The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

The Penguin European Writers series continues to bring neglected writers back into print with perhaps its most obscure entry yet, Violette Leduc. Leduc was born in France in 1907, publishing her first novel in 1942 with encouragement from Simone de Beauvoir. Many of her novels have been translated but most of are out of print, the exception being Thérèse and Isabelle, a novel about a lesbian love affair which was only published after her death. Her most famous book is probably her memoir, La Batarde, which appeared in 1964. (The most recent English-language edition is from Dalkey Archive in 2003). The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, a novella under a hundred pages, was published the year after.

If the title suggests wealth and comfort, our protagonist – starving, with only a few coins to her name – is living in a very different world. At sixty she “isn’t really old by today’s standards,” as Deborah Levy points out in her introduction, but she feels she has no future beyond her day-to-day existence, “detached from the world by her idleness and her age.” She manages her hunger and isolation with a routine which is counted in at the beginning of the first chapter:

“She had to hurry out to reach the station at exactly the same moment as the train itself.”

“The rules of habit were in charge again,” she tells herself, “Without the rules she would have weakened and stumbled.” Surrounded by food, she instead spends fifty-five francs on a Metro ticket, attracted to the crowds:

“…what she wanted was their warmth: she had deprived herself of bread, now they were to give her their warmth in its place.”

Her most valuable possession is a fox fur which she found one day in a dustbin:

“The fox had offered itself to the first comer and she had been stronger than all the others.”

Her love for the fox fur is physical, like that of a lover:

“She plunged her face into her little one’s naked groin and snuggled there.”

This also makes her possessive, unwilling to wear the fox fur in fear it may be taken from her; keeping it in a packing case and only taking it out at night to look at:

“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.”

Now, however, her fortunes are so low that she feels she must sell it. The fox-fur, however, is only of value to her, dismissed with a, “Aren’t you ashamed to come bothering people like this!” Exhausted, she slumps onto the pavement, but is woken when a man puts money in her hand:

“Having succeeded once, she tried it again. This time she formed her outstretched palm into a little hollow and stared down into it, absorbed by each dear wrinkle cutting across it.”

In her hopelessness she has found, in begging, an unexpected supply of money, and therefore food. Her thoughts of selling the fox fur seem like a betrayal she has been saved from.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is a simple story but told with the intensity of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. It is beautifully written – take, for example, this description from the opening page:

“February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners.”

The narrative inhabits the world of the ‘lady’ so entirely it is difficult to resist the idea that the fox fur is a living companion. And, just when you are uncertain where Leduc may take us in the final pages, she provides an ending which is surely deliberate in its ambiguity. By this point many readers will be convinced, as Levy begins by telling us, Leduc’s novels are “works of genius and also a bit peculiar.”

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7 Responses to “The Lady and the Little Fox Fur”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’m just pulling my thoughts together on this one for Shiny. It’s certainly different from the other Leduc books I read back in the day but no less intriguing.

  2. Melissa Beck Says:

    This looks like something I would really enjoy. I haven’t read any of her yet. This might be the best book to start with. Thanks so much!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve been wondering if you might review this one, being a fan of Penguin European Writers series. It does rather interesting. Are there parallels with Jean Rhys, do you think? The isolation and lack of money, the sense of living from day to day with little hope of a long-term future, the attachment to the fox fur etc. etc.

  4. February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] It’s an intense and impressionistic novel, but short and easily read. Highly recommended. Grant’s more detailed review at 1streading is here. […]

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