Thérése and Isabelle
by Violette Leduc
(available in June from The Feminist Press)
The following is a passage from Thérèse and Isabelle, the tale of two boarding school girls in love. In 1966 when it was originally published in France, the text was censored because of its explicit depiction of young homosexuality. With this publication, the original, unexpurgated text--a stunning literary portrayal of female desire and sexuality--is available to a US audience for the first time. Included is an afterword by Michael Lucey, professor of French and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
Violette Leduc (1907-1972) has been referred to as "France's greatest unknown writer." Admired by Jean Genet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Albert Camus, Leduc was championed by Simone de Beauvoir when she published her scandalous autobiography La Batarde (1964). Like Therese and Isabelle, many of her audacious novels are largely inspired by her life. Read more about the author.
We began the week every Sunday evening in the shoe room. We polished our shoes, which had been brushed at home that morning in our kitchens or gardens. We came in from the town; we were not hungry. Keeping away from the refectory until Monday morning, we would make a few rounds of the schoolyard, then go two by two into the shoe room accompanied by our bored supervisor. The shoe room at our school was nothing like those street stands where all the nailing, the shaping, the hammering send your feet hurrying back to the pavement outside. We polished in a poorly lit, windowless chapel of monotony; we daydreamed with our shoes on our knees, those evenings that we came back to school. The virtuous scent of polish that revives us in pharmacies here made us melancholy. We were languishing over our cloths, we were awkward, our grace had abandoned us. The new monitor sat with us on the bench, reading aloud and lost in her tale, gazing far beyond the town, beyond the school, while we carried on stroking leather with wool in the half-light. That evening we were ten pallid returnees in the waiting-room gloom, ten returnees who said not a word to each other, ten sullen girls all alike and avoiding each other.
My future will be nothing like theirs. I have no future at the school. My mother said so. If I miss you too much I’ll take you home again. School is not a boat for the other boarders. She might take me back home at any moment. I am only temporarily on board. She could take me out of school on a first day of term, she could take me back this evening. Thirty days. Thirty days I’ve been a passenger at the school. I want to live here, I want to polish my shoes in the shoe room. Marthe will not be called back home . . . Julienne will not be called home . . . Isabelle will not be called home . . . They are certain of their futures, although I’m willing to bet that Isabelle spits on the school each time she spits on her shoe. My polish would be softer if I spat as she does. I could spread it further. She is lucky. Her parents are teachers. Who is going to snatch her away from school? She spits. Perhaps she is angry, the school’s best student . . . I am spitting like her, I moisten my polish but where will I be a month from now? I am the bad student, the worst student in the big dormitory. I don’t care in the least. I detest the headmistress, spit my girl, spit on your polish, I hate sewing, gymnastics, chemistry, I hate everything and I avoid my companions. It’s sad but I don’t want to leave this place. My mother has married someone, my mother has betrayed me.
The brush has fallen from my knees, Isabelle has kicked my polish brush away while I was thinking.
“My brush, my brush!”
Isabelle lowers her head, she spits harder on the box calf. The brush rolls up to the monitor’s foot. You’ll pay for that kick of yours. I collect the object, I wrench Isabelle’s face around, I dig my fingers in, I stuff the rag blotched with wax, dust, and red polish into her eyes, into her mouth; I look at her milky skin inside the collar of her uniform, I lift my hand from her face, I return to my place. Silent and furious, Isabelle cleans her eyes and lips, she spits a sixth time on the shoe, she hunches her shoulders, the monitor closes her book, claps her hands, the light flickers. Isabelle goes back to shining her shoe.
We were waiting for her. She had her legs crossed, rubbing hard. “You must come now,” said the new monitor timidly. We had come into the shoe room with clattering heels but we left muted by our black slippers like phoney orphans. Close cousins to the espadrille, our slippers, our Silent Sisters, stifle wherever they step: stone; wood; earth. Angels would lend us their heels as we left the shoe room with cozy melancholy flowing from our souls down into our slippers. Every Sunday we went up to the dormitory with the monitor; all the way there we would breathe in the rose-scented disinfectant. Isabelle had caught up with us on the stairs. I hate her, I want to hate her. I would feel better if I hated her more. Tomorrow I’ll have her at my table in the refectory again. She’s in charge of it. She’s in charge of the table I eat at in the refectory. I cannot change my table. Her sidelong little smile when I sit down late. I’ve put that sly little smile straight. That natural insouciance . . . I’ll straighten out that natural insouciance of hers too. I’ll go to the headmistress if necessary but I shall change my table in the refectory.
We entered a dormitory in which the dim sheen of the linoleum foretold the solitude of walking there at midnight. We drew aside our percale curtains and found ourselves in our unlockable, wall-less bedrooms. Isabelle’s curtain rings shunted along their rail just after the others’. The night monitor paced along the passage. We opened our cases, took out our underwear, folded it away on the shelves in our wardrobes, keeping out the sheets for our narrow beds, we threw the key into the case which we now closed for the week, we put that away in the wardrobe too, and made our beds. Under the institutional lighting our things were no longer ours. We stepped out of our uniforms, hung them up ready for Thursday’s walk, folded our underpants, laid them on the chair, and took out our nightgowns.
Isabelle left the dormitory with her pitcher.
I listen to the tassel of her gown rustling over the linoleum. I hear her fingers’ drumming on the enamel. Her box opposite mine. That’s what I have in front of me. Her coming and going. I watch for them, her comings and goings. Were you tight? Got good and tight? This is what she says when I come in late to the refectory. I’ll flatten that sarcastic smile of hers. I didn’t get tight. I was practicing diminished minor arpeggios. She is scornful because I hide away in the music room. She says that I make a din, that she can hear me from the prep room. It is true: I do practice but all I make is noise. Her again, always her, again her on the stairs. I run into her. I would have undressed slowly if I had known she was at the tap fetching water. Shall I run away? Come back later when she is gone? I won’t go. I am not afraid of her: I hate her. She has her back to me. What nonchalance . . . She knows there is someone right behind her but she will not hurry. I would say she was provoking me if she knew that it was I but she doesn’t know. She is not curious enough even to check who is behind her. I would not have come if I’d known she would be dawdling here. I thought she was far away—she is right here. Soon her pitcher will be full. At last. I know that long, loose hair of hers, there’s nothing new about her hair for she walks about like that in the passage. Excuse me. She said excuse me. She brushed my face with her hair while I was thinking about it. It is beyond belief. She has tossed her hair back so as to send it into my face. Her mass of hair was on my lips. She didn’t know I was behind her and she flicked her hair in my face! She didn’t know I was behind her and she has said excuse me. It is unbelievable. She would not say I’m keeping you, I’m being slow, the tap isn’t working. She tosses her hair at you while asking you to excuse her. The water flows more slowly. She has touched the tap. I will not speak to her, the water has almost stopped, you will not prize a word out of me. You ignore me, I shall ignore you. Why did you want me to wait? Is that what you wanted? I shall not speak to you. If you have time to spare, I have time too.
The monitor has called us from out in the passage, as if we were in league together. Isabelle went out to her.
I heard her lying, explaining to the new monitor that the tap had gone dry.
The monitor is talking to her through the percale curtain: are you eighteen? We are almost the same age, says the monitor. Their conversation is cut short by the whistle of a train escaping from the station that we left at seven. Isabelle soaps her skin. Tight . . . Did you get good and tight? Who can say what she is thinking? This is a girl with something on her mind. She’s dreaming or else she spits; she dreams and works harder than the rest.
“And you, how old are you?” the new monitor asked me.
Isabelle will find out my age. “Seventeen,” I mutter. “Are you in the same class?” asks the monitor. “Yes, in the same class,” replies Isabelle, energetically rinsing out her wash glove. “She’s lying to you,” I shout. “You don’t see she’s making fun of you. I am not in her class and I don’t care.”
“Remember your manners,” says the monitor to me.
I opened my curtain a crack: the supervisor was moving away, returning to his reading in the passage, Isabelle was giggling in her box, another girl was up to something with her sweet wrappers.
“I have strict orders,” whispered the new monitor. “No visitors in the boxes. Each girl in her own.”
We were always under threat of an evening inspection by the headmistress. We would tidy our comb, our nailbrush, our washbowl, and lie down in our anonymous beds as if on a small medical ward. As soon as we had finished washing and tidying, we would present ourselves for the monitor’s inspection, neat and tidy and in bed. Some students offered her pastries, detained her with flattering sweet talk, while Isabelle withdrew into her tomb. As soon as I had recreated my nest in the cold bed, I forgot about Isabelle, but if I woke, I thought of her again, to hate her. She did not dream aloud, her bedstead did not creak. One night, at two o’clock, I got up, crossed the passage, held my breath, and listened to her sleeping. She was not there. She even mocked me in her sleep. I had gripped her curtain. I had stayed there listening. She was gone; she had the last word. I hated her between sleeping and waking: in the morning bell at half past six, in the low tone of her voice, in the splashing and draining sounds as she washed, her hand snapping closed the box of dental paste. All one can hear is her, I told myself stubbornly. I hated the dust from her room, when she let the duster poke under my curtain, when she tapped her fingers on our partitions, when she thrust her fist into her percale curtain. She spoke rarely, she made the movements required of her, in the dormitory, the refectory, in the rows of girls; she cut herself off, brooding in the schoolyard. I wondered what gave her cause for such aloofness. She was studious but without either self-importance or zeal. Often Isabelle would slip my tunic belt undone; she played cool if I grew angry. She would start the day with this childish tease and straight away retie the belt at my back, humiliating me twice over instead of once.
I got up, wary as a smuggler. The new monitor stopped cleaning her nails. I waited. Isabelle, who never coughed, coughed: tonight she had stayed awake. I blocked her out and plunged my arm up to the shoulder into the drab cloth bag hanging in my wardrobe. Hidden inside this bag of dirty laundry were some books and my flashlight. I used to read at night. That evening I got back into bed without any appetite for reading, with the book, with the flashlight. I turned on the flashlight, I gazed lovingly at my Silent Sisters under the chair. The artificial moonlight coming from the monitor’s room sucked the color from the contents of my cell.
I turned out the light; a girl crumpled some paper, I pushed away my book with a disappointed hand. Deader than a corpse, I thought to myself, picturing Isabelle lying stiff as a poker in her nightgown. The book was closed, the flashlight buried in the bedcovers. I put my hands together and prayed wordlessly; I asked for a world unknown to me, I listened, near my stomach, to the haze inside the seashell. The monitor also turned her light out. That lucky girl is asleep, lucky thing, she has a tomb to be lost in. The lucid ticking of my watch on the bedside table made my decision for me. I took up my book again and read beneath the covers.
Someone was spying behind my curtain. Hidden under the cover, I could still hear the inexorable ticktock. A night train left the station, left it to follow the monstrous whistle that was piercing the school’s alien shadows. I threw back the bedcover; I was afraid of the comatose dormitory.
Someone was calling from behind the percale curtain.
I played dead. I pulled the cover back over my head and relit the flashlight.
“,” someone called into my box.
I turned it off.
“What are you doing under your covers?” asked the voice, which I didn’t recognize.
They tore off my sheet and pulled my hair.
“I told you I’m reading!”
“Quietly,” said Isabelle.
Another girl coughed.
“You can tell on me if you like.”
She will not tell on me. I am unfair to her and I know it is unfair to say that to her.
“You weren’t asleep? I thought you were the best sleeper in the dormitory.”
“Softer,” she said.
I whispered too loudly, I wanted to be done with this joy: I was elated to the point of pride.
Visiting me, Isabelle came no further than my percale curtain. I was suspicious of her shyness, suspicious of her long, loose hair in my cell.
“I’m afraid you’re going to say no. Say you’ll say yes,” gasped Isabelle.
I had lit my flashlight; in spite of myself I had some consideration for my visitor.
“Say yes!” whispered Isabelle.
She was pressing a finger down on my dressing table.
She gripped her gown cord, pulling the gown tight around her. Her hair tumbled down over her orchards, her face grew older.
“What are you reading?”
She lifted her finger off the dressing table.
“I was beginning it when you came in.”
I turned out the light because she was looking at my book.
“The name . . . tell me the name of the book.”
“A Happy Man.”
“That’s a title? Is it good?”
“I don’t know. I just began.”
Isabelle turned on her heel; a curtain ring slid along the rail. I thought she might be disappearing back into her tomb. She stopped.
“Come and read in my room.”
She was leaving again, creating a distance between her request and my reply.
“Will you come? Say yes?”
“I don’t know.”
She left my box.
I could not regain my breath or my routine. She went back to her bed, her refuge. I wanted her immobile, lying still while I left my bed, my refuge. Isabelle had seen me with the sheets up to my neck. She did not know that I was wearing a special nightgown, a nightgown all stitched in honeycomb panels. I used to believe that personality came from outside us, from clothes that were different from those of other people. My visitor had crumpled my nightclothes without touching them, without knowing of them. The silk muslin nightgown slipped around my hips with the softness of a cobweb. I put my boarder’s tunic on; I left my box with my wrists held tight in the elasticated cuffs of my regulation smock. The monitor was sleeping. I paused before the percale curtain. I entered.