The music-hall…made me…a tough and honest little businesswoman. It’s a profession which the least gifted of women learns quickly, when her freedom and her life depend on it.”–The Vagabond, Colette
One of my favorite writers is Colette, the versatile author of vivid, gorgeously-writen novels, memoirs, sketches, and journalism. She is known for her supple, sensual descriptions of nature, feminist heroines who flee from love, and comic descriptions of animals. The other day I curled up with two of my favorites, The Vagabond and its sequel, The Shackle. The two can be read as one novel.
In The Vagabond, a lyrical, sexy novel based on Colette’s experiences as a pantomime artist, the narrator, Renee Nere, age 33, is a writer-turned-music-hall artist. Her philandering husband shattered her, and now divorced, she loses herself in travel and work. She has written three novels, and writing is her vocation, but she also enjoys her work as a mime and dancer with her comradely partner, Brague.
Much of this is autobiographical: Colette was married for 13 years to Henri Gauthier-Willars, known as Willy, a writer of novels penned by ghostwriters. Colette was one of the ghostwriters, and her Claudine novels appeared under his name (some say he locked her up and forced her to write). He was promiscuous, and she left him in 1906 and was divorced in 1910. During her years as a music-hall artist, she became involved with her lesbian partner, Missy.
In The Vagabond, Renee describes the joys of writing.
To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play round a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts and adoring it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.
But love follows her. In music-halls, she dances in veils; men send her flowers and notes. A particularly persistent fan, whom she calls “Big Noodle” or “Big Ninny” (depending on the translation), Maxime Dufferien-Chautel, stalks her at her flat in Paris and wins her reluctant love. But Renee flees from him as Daphne flees Apollo: she goes on another 40-day tour, telling Maxime he can wait. As their correspondence reveals their differences, Renee discloses her real attitude towards love.
In The Shackle, Renee’s circumstances have changed, and she is no longer working, independent but drifting. Having inherited money, she travels and lives in hotels. In Nice she has gotten too close to a quarrelsome couple, May and Jean, who are in an abusive relationship, and Masseu, an opium addict. Finally the situation becomes too intense: Renee flees from Jean when he makes it clear he is attracted to her after Masseau plays a trick on them. Jean, a very complicated rich man, pursues Renee, and they truly fall in love. But nothing is easy for Renee.
The Shackle is not as well-crafted as The Vagabond, but Renee’s intense, often unhealthy relationship with Jean in many ways seems more real than the simple one between her and Max. Of course it is because Jean is more complicated that he attracts her. (Oh, and just so you’ll know, he is not abusive to Renee.)
These two remarkable novels should be in the canon if they are not. She is one of the best writers of the 20th century. Farrar Straus Giroux is keeping many of her books in print.