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The Codependent Life of the Avid Reader : VIOLETTE'S EMBRACE by Michelle Zackheim; Riverhead Books $25.95, 213 pages

BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

August 23, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a story of dignified pursuits, of efforts that in the end are rewarding, of interests that, when pursued, make life richer than it was before. These qualities alone could support the author's protestations of fiction. But let's not count those beans. "Violette's Embrace" is about a woman, a painter, who becomes fascinated by, as she puts it, "a dead writer," Violette Leduc. She flies to Paris from her home in New Mexico and spends several weeks in the company of Lili Jacobs, one of Leduc's closest friends as part of her research for a book she plans to write on Leduc.

Why do some writers, their lives and their works, have such profound resonance for some readers? Would it be crazy to think that for those readers, absorbing the words and ideas of the writers they love amounts to a sort of communion, a ritual through which the writer lives on and on . . . is this what the critics mean when they speak of art and immortality?

It is the force of these questions (never asked, thank goodness, by the author) that gives weight and immediacy to this novel.

Violette Leduc was born in France in 1907 and died in 1972. She was very close to (which did not diminish her hero worship for) Simone de Beauvoir. She wrote, among other things, her autobiography, "L'Asphyxie," as well as "In the Prison of Her Skin," "Therese and Isabelle," and "Ravages." Her novel, "La Ba^tarde" ("The Bastard"), was nominated in 1965 for both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina for fiction, selling more than 165,000 copies. The juries for both those prizes decided that because the book was nonfiction, it would have to be removed from consideration, an uproar that made Leduc even more famous.

Her writing, Michelle Zackheim (who is a visual artist) writes, was extremely raw, "glaring with the truth--stark, nude, abandoned." In person, Zackheim speculates, she was "demanding, discourteous, and intensely neurotic. . . . I would probably not have liked her."

Never mind that in the end Zackheim writes "Violette Leduc is my sister, my shadow." As the narrator of this story, she could not be less like the flamboyant, needy Leduc. But that is just behavior, icing on the cake, the suit of clothes for this particular incarnation.

She is a respectful-to-the-point-of-obsequious interviewer, and large stretches of the book read like almost direct transcriptions from her taped conversations with Jacobs. That is all right. There's enough ego in the story of Leduc and Jacobs' lives to go around, and it is pleasant and necessary, the way it must be for children to have a stable home, to have the calm background of the cafes and rooms in which they conduct these conversations about the war and writing, and now and then a little bit of romance. Sometimes we forget, with all the personalities of writers flying around in ghostly or earthly form, what a selfless, refreshingly distant and humble occupation reading is.

So the biographer's life seeps in just the right amount, enough for us to know that she and her family were traumatized (not least because they lived upstairs from Alger Hiss and his family), by McCarthyism. Just enough to know that she shares some of the unhealed childhood wounds of her subject.

But the real source of this story's restrained charm comes from the author's (and her subject's) admitted codependency on literature. "All my life, I have been dependent upon literature. As a little girl, I hid behind anyone willing to stake a safe spot for me. And because I could trust only a few human beings, the safest place was behind a book. Reading has been my passion, my solace, my moral education." It is a dependence, again, unlike real life, that will not let you down, if publishers, librarians and bookstore owners continue their good work. And it is a genealogy that will not let you down, this family tree a reader chooses on his or her own, in this case, de Beauvoir to Leduc to Zackheim.

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