The biographies and autobiographies are on the whole more impressive than the fiction of the last two decades, but the freakish best sellers among them are least likely to withstand the test of time. Violette Leduc’s autobiography, La Bâtarde, has sold no less than 125,000 copies and one wonders if this could happen outside France. The English translation contains 488 breathless pages of staccato prose occasionally posing as poetry. One pities the conscientious translator and hopes that he is enjoying a well-deserved rest cure after so arduous a task. But why did he not translate the title of the book? Did the prospect of respectable housewives inquiring for The Bastard at their local library deter him? (“Excuse me, ma’m, what did you say?” “I said Bastard,” sotto voce. “Are you calling me names?”)
The publisher’s blurb and Simone de Beauvoir’s Introduction are calculated to whet the appetite of a certain type of reader. “Violette Leduc does not try to please,” says the doyenne of Existentialist dames, “she doesn’t please; in fact she alarms people.” Diaghilev once begged Cocteau to astonish him. Times have changed since then: most of us have become immune to mere astonishment. Apparently the 125,000 readers of La Bâtarde were eager to be alarmed by different stuff from Ian Fleming’s Surfeited with James Bond and his streamlined vamps, they turned to a middle-aged Frenchwoman who, to quote her promoter again, “weeps, exults, and trembles with her ovaries” in accordance with the prevalent literary current.
The insistence on ovaries throughout this tome is a leitmotiv which eventually gets on one’s nerves to such an extent that one sympathizes wholeheartedly with her friend Maurice Sachs when he explodes: “Your unhappy childhood is beginning to bore me to distraction. This afternoon you will take your basket, a pen, and an exercise book, and you will go and sit under an apple tree. Then you will write down all the things you tell me.”
Maurice Sachs was a wily one, as we learn from his autobiography, and he knew how to cope with bores. The immodest Violet confesses that she had a crush on him though he made no secret of the fact that he preferred his own sex. “Annoyed at my own tantrums, annoyed at the way he put up with them, I lay bleeding. We ate dinner together in my room. I didn’t desire Maurice. I desired the hell of our life together.” Luckily for her, she took his literary advice. Her commercial success and the eulogies of the leading Existentialists have justified it amply. The author of Nausea had blown a trumpet blast in honor of Jean Genet; Mme. de Beauvoir, not to be outdone, proceeded to blow a whistle in honor of Violette Leduc, whose previous efforts, L’Asphyxie, L’Affamée, Ravages (what bracing titles!), had passed unnoticed by the general public. But the difference between the protégés of M. Sartre and his feminine colleague is considerable …