Violette Leduc’s novel recounts the brief, but overwhelming, love affair between two girls at a boarding school. Gallimard considered Thérèse et Isabelle too risqué to publish when it was written, in 1954, and despite Leduc’s autobiography La Bâtarde (1964) having drawn praise in French literary circles, the uncensored version did not appear until 2000, twenty-eight years after the author’s death.
The story begins with a dispute. The girls are cleaning their shoes.
I wrench Isabelle’s face around, I dig my fingers in, I stuff the rag blotched with wax, dust and red polish into her eyes, into her mouth; I look at the milky skin inside the collar of her uniform, I lift my hand from her face, I return to my place.
Told in the first person, present tense, and with absorbing attention to detail, the narrative events unfold tantalisingly close to the reader. Leduc expressed her intention to “render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love.”
Her voice is poetic, often broken or exaggerated, and effervescent with imagery. As the girls are overcome by their feelings, Leduc’s prose echoes the rhythms of their pleasures and angsts, eccentricities and impossibilities.
Isabelle was making my ankles drunk, rotting my knees with ecstasies. I was like a fruit stewed in the heat, I had the same liquorous seeping.
The French are, perhaps, unrivalled in their use of this language of lust and eroticism. It is therefore a joy to read Sophie Lewis’ impeccable translation. The text reads like a transparent film, as if traced over the French original: Leduc’s exquisite 1954 text trembles just beneath.
The book’s cover-design, featuring a scantily clad girl gazing through a door ajar, depicts the novel as light erotica. Erotica it is. But, of decidedly more interest, is its literary value. Thérèse and Isabelle is written with unflinching sincerity and Leduc’s progressive attitude and experimental style confirm it as one of the greatest examples of French-language erotic literature.
Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc
Translated by Sophie Lewis
978 0 95680 821 9
This review was published in the TLS, October 5th 2012.