Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 31, 2022

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, by Violetta Leduc, translated by Derek Coltman

To make one more last contribution to #WITMonth, today I read a short novella called The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc, first published in 1965 and translated from the French by Derek Coltman.

(I had been a bit ambitious in thinking that I had time to finish A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson (translated by Nichola Smalley). Life has conspired to get in the way of reading time this past week…)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is one of Penguin’s European Writers series:  it’s a series of seven (so far) and I bought the lot when I first heard about them. (Except for Death in Spring by Mercé Rodoreda, (translated by Martha Tennent because I  had already read and reviewed the Open Letter Books edition at the beginning of this #WITMonth).  The titles are all bite-sized short stories and novellas, representing authors from France, Spain, Germany , Sweden, Romania, Greece and Italy.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is only 80 pages long and can be read in an afternoon, though its impact will last much longer than that. It affected me in the same way that reading Knut Hamsun’s Hunger did (see my review).  Hamsun’s protagonist is a distressed young man at the end of his physical and psychological tether.  His circumstances are different to Leduc’s old lady’s but like her, he is starving in an impersonal city, and like her, he suffers hallucinations which blur with reality.

Leduc’s nameless old lady is sixty (which doesn’t seem so very old to me), but she is alone and friendless. Her sole companion is an insect in the skirting board of her room.

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. (p.38)

She uses her few francs for a ticket for the train — not to take a journey, but to be in company with other people, even though they ignore her.

She has developed rituals and routines to get through her long lonely days, and she plans carefully to eke out her pitiful store of money.  This is how the story begins:

Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six… the the roar.  The table shook, the coffee beans fell into her lap.

The overhead Métro was an invader she had never grown used to, though it shook her like that every five minutes during off-hours, every two minutes during rush hours.  (p.1)

That astonishing image is just one of many arresting images.  As Deborah Levy says in the introduction, Leduc is incapable of coming up with a boring sentence, and it’s true.  At Les Palmiers, which the old lady must avoid because she has no money…

There were some young girls going into the café and she lowered her eyes — the pavement was as old as she was.

February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners. (p.1)

She lashes out and eats two cubes of sugar and some coffee soaked bread, but immediately her rashness in eating without thinking of economy overwhelms her:

She ate: her teeth melted with delight as they sank into the coffee-soaked bread; her stomach was a pit of pleasure — and the passing train was as frivolous as smoke.  But the pencil was already beckoning before the last mouthful; figures will not wait, they are executioners intent on torturing their victim.  (p.40)

Now she has to get some money, some food in order to go on… she craves an orange but there isn’t one in the dustbin, only an old fox fur.  It’s tatty and it stinks, and all the time she wears it she fears that the dustmen will be after her to get it back. But it’s her little rascal, and she loves it.

She took the little fox back to her room and examined it beneath her attic window.  To find something, no matter how ignorant or how learned one may be, is to dip ones’ finger into cerulean blue.  And what she found now was warmth, relaxation, and a caressing softness.  The fox had offered itself to the first comer, and she had been stronger than the others.  They had all been asleep and she had come upon him.  She kissed him, and she went on kissing him, from the tip of his muzzle to the tip of his brush.  But her lips were as cold as marble: in her mind these kisses were also an act of religious meditation.  She looked him up and down, then burst into her first fit of uncontrollable laughter: the amusement he filled her with was no less sincere than the love she felt for him. (p.50)

Though she knows he is just a little dead animal that someone had thrown out into the gutter, she plans to take him out on little jaunts around Paris, while also dreaming of selling him and buying him back when she has made her fortune. Not so different to Knut Hamsun’s protagonist’s dreams of selling a manuscript which will banish his hunger forever.

It really is harrowing to read about these protagonists living in such straitened circumstances, knowing that it’s real life for so many in our mean and selfish world.

Mentored by Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc (1907-1972) was admired by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Genet.  She published fiction and two memoirs.

  • L’Asphyxie, 1946 (In the Prison of Her Skin, trans. Derek Coltman, 1970).
  • L’affamée, 1948.
  • Ravages, 1955.
  • La vieille fille et le mort, 1958.
  • Trésors à prendre, suivi de Les Boutons dorés, 1960.
  • La Bâtarde, (memoir), 1964 (La Bâtarde, trans. Derek Coltman, 1965).
  • La Femme au petit renard, 1965 (The Lady and the Little Fox Fur,trans. Derek Coltman, 1965).
  • Thérèse et Isabelle, 1966 (Thérèse and Isabelle, trans. Sophie Lewis, The Feminist Press, 2015. )
  • La Folie en tête, (memoir) 1970 (Mad in Pursuit, trans. Derek Coltman, 1971)
  • Le Taxi, 1971 (The Taxi. Helen Weaver (translation). Hart-Davis MacGibbon.
  • 1973. ISBN 9780246105851. OCLC 561312438.)
  • La Chasse à l’amour, 1973.

Can anyone recommend which of these titles by Violette Leduc I should try next?

Author: Violette Leduc
Title: The Lady and the Little Fox Fur (La femme au petit renard)
Translated from the French by Derek Coltman
Introduction by Deborah Levy
Publisher: Penguin European Writers, Penguin Random House, 2018
ISBN: 9780241357453, pbk., 80 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.

 


Responses

  1. That description of February is wonderful – that alone would make me interested to read this!

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    • I’m very pleased to have discovered an interesting new author. If you check out her author page at Wikipedia, she seems to have had a difficult life, and it bled into her fiction the way that Jean Rhys’s life did.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Totally agree Lisa – such a powerful and unforgettable novella.

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    • I see at your blog that you have a whole pile of titles by this author!
      I’ve just done a quick search at AbeBooks, and there are a few Australian booksellers with stock, so she must have made her way into bookstores here at some stage. But I’d never heard of her.

      Liked by 1 person

      • She’s not that well known nowadays but did have a higher profile in the latter part of the 20th century particularly in Europe. A complex and fascinating woman!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a book I would love Lisa. The writing sounds appealing and it feels like the translation is good. I also like the idea of an “old” woman protagonist! there aren’t enough older protagonists though I feel the situation is improving.

    And this Penguin series all up sounds excellent. Might be a good source of gifts for readers too.

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    • You are right about the invisibility of older women in fiction… you might remember that there was a month long focus on older women in fiction at Words without Borders, and it really made me alert to their invisibility in so much of the shiny new books that come our way.
      What I like about this one, is that although our empathy is aroused, we never lose sight of the way this woman maintains agency in the way she lives her life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s been an issue in movies for a long time, which is why I’ve been alert to it. It’s changing in movies too. I suspect us baby-boomers have a part in that change. We are in big numbers and we want to see ourselves!

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        • Could be…
          I’m always surprised when Seniors Week rolls around and I’m exhorted to join in their assortment of deadly dull activities…
          Still, I shouldn’t complain. My Seniors Card got us a nice discount at the TarraWarra Museum of Art on Sunday, and we often got discounted entry fees with it when we were overseas.
          My favourite was at a museum in New Caledonia, where they are trained to say, ‘Oh, you don’t look old enough to have a Seniors Card!’ Very good customer service training, eh?

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          • TarraWarra is great. Haha, yes good customer training though with my grey hair I feel like saying, Really?, when they say that!

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Read her at uni long time ago. And it would be great to read more on older women. There is so much that could be improved to give us our status in the community and the experience we bring to it.

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    • Hi Fay, I’m not sure why your comment went to moderation, you’ve been ‘approved to comment’ for ages. There is something not quite right about WordPress comments at the moment, but I’m very pleased to receive your feedback and I hope WP fixes things soon.

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  5. Read Violet long time ago. And agree about the limitations society applies to the older woman. I resist in whatever way I can but very challenging.

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    • It’s our generation that fought so hard for all those reforms in the seventies, and now they’d like us to be invisible all over again.

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      • The combination of gender and age discrimination even more challenging but our generation have much to be proud of even though the struggle continues.

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  6. I’ve only read Women from this series so far, it was entrancing.

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    • That the one from Romania? I’m looking forward to that one too.

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  7. PS are you enjoying A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding ? I’ve been curious about it, but not sure I want to commit to another chunkster this year…

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    • I really, really liked the beginning. I’m a little bogged down in the middle because it’s not so light hearted.
      But I’m also having trouble with my eyes again and don’t seem to be able to read for very long.

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      • Sorry to hear your eyes are playing up, that must be frustrating.
        Sounds like I’ll need to be in the right mood for ASSM…

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        • I should have it finished soon and then you can read my review to help you decide…

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