I was starting to feel as though I no longer knew what love was, or even whether it was anything at all. I was once so sure, so complaisantly sure, of its existence, its properties, its style. Even in the afterglow of my last love, as I mournfully fingered its lukewarm ashes, I could still vividly recall its sticky, sweet breath. Yet it has now been two years since I was struck down by the lucky curse; and, during that time, love has become elusive to me, like the shapes I think I can see when I close my eyes. I hear the word and it is as though it is another language, a word that I have been taught the literal meaning of but for which there is no exact English equivalent. However, recently I came upon a story that spoke to me familiarly, that spoke fluently, persuasively, eloquently, about the frightening, but beautiful, intimacy that can exist between two people; and suddenly my lips felt less deadpan, my heart less insouciant.
“We embraced again, we wanted to engulf each other. We had cast off our families, the world, time, certainty. Clasping her against my gaping open heart, I wanted to draw Isabelle inside. Love is an exhausting invention. Isabelle, Thérèse, I pronounced in my head, getting used to the magical simplicity of our two names.”
The book under review here is not, in the strictest sense of the word, a novel. It was, in fact, originally part of a much longer work called Ravages. However, when it was presented to the publisher in 1954 it was rejected as scandalous, or, to be precise, its opening section was. Indeed, Jacques Lemarchard, a member of the reading committee, called it ‘a book of which a fair third is enormously and specifically obscene.’ Violette Leduc was therefore forced to cut the offending third, and it is this censored part of her manuscript that has come to be known as Thérèse et Isabelle. Ordinarily this sort of detail would not overly interest me, yet in this instance, and only after having read Thérèse and Isabelle, I find it fascinating. In my opinion, it says something, not necessarily about the publishing industry or the trials of being an author, but about attitudes towards lesbianism and, on a broader scale, perhaps love itself.
The book begins in banal fashion, with the narrator, Thérèse, polishing her shoes. She is a student at a boarding school, and she is not, we are led to believe, like the other girls, and is most unlike one particular girl, Isabelle. She is, first of all, ‘only temporarily on board,’ which is to say that she does not intend, nor expect, to be at the school long-term, for her mother will be wanting her home soon. She is, therefore, something of an outsider, in her own mind at least. On the other hand, Isabelle, whose parents are teachers, ‘will not be called home.’ She is, according to Thérèse, lucky, suggesting that she considers herself to be without luck, of course. Moreover, one is given the impression that Isabelle is completely at ease, both with her surroundings and herself. Indeed, Thérèse sees in her a kind of haughtiness, or certainly a superiority. She calls herself a bad student, while Isabelle is not simply a good one, but the ‘best.’
The first indication that Thérèse and Isabelle is not going to be a typical story of rival school children is the narrator’s obsessive interest in Isabelle’s manners and actions. If she really disliked the girl, then the rational thing to do would be to ignore her, forget about her. Moreover, it is standard, cliched psychology that the thing you have the most intense feelings for – even if that feeling is ‘hate’ – is perhaps the thing you want but believe that you can’t have. It is Isabelle who initiates the sexual activity, who coaxes Thérèse into her bed, and from that point onwards the book could be said to be one long sex scene. However, far from being obscene or scandalous, the descriptions of the acts engaged in by the two girls are shot through with fear, tenderness and often beauty. She calls a kiss, for example, ‘a dusting of petals.’ The instances of penetration and oral sex are lingered over, but not in graphic detail: ‘how masterfully her caress, how inevitable her caress…Closed, my eyes were listening: the finger grazed my pearl, the finger waited. I wanted to be capacious, to help it.’ In fact, Leduc’s style is so poetically overwrought that it isn’t always clear what is happening.
With this in mind, one might ask what exactly was it that necessitated that Ravages be censored, that Thérèse and Isabelle be removed? The answer, it strikes me, is to do with gender, is, in other words, an example of heterosexism. To be blunt, if Thérèse had been Thierry I don’t think a single eyebrow would have been raised by anyone encountering this story. Of course this wasn’t the first time that lesbianism had featured in a text, but what that means is that there is something particular about Leduc’s presentation of it that made people uneasy. Lesbianism as titillation is fine, lesbianism that doesn’t exclude the possibility of male interaction is fine, but lesbianism that is shown to be exclusive [even, as noted, in so far as the language is concerned] and loving and intimate? Thérèse speaks of feeling as though something is crawling in her belly; she eats the crumbs from Isabelle’s plate; she longs for her smell and the taste of her saliva. The two girls are passionately in love, they have, to paraphrase a cliche, eyes and bodies only for each other.