Monday 23 May 2011

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

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.


  1. "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..." hahah, best line ever...and I too was triggered to do the same.

    Alas, I then finished your post and now have the book coming in the mail. Impulse...what a drag. I'll let you know how I like it though!!

  2. If you haven't already, you must read Miss Brill, a story by Katherine Mansfield. A marvellous treatment of the little fox fur.

  3. I recently took La Batarde and another Leduc to the charity shop. They were 70s paperbacks and had Emmanuelle-like covers - and I was surprised to find them on my late Mum's bookshelves!

  4. Daniel - well, I wish you luck! You might well like it more than me, I have a feeling it might just be slightly more up your street, similar though our tastes are.

    Martina - oh but of course I know it, why didn't I make the connection! It's one of my favourite KM stories, too.

    Annabel - yes, a bit of an eye-opener!

  5. Hi Simon - Really glad that you found this book interesting, and thank you for the mention in your blog! I'm immensely honoured!
    This book (although I still haven't read it - It's on reserve at the Oxford Public Library) reminds me a little of The Hunger by Knut Hamsun, with its unhinged, desperately impoverished character eking out an existence day-by-day, yet still finding wonder in the most ubiquitous things. Looking forward to giving it a read!

  6. I think this sounds rather wonderful actually. Though I have to say, and I feel bad doing so, that the Peter Owen cover is horrific, they have done this with a few covers and I dont get it. Anyway that aside I would quite like to give this book a whirl... one day!

    Mind you there are just too many books I feel that way about.

  7. Violette Leduc received some acclaim with her first book, l'Asphyxie, published in 1942.

  8. I absolutely loved this book, and didn't find the prose stilted at all - I thought it managed to represent the repetitions of OCD thought patterns quite effectively, without it ever overwhelming the reader. Beyond its deeply sad story, the novella read to me as a paean to finding poetry and joy in the mundane and the overlooked. Its central scene, with its repeated shop-sign mantra, was a key, for me, to understanding the whole text as the same - a bland, arbitrary phrase turned into a triumphant bugle call; a celebration of an overlooked life, but also of those words which might have been considered less worthy of poetry at the time of writing - and, to me, this short book is a treasure trove of such carefully-chosen language (though, of course, having enjoyed the poetic aspect of the writing so much, I'd also be very intrigued to know what may or may not have been lost in translation!).

    Agreed that the modern cover is a travesty, although even the older one put me off enough for it to be sat on my shelf for a good four or five years before I gave it a shot! A diamond in the literary dirt, indeed...

    1. I'm delighted that you liked it so much, and I'm sad that my reading experience wasn't quite as good! I felt like it was close, but didn't quite click for me, at this time...


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