Recently at work my colleague Sarah started telling me about a book she hadn’t read, but heard might be interesting. It was about an old spinster who starts to invest her household objects with personalities, and is obsessed with her fox fur… Sarah was still in the middle of her sentence when I ordered a copy of The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc. It ticked lots of boxes for me, and I was quite excited – that very brief synopsis could have been written with me in mind.
Violette Leduc wasn’t very well known until she wrote her autobiography La Batarde, at which point she apparently became the darling of French literary culture. I hadn’t heard of her, but 1960s France is hardly my area of specialist knowledge. The Lady and the Little Fox Fur (originally La Femme au petit renard) was published in 1965, and became a bestseller. My edition is translated by Derek Coltman, and was published in 1967. It’s back in print, still with Peter Owen and Coltman’s translation, but the cover was so hideous that I had to get an earlier copy. And accidentally tore the dustjacket when I opened the package.
I’m always a bit cautious about saying characters are unnamed, because I never notice or remember names in novels, but I’m *pretty* certain that the old-ish lady (‘She was handling her sixtieth year as lightly as we touch the lint when dressing a wound’) is unnamed. The plot of this novella (104pp) is very simple – this unnamed narrator is living in dire poverty. She subsists on bits of sugar and dry rolls, and scrounges through bins and gutters. What money she has tends to be spent on travelling on the Metro, rather than food – she gains her nourishment from the company of others. She is, I should add, rather unhinged. Everyday events and insignificant acts by others are interpreted as being of great importance. As the novel continues, she gets more and more unbalanced – developing a deep closeness with the inanimate objects in her flat (somehow she scrapes together rent, but fears this may be last month there). Above all, she is besotted with an old fox fur that she once found, thrown out by someone else. Let’s have a quick glance at how she treats it:
As each day passed, she kept him more and more closely confined, eventually refusing him even the flattering light of the moon. She would squander a match for him on dark and moonless nights; she would move the flame to and fro along his length, enchanted at burning her fingers for his sake. Then, in the same dark night-time, he would warm up that place behind her ear where we need other people so much. What had to happen happened: he grew more beautiful as he acquired greater value, and he gave her what she asked of him.
I had, in my mind, the sort of novel I was expecting. A bit like Barbara Comyns, perhaps, but a bit madder. Well, it was certainly pretty mad, but sadly it didn’t click for me quite in the way that Comyns does. I enjoyed reading The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, and thought there were some brilliant and poignant moments – but Leduc’s style rather defeated me. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but it veers in that direction – a style that I often love, but has to be done really well to succeed. In Leduc’s novel it comes paired with an attempt to portray mental instability through language – which I always find a bit hazardous. I love the idea in theory, but I don’t think I’ve read any novel where it really worked – I’ll have to think on that and get back to you; that might deserve a post of its own.
Part of the issue might well be Derek Coltman’s translation – or maybe just the fact that it was in translation at all. It’s unfair of me to bad-mouth Coltman’s work without knowing what the original is like; either Leduc or Coltman is responsible for the stilted feeling I got whilst reading the novella.
Do you ever get the feeling that you should go back and re-read a novel very slowly? I have an inkling that’s what I should do to get the most out of The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. Perhaps I’m being critical because I had such high hopes for loving this novella – I don’t want you to come away this review thinking it’s bad. The idea is lovely and quirky; the unhinged mind of the lady is convincing – to the extent that I didn’t always know what was going on! It just wasn’t quite the gem I was hoping I’d found. Still, a much more interesting book to read than the latest top ten hardback – I love throwing a quirky little book into my reading now and then – and I think I’ll re-read it in ten or twenty years’ time, and perhaps come to a different conclusion.
In an awkward fashion, I’m going to peter out with a quotation – the lady is standing outside a cinema. I liked these paragraphs, and it’s also fairly representative of the style, and of the woman’s character. What’s your response to Leduc’s writing?
On Wednesdays they always changed the programme, so that on Tuesdays the photographs outside were always neglected, abandoned: she could pretend they were her transfer. A dark-haired man, a blonde woman; a blonde woman, a dark-haired man. The actors’ names left her utterly indifferent: their real names for her were the names of the people she saw kissing one another on the streets. Her forefinger followed the broken line of the hair, stopped up the eyesockets, crushed the mouth, or paused if the lovers’ mouths were pressed together in a kiss. Prudish and indiscreet, at those moments she would look down with blind eyes at the drawing-pin in one corner of the photograph. She was a sack of stones holding itself up of its own volition, this woman who had never had anything, who had never asked for anything. If the edge of the wind had caressed her neck at that moment, had caressed her neck just below the ear, then her heart would have stopped. She would have given her life and her death for another’s breath that close.