By Violette LeDuc
Translated by Derek Coltman
Publication Date: 4/11/23
An obsessive and revealing self-portrait of a remarkable woman humiliated by the circumstances of her birth and by her physical appearance, La Bâtarde relates Violette Leduc’s long search for her own identity through a series of agonizing and passionate love affairs with both men and women.
When first published, La Bâtarde earned Violette Leduc comparisons to Jean Genet for the frank depiction of her sexual escapades and immoral behavior. A confession that contains portraits of several famous French authors, this book is more than just a scintillating memoir—like that of Henry Miller, Leduc’s brilliant writing style and attention to language transform this autobiography into a work of art.
Violette Leduc (1907-1972) has been referred to as "France's greatest unknown writer." Admired by Jean Genet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Albert Camus, Leduc was championed by Simone de Beauvoir when she published her scandalous autobiography La Batarde (1964). Like Therese and Isabelle, many of her audacious novels are largely inspired by her life. She is the subject of Martin Provost's biopic, Violette (2013).
Derek Coltman has translated such French works as Marie-Claire Blais s A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, Jean Varenne s Yoga and the Hindu Tradition, and Violette Leduc's La Batarde. He lives in England.
“Notoriety aside, Leduc is first and foremost a first-rate writer. Not someone who just tells a provocative story and is unafraid to reveal the most offensive parts of her personality and of her experience, but someone who is in love with words, struggles with them, wrestles with language, dies for adjectives, is tortured by her search for le mot juste.”—Women's Review of Books
“There are a number of similarities, both literary and personal, between Violette Leduc and Jean Genet. . . . Both are completely indifferent to conventional moral values, and describe their thefts, homosexual exploits or black market profiteering with a strange innocence that is only partly the result of a deliberate pose.”—Times Literary Supplement
“The experiences Leduc records exemplify, without intellectualizing, many of the ideas of Sartre, Genet and Simone de Beauvoir. Her insights are sparks thrown off by the striking of her senses and emotions. They define without structuring.”—The New Leader
“La Batarde is a success based not on wit, wisdom or literary grace but on the unpleasant pleasure many people find in watching someone else behave shamelessly.”—Time
My case is not unique: I am afraid of dying and distressed at being in this world. I haven’t worked, I haven’t studied. I have wept, I have cried out in protest. These tears and cries have taken up a great deal of my time. I am tortured by all that time lost whenever I think about it. I cannot think about things for long, but I can find pleasure in a withered lettuce leaf offering me nothing but regrets to chew over. There is no sustenance in the past. I shall depart as I arrived. Intact, loaded down with the defects that have tormented me. I wish I had been born a statue; I am a slug under my dunghill. Virtues, good qualities, courage, meditation, culture. With arms crossed on my breast I have broken myself against those words.
Reader, my reader, I was writing outside, sitting on the same stone, a year ago. My square-lined writing paper has not changed; the grape vines run in the same lines below the plunging hills. The third row is still covered with a haze of heat. My hills are bathed in their halo of gentleness. Did I go away, have I come back? If so, then living would no longer be merely a slow and ceaseless death as the seconds pass on my wristwatch. And yet my birth certificate fascinates me. Or else revolts me. Or bores me. I read it through from beginning to end whenever I feel the need; I find myself once more in the long gallery as it echoes with the clicking scissors of the doctor attending my birth. I listen, I shiver. We are no longer the communicating vessels we were when she was carrying me. Here I am, born, on a register in the town hall, at the point of a town hall clerk’s pen. No nastiness, no placenta; writing, a registration. Who is this Violette Leduc? The great-grandmother of her great-grandmother when all is said and done. Read it again, read it again. This is a birth? A mothball with its sulky smell. Women cheat, women suffer. They used to be attractive—so they smooth away their age. I shout mine aloud because I was never attractive, because I shall always have my baby hair. It’s taken me two and a half hours to write that, two and a half pages of my exercise book. I shall keep on, I shall not lose heart.
The next morning, eight o’clock in the morning of June 24, 1962. I’ve changed my place, I’m writing in the woods because of the heat. Began my day by picking a bunch of wild sweet peas and picking up a feather. And I complain about being in the world, in a world of trills and thistles. The chestnut trees are slender, their trunks are languid. The light, my light, has been tamed by the leaves. It’s new and it’s the newness of my day.
You become my child, Mother, when, as an old woman, you re-member things with your clocklike precision. You talk, I take you in. You speak, I carry you in my head. Yes, for you my belly is hot as a volcano. You speak, and I am silent. I was born the bearer of your misfortune as one is born a libation bearer. To live, you know you must live in the past. Sometimes I’m so tired of it I almost feel sick; sometimes around midnight, when I’m in bed and you’re sitting beside me in an armchair, and you say: “I loved no one but him, I only loved once, give me a fruit gum,” I become a lyre and a vibraphone for your dusty mane. You are old, you are preparing to leave yourself, I open the box of candy. You say: “Are you sleepy? Your eyes are closing.” I’m not sleepy. I want to shake off your age. I wind my hair around my curlers, my fingers are telling me what you were like at twenty-five, telling me about your blue eyes, your black hair, your sculptured bangs, your shawl, the tulle, your big hat, my suffering when I was five. My elegant one, my uncrushable one, my courageous one, my vanquished one, my rambling one, my eraser to rub myself out with, my jealous one, my justice, my injustice, my commander, my shy one. What are people going to say ? What are people going to think? What would they say? Our litanies, our transfusions.
When we come back from the beach in the evening, when you go into the shops, when it’s your turn to speak, when you charm the housewives, I wait outside, I don’t want to be with you. I rage in the shadows, I hate you, yet I should love you since I am effacing myself because of the customers, the delivery men, the neighbors. You come back, and I say: “You loved him. What a poor sort of man he was.” You bristle. No, I don’t want to demolish you by demolishing him. “A prince. A true prince.” That’s what you used to call him. I listened, I dribbled, I don’t dribble anymore. The next day, in the grocer’s, you say to the woman behind the counter: “Some nice fruit. It’s for the goddess. I shall have complaints.” You wound me. You wouldn’t get complaints. What a gloomy young girl you had been. The bad soup in the orphanages had weakened your legs. Always tired, always too tired. No dancing, no outings, no girl friends. Disdainful, standoffish, irritable. Always lying down on Sunday. The country bored you, the city faded after you had bought the sort of collars and cuffs that were fashionable in 1905, after you had gone around with that saintly woman, your employer, giving aid to the poor. You say to me: “Your grandmother could talk like a book.” I can’t bear it when you confuse your mother with his mother. My grandmother couldn’t talk like a book: she scoured other people’s saucepans. I had only one grandmother, the one I knew. She was the one and only in our world, as a queen or a saint is the one and only in some higher world. Fideline: your mother and my white meat of tenderness. I think she said to you: “Later on she will have no heart.” I don’t know whether I have a heart or not. Fideline has not grown dim. You cannot dim a harvest of stars.
Fideline. I lie there with her sitting beside me. She says:
“The Duc family, if you had only seen them! The men, real strap-ping fellows, the tallest men in the village. . . .”
She falls silent. In front of the door, in front of the window, the gravel is crunching. She drapes herself in the folds of her pink nightgown, her warm and simply cut nightgown from the store Guyenne et Gascogne. I wait for her to go on. I watch her, I see a storm raging in the marble. She is an indestructible character.
“. . . The father would say the blessing, he would give out the work. The father was a councillor. Everyone respected him. You’ll plow, you’ll do the harrowing, you’ll sow, you’ll take care of the sheep, or the horse. They all put on their berets, no one said anything, everyone went out, everyone did as he was told. They were proper men, clean-living men. My father was the weakest of the lot.”
The crunching on the gravel has stopped. She loses herself in a dream of puritanism, obedience, authority. Her father’s village: nothing but orders and people carrying them out.
“The Duc family. Why Duc? You were called Leduc. I’m called Leduc.”
She stands up and puts out the little overhead light. The lavender blue lamp brings the night pressing in on us.
“Duc . . . Leduc . . .” (She thinks it over.) “In the country they shorten things,” she says.
An angel of eighteen is married: my grandmother Fideline. Eight days later, the angel, still not very wide awake, looks in a mirror and sees the mouth of her fine strapping husband pressed to the mouth of a village whore. “Where did you unearth that child?” all the easy women ask the rogue. They all laugh uproariously. Angels do sometimes indulge in belly laughs. Due was a cattle merchant; he was out on a spree and got himself kicked by a horse. Deliverance: Fideline was a widow at twenty, my mother bom after her father’s death; she never knew him.
She was born in Artres, a backward village in the north of France. What thrift, in this six-year-old Minerva. She would come back from the fair with her penny still clutched in her pocket. While still a child she was already thinking of tomorrow; she had no choice. Laure, my mother’s sister, the elder daughter, was sent away to her grandparents in Eth, where she lived with the Due family. She was a strong, healthy child and was to be transformed into a rustic Valkyrie by her stay with the tall, strapping men and the patriarch. The two sisters were to have nothing in common but their sense of authority. Bilious attacks. Fideline moaning and writhing on the floor. “Mum, are you sick? Mum, are you still sick?” her companion, her little daughter asks a hundred times a day. Their money came to an end at the same time as the attacks.
The angel, worn out and still not very wide awake, sent Berthe, my mother, to live with an aunt who trimmed ladies’ dresses and an uncle who was a pork butcher. There she was appalled, terrified, ordered about by an ogre splashing about in blood as he made black sausages. This was a husband, this was the first man she had ever seen close up. There she was also delighted and fascinated by an Ophelia dying of consumption, sketching designs and motifs for Sarah Bernhardt’s pearly dresses. The first married couple with whom she lived was an unhappy one. She weighed, she served, she answered the customers’ questions. She’s already a little woman, they all said. Columns of figures, quarrels, harsh treatment, foul language. The screams of the pig being killed at three in the morning did not disturb her, she was so intent on concealing beneath her pillow the clog she had split while skipping.