school

THERESE AND ISABELLE BY VIOLETTE LEDUC

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.’

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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.

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JR BY WILLIAM GADDIS

So, like, I have a fetish, and it’s becoming a problem. If someone told me there’s a book out there and it’s composed entirely of punctuation – no words, just 900 pages of exclamation marks, full-stops, and commas – I’d totally be there. I seem to want [at least a good proportion of] the literature I read to stand on my bollocks in high heels and call me a dirty bitch. Yet, I’m starting to realize what an empty experience that can be. Or maybe it’s that I’ve read all the great stuff – all those knocked-out-of-shape experimental masterpieces – and so I’m left to swill the dregs around in my mouth and it’s, inevitably, leaving a bitter aftertaste. But I’m not sure that’s the case. JR, for example, is very highly rated by the kind of readers I respect, and it’s near 800 pages of unattributable dialogue [or so it’s popularly claimed, but I’ll come back to this], so I ought to love it, I would’ve loved it once upon a time. Now? I’m like the man with crushed bollocks turning to his dominatrix and saying well, yeah, you can terrorise testicles fine, dear, but what else can you do?

I want to say up front that I’m not referring to difficulty here, I am talking about experimental not difficult literature [although the two often go hand-in-hand, of course]. I still like it hard; I still like to work while I read. In fact, for all it’s supposed difficulty I found reading JR a breeze. That’s not a boast, by the way, I genuinely believe that it’s not tough. But it has got such a reputation, you say. Yeah, it has, and it rests on a couple of things, which I’ll try and deal with, in the hope that the readers who do want to tackle the book aren’t put off by that reputation.

Firstly, those who complain about the difficulty claim that there are no clear transitions between scenes. Phooey. I would retort that these people aren’t concentrating and that they ought to read it properly rather than skim-reading while picking their toenails. The transitions are obvious; Gaddis will do one of a number of things to let you know the scene has changed: either he will narrate the change [apparently there is no narration in the book, even though there, y’know, is], or he will have a character say something like that car nearly hit me or it’s really windy out here when the previous paragraph clearly took place indoors, or the characters will change suddenly.

Another aspect of the novel’s so called difficulty centres around the unattributed speech, and, well, I dunno what the people who bring this up are reading. Often a character will say something like that’s true, Jane and so you know, of course, that the previous speaker is called Jane and one can then follow the conversation from there; indeed, as far as I read of the book [about half of it] only one or two people were present and participating during a scene without being acknowledged by name. So, this begs the question, how would you know who these people are, these people who aren’t identified by name? Gaddis uses verbal ticks to identify them, like the headmaster who peppers his speech with ahm. Easy-peasy. As an act of contrition I do want to say before I move onto my reasons for abandoning the book that Gaddis’ dialogue is amazing; one genuinely does feel like what he put down on paper is real speech. And real speech is fucking difficult to capture, and I know this because so many authors are truly abysmal at it.

“I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

So, what’s my problem then? My problem with the book is that it just doesn’t go anywhere, at least not in the first half. In part JR is a book about miscommunication, about how no-one really listens to anyone else, and I love that, I really do, because I wholeheartedly agree, and for the first 100 pages, what with everyone trying to have, like, 50 simultaneous conversations, half on which are on the phone, I was really digging this. But 400 pages of it? Is that really necessary? The other central theme of the novel is capitalism; again, I was totally on board with this. The 11 year old boy who gives the novel its title is the best thing in the book; his money making schemes – his almost wide-eyed, capitalist gang-banging – and other shenanigans, are all, on the surface, great fun.

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[money sculpture by Scott Campbell]

Yet there isn’t enough of him, or to him. He appears too infrequently, and yet even when he does half of what he says, and is involved in, is a repeat of what he said, and did, the last time he was around. Repetition! See, there’s a big problem with repetition in the book. There are only so many times you can read the same scene, such as JR and his friend squabbling over their trading of crap for example, and it is only one example, before you feel like going postal. Another one of Gaddis’ themes was, apparently, entropy, and yet it reads more like he was interested in monotony.

You might tell me that I quit just before it hots up. And you might well be right, but I’m just not that into books that get-going at page 450. It’s like hooking up with a girl: no, I don’t need to get laid on the first date, but I’m not waiting five years either.