An Erotic Classic?
By Stewart Home.
Thérèse and Isabelle, Violette Leduc (translated by Sophie Lewis, Salammbo Press, London 2012
Violette Leduc spent three years working on the first part of her novel Ravages. When the manuscript of the book was presented to her publisher Gallimard in 1954, her readers there — Raymond Queneau and Jacques Lemarchand — decided the first third of the book should be nixed because it described a torrid lesbian affair between two schoolgirls. Ravages was offered around to other French imprints but no one was prepared to issue it without cuts. In the end a censored version of the novel appeared in 1955 under the aegis of Gallimard. Parts of the cut text were reworked and incorporated into Leduc’s 1964 memoir La Bâtarde. The success of this mid-sixties autobiography led first to the printing of a limited private edition of the censored opening of Ravages under the title Thérèse and Isabelle, and then to the novella appearing commercially as a Gallimard book in 1966.
Like much of Leduc’s writing, Thérèse and Isabelle is autobiographical. While attending the Collège de Douai girl’s boarding school, Leduc had affairs with a fellow student and a teacher. Her novella is narrated by seventeen-year-old Thérèse, who embarks on a sexual relationship with her eighteen-year-old fellow boarder Isabelle. In the book Leduc uses high-blown literary language in an attempt to recapture both the physical and emotional sensations she experienced during her first affair. Both what is described and the subsequent censorship of the text make Thérèse and Isabelle a valuable social and historical document, regardless of whether it has any artistic merit. Its publication in English acts as a timely reminder of the extent to which gay sexualities were subject to severe legal repression in Western Europe just half-a-century ago.
Sophie Lewis has done English readers a huge favour with her carefully rendered translation of Thérèse and Isabelle. Until now the easiest way for us to engage with this work was via the 1968 movie loosely based on the book and made by American sexploitation supremo Radley Metzger. The film is a softcore effort made under Metzger’s real name (he directed hardcore porn films — including The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann and Naked Came the Stranger — under the pseudonym Henry Paris). Metzger has Thérèse revisit her boarding school twenty years after leaving it; and so Leduc’s story is told in flashback. Imagine an exploitation director attempting to cross The Belles of St Trinians (Frank Launder, 1954) and Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) — but minus the humour of the former and the complexity of the latter — and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Metzger’s snorefest is like. There are some nice tracking shoots of the school and its grounds, but the faux-sexy narration and a very poorly choreographed catfight number among the many elements that make it impossible to enjoy Hans Jura’s crisp black and white cinematography.
Judged by the commentary I’ve looked at online it seems that like Radley Metzger, many readers view Thérèse and Isabelle as an ‘erotic classic’. I found this slightly surprising because for me Leduc very successfully conveys the thinking of a gauche and pretentious teenager in the first flush of love — and it isn’t a pretty sight! Thérèse is cloying, silly and unsure of herself — and so there is clearly something very wrong with anyone over the age of twenty-one who finds her depiction sexually arousing. As a reader I can empathise with Thérèse and what she’s experiencing (after all, I too was once teenage), but for an adult to find Leduc’s portrayal of young love erotic is both ridiculous and worrying. For those of us who are no longer teenage and don’t suffer from kiddie fiddling tendencies, this text will act as a salutary reminder of the many and varied reasons why it would be a mistake to have a sex with a seventeen-year old.
While Leduc’s sexual descriptions might appear sophisticated to an adolescent naïf, and they are an accurate reflection of the way an insecure and pretentious seventeen year-old girl might think, older readers are more likely to find them comic. Take, for example, the following passage:
“We skimmed and flew over our shoulders with the wild fingers of Autumn. We hurled great striations of light into nests, we fanned caresses, we wove patterns out of the sea breeze, we wrapped out legs in zephyrs, we held the hum of taffeta in our palms. Entering was so easy. Our flesh was in love with us, our scent sprayed up. Our leavening, our bubbles, our bread. The back-and-forth was not servitude but back and forth of beatitude. I was losing myself in Isabelle’s finger as she was losing herself in mine. How our conscientious fingers dreamed… What weddings of movement. Clouds helped us. We were streaming with light…”
This passage is typical of Thérèse and Isabelle and is every bit as ridiculous as the book taken in its entirety. But I am able to view it as humorous in part because the society I live in is very different to the one Leduc belonged to when she wrote the novel. Leduc took her work on this text very seriously and seems to have viewed it as her best piece of writing. Her biographer Carlo Jansiti provides an afterword to this English translation that traces the genesis and publishing history of the book, and in part he attributes Leduc’s ‘descent into paranoid delirium’ to its suppression. That is a tragedy, as was the atmosphere of heterosexual conformism that led to the censorship of Thérèse and Isabelle and contributed to Leduc’s decline into mental derangement. That said, Leduc somehow managed to continue writing until she died from cancer at the age of 65 in 1972.
As I hope I’ve made clear, Thérèse and Isabelle taken as a social document is historically significant. It is also a literary work, and it suffers from all the faults one would expect in an author who has failed to break with bourgeois modes of cultural expression. Those who admire literature may find Leduc’s novella to be an almost flawless work; whereas readers who approach books from a more progressive proletarian perspective will appreciate its historical significance while simultaneously viewing the text as either comic or rather boring (depending on their tastes and sense of humour).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stewart Home is Britain’s greatest living underground legend.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 23rd, 2012.