I have wanted to read Violette Leduc’s novella, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, for such a long time, but was never able to find a copy for an affordable price. Thank goodness for Penguin, who have recently published it in a gorgeous edition as part of their European Writers series. Translated from the French by Derek Coltman, and first published in 1965, the Penguin publication includes an introduction written by Deborah Levy.
The Guardian writes that the novella gives ‘a forceful affirmation of the human spirit’, and The Observer that Leduc ‘can capture the smells of a country childhood, dazzle with the lights of the Place de la Concorde or make you feel the silky slither of her eel-grey suit.’ Among Leduc’s first admirers were Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, who were beguiled by her writing.
The lady of the novella’s title is a sixty-year-old woman who lives in Paris, in a tiny attic apartment. She has no money, is slowly starving, and ‘spends her days walking around the city, each step a bid for recognition of her own existence.’ She has placed herself into a routine of comparative comfort, riding the subway and walking in large crowds just to be close to others. Once we have become accustomed to her ways, the crux of the novella comes when she gifts herself an unrelenting purpose during a stifling hot summer’s day: ‘One morning she awakes with an urgent need to taste an orange; but when she rummages in the bins she finds instead a discarded fox fur scarf.’ This scarf ‘becomes the key to her salvation, the friend who changes her lonely existence into a playful world of her own invention.’
In her introduction, Levy notes her own experiences with the novella. She writes that ‘Leduc can make this reader laugh out loud at her grand themes: loneliness, humiliation, hunger, defeat, disappointment – all of which are great comic subjects in the right hands… It requires a sensibility that is totally unsentimental, a way of staring at life and making from it a kind of tough poetry…’. She goes on to write: ‘It is because Leduc profoundly understands how mysterious human beings are that her attention as a writer is always in an interesting place.’ Of her prose, she states: ‘Life, like language, is coherent and incoherent, and Leduc knows the only way to do justice to this dynamic is to fold into the texture of her narrative the strange in-between bits of experience… Writing, for Leduc, is a concentrated form of experiencing.’
The novella opens at the end of winter. Leduc writes: ‘February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners. She wandered around the still empty, still silent Paris-Sevran bus. On tiptoe, avidly, she gazed through the windows at the backs of the seats, at the luggage rack, and thought of the passengers who were not there, whom she had ever known.’ Our protagonist is beset by a variety of problems which become apparent from the outset of the story, and often philosophises about her life and the turns which it has taken: ‘She began putting problems to herself. Not to leave her own neighbourhood, not to travel was a tragedy. But to leave all that she cherished would be another tragedy.’ Her quite miserable present is interspersed with memories from her past: ‘Memories are comfy too, they are swaddling bands, they wrap you up warm like a mummy. What moment is there in life that is not already a memory?’
Leduc’s prose, and its construction, is fascinating. The narrative is meandering, taking swift turns here and there. There sometimes seems to be very little to connect one sentence to the next, but Leduc skilfully builds a surprisingly cohesive picture of her Paris. There is a beguiling feel to the sentences which she weaves, and the descriptions which she gives reveal the grittier side of the city. Paris is a character in parallel; it alters alongside our protagonist, and faces a variety of shifting moods, just as she does: ‘Paris had not forgotten her, Paris was lighting up on every side, the night was tender, the light was soft, the neon signs were flickering on, the sky was candid, and she was rewarded for loving Paris so much.’ I found the protagonist’s relationship with inanimate objects – her keys, coins, and handbag – very interesting, and it is an element which I rarely come across in fiction.
In The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, Leduc reveals just how lonely it can be to live in the midst of a big city, and how one can retain their own place in the world. She writes of coming to terms with the ageing process; her unnamed narrator’s ‘hands shook these days when she was threading a needle; her fingers were growing old; life and death were two maniacs locked in a well-matched struggle.’ Our protagonist is peculiar, and has such a lot of depth and complexity to her.
The Lady and the Little Fox Fur spans just eighty pages, but there is so much involved within it that it feels like a much longer work. Reading it is something like being stuck in a maze; one has to unravel so many crossed threads, and travel down so many dead ends, to reach the protagonist in the middle. The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is one of the most peculiar books that I have ever read, but I feel that it will also prove itself to be one of the most memorable.