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Dennis Cooper & Violette Leduc & John Ashbery etc.
In this week’s Spotlight, Dennis Cooper resurrects Violette Leduc! A huge influence for poets, she was also, he writes, the “most famous unknown writer in Paris,” and wrote La Bâtarde in 1964 to high praise from Cocteau, Sartre, and Genet. Cooper graciously directs us to Deborah Levy writing about Leduc in Dalkey Archive’s journal Context (no. 14). Context’s most recent issue, no. 22, has some incredible pieces as well, including John Ashbery’s “The Making of John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies.” We can’t help but quote for you just a peanut from that:
Growing bored, Jimmy said, “Why don’t we write a novel?” And how do we do that, I asked. “It’s easy—you write the first line,” was his reply. This was rather typical of him—getting a brilliant idea and then conscripting someone else to realize it. Not to be outmaneuvered, I contributed a three-word sentence: “Alice was tired.”
But back to Leduc: Surely she’s much admired by poets and writers, but her work is not often mentioned. Leduc’s approach to writing is perhaps not trendy in a literary climate wary of excess. She wrote: “I give myself to adjectives body and soul, I die with pleasure for them.”
Cooper considers that disregard as well:
One wonders if Leduc’s mysterious disappearances and reappearances on the literary landscape are part of the seduction her work proffers. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote of Leduc’s writings: “The richness of her narratives comes less from the circumstances depicted than from the burning intensity of her memory; at each moment she is completely there through all the thickness of of the years”. In the same way, perhaps, Leduc has survived and triumphed as an author who has gone in and out of print and fashion, but has never not been “there through all the thickness of the years”.
In her analysis of Leduc’s reputation, Levy has some lovely things to say for the writers out there concerned with having a remarkable life:
Despite being acclaimed by Camus, Genet (who Leduc described as a burglar poet), Simone de Beauvoir, and Sartre, Leduc’s books are not to be found alongside theirs. If in my view she stands shoulder to shoulder with them as a writerly equal, she certainly does not stand spine to spine with them in Barnes & Noble. Perhaps this is because nothing had taught her (or Genet) that life or literature was respectable. Literature for Leduc was not a comfortable sofa or a seminar room in a university—nor was it a place where flawed human beings undergo some sort of catharsis and emerge happy, whole, healed, miraculously cleansed of anger, lust, and pain. For Leduc, literature, like life, was a place where some people damage us and some people save our lives—and then it is lunchtime. Referred to as “France’s greatest unknown writer,” it is time to stop fetishizing Violette Leduc as a female outsider existing on the fringes of everything and allow her to take her place in the canon of great writing.
To declare there is no sustenance in the past is of course a half-lie. What sustained Leduc is that she wrote out her life with an audience in mind. It is for this reason she “bit into the fruit” of her “desolations”—that’s what many writers do, and Leduc is no crazier than them for having the audacity to believe that she too could spin some ideas into the world. I disagree with de Beauvoir, astute as she is, when she describes “the unflinching sincerity” of La Bâtarde as written “as though there were no one listening.” De Beauvoir certainly did not write her own books thinking no one was listening to her, and she must have been aware that even in an uninhibited autobiography such as this one, there is no such thing as an absolutely true memory—all writing (except for diaries, but that too is debatable) is shaped with an audience in mind. Leduc, who addresses the reader throughout as “Reader, my reader,” felt more entitled to be listened to than perhaps de Beauvoir unconsciously thought she should feel. Given the turbulent historical time in which she lived, Leduc did not have a particularly remarkable life. It is how she crafts language that made her life remarkable.