In January 2012 I announced my Colette Project.
Why I announce New Year’s resolutions I cannot say. I never keep any of them.
I had intended to read or reread all of Colette’s books, and indeed I have read several in the last year and a half. But this weekend I picked up the project again, reading two of her novels and delving into three biographies, because it is 95 degrees, the brown back yard looks like a scene from a dystopian novel, and I wanted to forget global warming by losing myself in the short, witty Claudine novels.
I read Claudine Married, the third of the four Claudine novels, and Claudine and Annie, the fourth. (Last year I read the first two, Claudine at School and Claudine in Paris.)
Colette fascinated biographers: she was a great bisexual beauty, a writer of lyrical autobiographical masterpieces, a pantomime artist, and briefly a cosmetician with her own beauty salon and line of cosmetics. I have three biographies of Colette on my coffee table: Allan Massie’s Colette, Judith Thurmon’s Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, and Creating Colette, Volume One, by Claude Francis & Fernande Gontier.
No one needs that many biographies of Colette. But I read some of the chapters this weekend as background for her first novels, the Claudine books.
If you don’t know the Claudine books, you are obviously not familiar with Colette. They are charming, funny, gently autobiographical and slightly smutty, because she wrote them for her husband, Henri Gauthier-Willars (Willy), a well-known writer of soft porn books penned by ghostwriters.
Colette tells the story of Claudine: her schooldays in Montigny; her late teens in Paris with her absent-minded father, a malacologist, and her romance with Renaud, her future husband; her marriage to Renaud and her lesbian affair with Rezi; and her friendship with Annie, a woman oppressed by a domineering husband.
There are two versions of how Colette came to write the Claudine books. In the most famous, Willy told Colette to write down her memories of her schooldays, locked her up to write them, thought they were amateurish and put them away for five years, and then looked at them and realized they could earn him some money.
But Colette, in an interview in 1907, told a different version.
He (Henri) wrote books and that did interest me. One day, I told him that I, too, could write a book. He burst out laughing and made fun of my pretensions and inexperience. However, without saying a word, I jotted down whatever went through my mind; when there was enough material, I showed it to him; he was flabbergasted, amazed, dumbfounded.
Claudine Married, the third novel, is almost embarrassing after the charming originality of Claudine at School and the sparkling near-perfection of Claudine in Paris. Colette attempts to titillate with some comic vignettes about Renaud’s attractions to the young girls at Claudine’s old school (where the teachers are also lesbians, and, yes, this is all very boring but does not go on for very long ). There are also many scenes of Renaud’s voyeurism when Claudine has an affair in Paris with a young woman, Rezi. Oh, please! I thought. But this latter was apparently based on Colette’s life.
Still, I kept wanting to edit out chunks of this short novel.
Claudine begins by telling us there is “definitely something wrong” with her married life. Then she charmingly if wanderingly recalls her wedding.
What a fantastic comedy my wedding day was! By the time that Thursday arrived, three weeks of being engaged to this Renaud whom I love to distraction, with is embarrassing eyes, his still more embarrassing (though restrained) gestures, and his lips, always in quest of a new place to kiss, had made my face as sharp as a she-cat’s in heat. I could make no sense of his reserve and abstention during that time! I would have been entirely his, the moment he wanted it, and he was perfectly aware of this. And yet, with too epicurean concern for his happiness–and for mine?–he kept us in a state of exhausting virtue.
When she longs to have an affair in Paris with Rezi, a young beautiful woman who flirts with everyone, it is Rezi who insists that Renaud be told so he can find them a love nest where they won’t be disturbed by anyone. When Claudine learns that Renaud is also having an affair with Rezi, she leaves him.
In Montigny, she relaxes, meditates, and finally realizes that she still loves Renaud. This is realistic (isn’t marriage usually a recovery from this or that?) but somewhat disappointing, since I was waiting for Claudine to turn into Renee, the music hall artist-heroine of The Vagabond (one of my favorite books) who leaves her husband and is totally independent. But before Claudine and Renaud get back together, they do agree that they will no longer have an open marriage.
Colette’s humorous sketches of the salons of Paris, the witty dialogue, and steamy descriptions of Claudine’s sexual desperation when she and Rezi have nowhere to go (where would two women dependent on their husbands at the turn of the twentieth century have gone to have sex?) are so fluently written that one races through the novel, despite a certain glibness.
Here is an example of Colette’s witty dialogue, when Claudine asks Renaud if he thinks Rezi is vicious and then defines viciousness.
I take a lover, without loving him, simply because I know it’s wrong…that’s vice. I take a lover…”
“That makes two.”
“…a lover whom I love or whom I simply desire–keep still, Renaud, will you?–that’s just obeying the law of nature and I consider myself the most innocent of creatures. To sum up, vice is doing wrong without enjoying it….”
This novel is fun, but far, far from her best. I also read the fourth Claudine novel, Claudine and Annie, and it is so slight I have almost nothing to say about it.