“Till Death Do Us Unite”

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As Allen and I were filling out the paperwork for our niche at the Columbarium, we imagined a party to share our love for this historic San Francisco space.

Many, many months later our niche unveiling cum commitment ceremony ended up being exactly what we wanted, which was amazing since we had no idea what that was, even batting ideas around on the drive over.

Our friends Lawrence & Bruce helped us set up light refreshments: cheese & crackers, fresh fruit, sparkling juices that resembled champagne bottles, personalized pink & purple M&Ms, and beautifully decorated Day of the Dead skull cookies. We were intent on keeping everything festively simple.

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Friends started arriving around noon, some all dressed up and bearing gifts, many not. They ranged in age from 7 to 87. Allen and I were resplendent (if I do say so myself) in our gold and black brocade jackets. Nancy had cleverly brought black headbands from which protruded “R.I.P.” providing just the right tone of insouciance.   We had laid out a copy of the recent SFWeekly article. Tourists wandered through from time to time, which was most amusing. What must they have thought?

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When the ceremony began we stood in the center of the rotunda welcoming everyone sitting and standing around us. I asked how many people had been to the Columbarium before. (About half). Allen and I took turns explaining what we were doing and why. Connie Champagne sang a beautiful, a cappella “Moon River”, which made me cry.

Allen and I spoke of our inspiration for the party: many weddings, an 80th birthday party, Renee’s “hoolie”… How we didn’t want this to seem like a wedding, though it did represent a profound commitment. Then Renee Gibbons sang “In My Life”, which made me cry.

We asked people to offer a word or phrase as a wish. Many people complied. Of course I can’t remember any examples right now, but they were humorous, heartfelt, and lovely. Doug (my ex) was very serious when explained that in his tradition… he asked people to stand up and… give us… a standing ovation. Cute. Then Connie harmonized with Renee’s version of “The Rose”, which made me cry.10411011_10204499327751108_7625042417727407725_n

Allen and I hugged and kissed and held hands throughout. Then we invited everyone up the small staircase to the second floor where we’d draped a cloth over the bank of nine niches. I read a quote from Ivor Novello that a friend had slipped me on the way up the stairs:
Sometimes on the rarest nights,
Comes the vision calm and clear,
Gleaming with unearthly lights,
On our path of doubt and fear:
Winds from that far land are blown,
Whispering with secret breath,
Hope that plays her tune alone,
Love that conquers pain and death.

We pulled back the covering and pointed to our niche. The weekend before we had installed a framed photo of the two of us, Allen’s 1940’s Pinocchio cylindrical metal lunch pail, his ceramic Jiminy Cricket figurine, my Holly Golightly bobblehead, and a small circular Heath yin/yang dish, one half filled with tiny green stones that Allen had long ago picked out of the sand for me at Tennessee Cove (a symbol of his OCD and a souvenir of a lovely afternoon, among other things.) The artist friend creating my ceramic, book-shaped urn hasn’t finished it yet, but will be added when it is. I had suggested somehow installing miniature red velvet curtains, acknowledging Allen’s life in theater, as well as the euphemism for death, but so far the nonexistent Decoration Committee hasn’t been very responsive. So the space is a work in progress that we hope won’t be put to use for a very long time.

People wandered around exploring the magic and mystery that pervades the space. Everyone congratulated us on the successful event (even our rabbi friend), and pointed out people they knew who were interred there (Geoffrey’s mother is just a few yards away). People started drifting away and by 2:00 everyone was gone and by 3:00 we were cleaned up (again with the help of Lawrence and Bruce (who by that point had bought himself a niche)) and on our way. Short, sweet, and miraculously just what we’d hoped for. After having been emotionally/psychically opened so deeply, I was totally fried for the rest of the day. I dropped Allen off (he hadn’t been feeling well, but did an admirable job of getting through the proceedings) and later my friends Laura & Roxi & their daughter Emma came over for a little while before heading back down to Santa Cruz, but otherwise I just snacked, read, and plotzed. There are more images on Allen’s Facebook page, Renee gave us a big batch of photos and hopefully soon some video.

The following day Allen asked if I felt any different. Neither of us seems to, but perhaps in some subtle way, we are more, well, committed.

Revivifying Violette Leduc

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Violette Leduc has been referred to as “the most famous unknown writer in Paris”. Of course some version of that appellation has also been used by or for Djuna Barnes, Georges Simenon, John Fante, and even Winston Churchill. Under appreciated, at least in English-speaking countries, Leduc’s high profile obscurity seems about to shift.

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The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival screened not one, but two films exploring the life of this enigmatic literary figure. And “Violette, Violette,” a one-woman show conceived and performed by Ann DeActis, took place last year in Ridgefield, CT. What’s next, a musical on Broadway? Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s award-winning musical Violet follows a different character, a severely disfigured woman traveling by bus through the South hoping have her face healed. At one point I wondered if Leduc’s name was a nom de plume taken from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th century French architect whose restorations at Notre Dame de Paris  among many other sites brought him national attention, but apparently not.

I was introduced to Violette Leduc in Marie-Hélène Huet’s “Perspectives in Women’s Writing” at UC Berkeley in the mid-1970s. I wish I could say Leduc had been a guest speaker, but she died on May 28, 1972. I can’t even remember if her work was part of the course curriculum. My friend Lisa gave me a copy of La Bâtarde, probably in 1977 or thereafter, judging from the copyright of the volume, likely for Christmas, from the lovely (but undated) inscription. As a burgeoning feminist, I was the only male in a classroom of females, my basso profundo a striking contrast with the rest of the co-eds, I was later told.

Originally been published in the mid-1960s, this Noonday Press edition featured a foreword by her champion (and, it turns out, the object of her desire) Simone de Beauvoir. I was instantly a fan. Unexpectedly, since I’m more attracted to sparse prose like that of Joan Didion, I was immediately attracted to Leduc’s overwrought style, in which anguish, anxiety and angst are the main ingredients. I immediately tracked down as much of her other work as I could find in translation in those pre-internet days, and then tried to read some of it in the original French.

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Back to the two films. Starring Emmanuel Devos as the homely Leduc, with Sandrine Kiberlain as her champion Simone de Beauvoir, Violette fails to overcome the challenges of depicting the life of a writer. Think of Jane Fonda as Lillian Helman in Julia or Judy Davis as Sybylla Melvyn in My Brilliant Career or Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt. Not much dramatic potential. I loved director Martin Provost’s Séraphine, about the outsider painter Séraphine de Senlis but I confess I found this one way too long, despite the impressive performances, camera work, and mise-en-scène.

Esther Hoffenberg’s Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love attempts to get under the skin of the woman behind the words. Her story is told not in traditional chronological order, but more impressionistically through photographs, archival footage, interviews with friends and scholars, brief passages read from her oeuvre. I found it immensely satisfying and hope to be able to find a copy of Hoffenberg’s previous documentary, The Two Lives of Eva, about her own French mother.

Both films depict the episode in which the passages recounting Leduc’s affair with another schoolgirl were too explicit for Gallimard, who had seen fit to publish erotic work by Jean Genet. Much to Leduc’s vociferous consternation, the offending section was cut from Ravages. This cause célèbre contributed to Leduc’s favored role as victim. Later published separately as Thérèse et Isabelle, the book achieved infamy with Radley Metzger’s 1968 film adaption.

Some years ago Michelle Tea organized a literary event to which she invited writers to read from the work of their favorite authors. Delighted to participate, I immediately chose Leduc. I spent hours combing through her work looking for a passage that would provoke (or do I mean evoke?) my own impassioned response. Even after my recent major decluttering campaign I surveyed my cherished Leduc collection: the Panther editions of In the Prison of her Skin, Mad in Pursuit, and Ravages (with the Therese et Isabelle chapter restored). I compared the original French and English translation of The Taxi, and struggled through a few passages of L’affamée.

After marking many passages in La Bâtarde, I wound up reading (I think) this one: “Paris is a killer Paris is killing me Paris is drowning me I am walking and dying in this stream of crazed automobiles faster motors yes straight on yes over there my bed is waiting the sky will tuck itself around me I am the crowd the crowd follows me our room a piece of newspaper on the street Violette was out walking Hermine was teaching the tick-tock was trying to fly out of the room which they neglected a hand on my brow and interrogation mark it’s a plantain it’s a leaf from a tree weep I am the crowd and the crowd follows me I must dawdle I must get dirty I must have the noise of the Parisian artery…”

When a friend (okay, my therapist), unfamiliar with Leduc’s oeuvre, recently asked for a recommendation of where to start, I thought for a moment before immediately suggesting La Bâtarde, where I myself had started. I found myself wondering what he’d think, then wondered how I would find her work when next I revisited it. I look forward to finding out, as well as to one of my all-time favorite authors becoming world famous.