What This Brilliant, Underrated French Author Taught Me About Sacrifice
“To have an inner life, to think, to juggle and leap, to become a tightrope walker in the world of ideas. To attack, to riposte, to refute, what a contest, what acclaim. To understand. The most generous word of all. Memory. To retain, a geyser of felicity. Intelligence. The agonizing poverty of my mind. Words and ideas flitting in and out like butterflies. My brain a dandelion seed blown in the wind.”
— Violette Leduc
Violette Leduc lived most of her life feeling sorry for herself.
She was born to a servant girl and a rich father who refused to legitimize her.
Growing up she had poor self-esteem and had difficulty making friends.
After World War I, she was sent to a boarding school where she first experienced sexual intimacy with a fellow female classmate. Later, she embarked on an affair with her musical instructor, who was later fired after their affair had been revealed.
She then moved to Paris, failed her baccalaureate exam, and began working as a clerk and secretary of a publishing company.
In 1942, she met Maurice Sachs, a gay Jewish author, who encouraged her to write. Through Maurice she managed to approach Simone de Beauvoir who became her writing mentor, although rebuffed Leduc’s many romantic advances.
Through Simone de Beauvoir’s connections, Leduc’s first novel, L’Asphyxie (In the Prison of her Skin) was published by Albert Camus through the acclaimed Éditions Gallimard. It was critically acclaimed by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet.
Ecstatic about her success, Leduc thought this would lift her out of poverty and set her up on a successful career as a noted writer.
Unfortunately, L’Asphyxie ran as a limited release.
Most book stores did not carry it.
No one noticed.
Leduc hardly received any money.
Beauvoir encouraged a distraught Leduc to keep writing. Leduc soon completed L’affamée.
Angry with tears, she proclaimed to Beauvoir that she was ugly, poor, unloved, and that she was not going to write another word.
Simone de Beauvoir pushed her to write yet another book. She suggested to Leduc that she write a raw autobiography of her life — starting from her impoverished upbringing to her lesbian experiences to her marriage and eventually ending with her late-term abortion.
“No one will want to read that.” Leduc scoffed.
“It’s what people need to read.” Beauvoir insisted.
Leduc began to pour all her trauma into this book. She meticulously went through every significant experience in chronological order. When she was finished, she decided upon the title, “Ravages.”
After bringing the completed book to Beauvoir, Beauvoir met with the publishers. There was no way that an unedited version of Ravages would get released, they said. The government would censor most, if not all of it. Despite the backing of Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, there was nothing the publishers could realistically do.
Beauvoir returned to Leduc with two options: Ravages would go unpublished and remain intact or be released but heavily edited. The writing about her lesbian experiences would be cut.
Leduc cried and screamed at the unjustness of it all. Ravages was ultimately published, with significant omissions. The parts that were cut that involved her lesbian relationships would (much) later be released in a separate book titled, Therese and Isabelle.
Leduc was now in her 40s and spiralling.
She regularly told others of how ugly and unloved she felt.
She was still living in an impoverished apartment with barely enough food.
It had gotten to the point that Simone de Beauvoir was secretly providing her a monthly allowance, under the guise that the publishing company had offered this arrangement.
Leduc was barely hanging on.
Beauvoir told Leduc don’t give up. Channel this despair into another book. Write another. Leduc told her she had nothing more to give. Beauvoir insisted.
In 1964, La Bâtarde was published.
Leduc was 57 years old.
La Bâtarde became an instant success.
Women began lining up to get their books autographed.
Money started flowing.
Beauvoir stopped the secret monthly allowance.
Leduc finally, after a lifetime of sorrow, found the appreciation that she had yearned for. She eventually had enough money to buy a house outside of Paris in a small community amongst the mountains that she fell in love with.
The Sacrifice of Time: Never Underestimate the Length of the Journey
It took 18 years from Leduc’s first novel to achieve a “hit.”
From 1946 to 1964, she was writing consistently, pushing out books, and receiving hardly any fanfare. She even had a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized — of which Beauvoir generously paid for.
And suddenly, like a flick of a switch, success appeared to happen overnight. She went from a struggling writer for decades and then became a renowned writer who was breaking ground for women everywhere.
From the time that her first novel of published up until her success with La Batard, she wasn’t working anywhere else either.
You couldn’t find her waiting tables, working as a secretary or studying philosophy at a prestigious institution (like Beauvoir and Sartre once did). She thought and she wrote. For years.
The Sacrifice of Ego: Great Work Requires Constant Review and Critique
Arguably if it wasn’t for Beauvoir supporting her emotionally and financially, Leduc may have given up writing altogether. Luckily for us, Beauvoir was there to review her writing, push her to continue, and champion her groundbreaking work to the publishing elite.
Despite coming from two different worlds — Beauvoir having received an elite education and Leduc coming from extremely modest beginnings — both bonded over Leduc’s Art of Storytelling.
Although we’d like to think that we can develop our craft alone, involving others is critical to the process.
We need to share our work with others and then have it completely marked up with constructive criticism.
This is an important part of the process that can’t be missed.
The feedback might sting. We may fiercely shake our heads in disagreement. But it’s important that we listen to our audience.
In order to evolve from good to great, we must be willing to let our ego get steamrolled in the process. You have to accept that your work is not for you, but for the value it will bring to everyone else.
If you’re not up for the task — if you think it’s too much to bear — then perhaps you should rethink your craft. In order to achieve mastery, it needs to be a labour of love — with the real possibility that you may not reap the rewards for decades to come.
Are you up for the sacrifice?