You can exist on almost nothing, it seems, particularly as you age.
The Penguin release is a beautiful volume with French flaps and a stunning cover image; they really are pushing the boat out with these books. The foreword is by Deborah Levy who seems at pains to reiterate that Leduc’s writing is ‘peculiar’, a word she uses more than once and which grated a little with me. Well, is Leduc peculiar? I guess that would depend on your perspective. If you’re a chick-lit kind of reader, I think it would seem so. But if you’ve read widely and read outside the boxes people try to impose on literature, Leduc is going to be intriguing, entertaining, thought-provoking and thoroughly individual – and that, to my mind, is a very good thing!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and dreams of Paris gone by.
Violette Leduc, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur (Penguin, 2018). ISBN 9781999981501, 80pp, paperback.
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