Thérèse and Isabelle

I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side of the conversation through my office door, and never know what Tom’s responses are), I was particularly intrigued by the Feminist Press book Julia plugged, Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc. Now, I don’t remember what it was that made me want to read this book—the fact that Feminist Press had published it (and I’ve been interested in their work for a few years now), the fact that Julia sounded particularly excited about it (as we all should be and are about our respective books!), or the fact that it promised some pretty sultry scenes (who doesn’t want to read a little raunch for work purposes?)—but by the time a review copy floated to the top of my many stacks, I had decided to look into it myself.

And to be honest, for the first time in a long time, I found the accompanying texts to be more interesting than the book itself. I know, I’m still kind of reeling. The book has two afterwords, which provide a lot of history on Violette Leduc (who is best known for her autobiography La Bâtarde), her writing, her style, and her attempts and later small victories in getting published:

Thérèse et Isabelle formed the first section of a novel, Ravages, which Leduc presented to the publisher Gallimard in 1954. Judged “scandalous,” this work was censored by the publisher. . . . In its original version, Ravages was intended to retrace the three love stories of its heroine, Thérèse. These were inspired by, if not calqued on, the three liaisons that had marked Leduc’s youth . . .”

The first of these liaisons was a “carnal coupling with a fellow schoolgirl.” And that’s basically what the book is about. A schoolgirl, Thérèse, who envies and claims to hate another girl, Isabelle, and who then wind up fingering each other (and more) in Isabelle’s bed (among other places). (The manuscript even made Raymond Queneau, then a member of Gallimard’s reading committee, nervous.) The moments captured by the two girls are sweet and youthfully panicked/self-discoveryish enough, but it also more often than not read in a way that was robotic. In-between all the frantic fingerings and whispered nothings are extended moments of imagery, both poetic and broken (mostly broken), that, for some reason, I found more forced than charming:

Isabelle is kissing me, I tell myself. She was drawing a circle around my mouth, she encircled my trouble, put a cool kiss at each corner, she dived down to place two notes, returned, rested. Beneath their lids my eyes were wide with astonishment, the thundering of the conch shells too vast. Isabelle continued: we descended knot by knot into a night beyond the school’s night, beyond the night of the town and of the tram depot. She had made her honey on my lips, the sphinxes had gone to sleep once more.”

I may not be the audience for this kind of narrative—or dialogue, for that matter, which struck me as equally robotic—but, going back to those afterwords, I was time and again fascinated by Leduc’s history. The first afterword quotes a letter of hers that at least puts her writing into perspective:

“I am trying to render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love. In this there is doubtless something that every woman can understand. I am not aiming for scandal, but only to describe the woman’s experience with precision. I hope this will not seem anymore scandalous than Madame Bloom’s thoughts at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses. Every sincere psychological analysis, I believe, deserves to be heard.”

As a reader, I wholly appreciate this, both for its insight into the author’s process-related goals, and for her desire to break the mould of what then-conventional emotions in literature were “accepted.” I also find it interesting that a country such as France would want to censor sensual things (I may have missed that part in my French history course as an undergrad, but I may have also been too distracted by scenes of a young Gerard Depardieu in the numerous French movies our professor made us watch), but then again, it’s not that surprising. What I also like is the promise of Leduc’s attention to detail combined with said detail—all of which I, as a reader, am to experience.

The actual “scandalous” part aside (this is 2015, after all, and I’ve seen enough episodes of True Blood to know a thing or two), the rest of what Leduc was aiming for didn’t resonate with me. In terms of her extremely close attention to detail, her efforts certainly show, but I frequently felt there was too much going on all the time—though do I realize that the overload of detail can be compared to the cloudburst of emotions one feels when in love, or lust. Some of the dialogue made me squeamish as well, not because of its “scandal,” but because I found it to be abstract and random in a way I found distracting—and not in a good way:

I threw myself at her sex. I would have preferred it to be simpler. I almost wanted to sew it back up all around.

“My darling trout, my beloved submarine pout. I’m coming back to you. I’m here. . . . It’s the pink brute. I love it, it devours me. I adore it without illusions.”

Okay. While I could agree with an argument stating that young people in a first-time, socially-forbidden relationship may say words just to say them, regardless of how said term of endearment comes across, some of the sayings are more-than-foreign to me. Darling trout? Submarine pout? The Bloodhound Gang’s “Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo” lists more inventive, and ultimately less awkward, names for the female genitalia. Maybe it sounds sexier in the French.

Overall, my reading experience was admittedly not what I wanted it to be. This is also, truthfully, the first book I’ve read by Feminist Press myself—as opposed to book reviews of their books—so I was hoping my own reaction would be different. (That’s right, I’m saying this is an “It’s not you, it’s me” scenario.) What I found was an abstract and stilted narrative that doesn’t fit into what I gravitate toward as a reader. However, Leduc’s writing and struggles as a writer—a female writer—and her desire and need to express an understanding of sexuality that was so deep and personal should not go overlooked. Thérèse and Isabelle will surely push the right buttons in other readers—possibly someone more in-tune with the history of writing and publishing in France, and that Feminist Press is giving further voice to these women authors is highly commendable; I look forward to reading more from them.

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