Break of Day by Colette

When I first read Colette, I was exactly the age when one dreams of multiple choices: (a) independence, (b) wild sex, and (c) a brilliant career. Colette’s feminist heroines flee from love, disillusioned with love, but they also derive pleasure from knowing they can have love.  Her sensual descriptions of nature remind us that nature is the source of beauty and eroticism: the exquisite imagery transforms the novels into prose poems.

Colette’s graceful novel Break of Day is a lyrical account of Colette’s retirement from sexual love in middle age. It is less dramatic than her earlier novels, but in a way it is bolder: who wants to admit to getting older? Published in 1928, Break of Day perfectly describes the reasons for Colette’s decision in her fifties to set aside sexual love for solitude. In my favorite of her novels, The Vagabond, a younger alter ego of Colette, the independent Renee, also rejects love. But Renee gets another chance at love in the sequel, The Shackle. Somehow, we understand both heroines: in Break of Day, the narrator is simply called Colette.

Where do you retreat in middle age to ruminate about your life? Colette bought a house at Saint-Tropez on the Cote d’Azur. She describes living in a hypnotically gorgeous Paradise with her cats. She gardens and contemplates nature. Most of us would like to move to Saint-Tropez, but don’t have the opportunity.

Colette reflects on her late mother, Sidonie. She begins the novel with an old letter from Sidonie, in which she declined an invitation to visit her daughter. “…I’m not going to accept your kind invitation for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is finally going to flower.” Colette is amused: the blooming cactus is a metaphor for Sidonie’s independence, strength, and beauty in old age. Colette writes: “Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bit, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter–that letter and so many others I have kept.”

A gorgeous illustration from a Limited Editions Club copy of Break of Day.

Now that she is older, Colette is happiest alone, watching the colors of the sky and the sea and marveling at the faery-like cats who consent to spend time with her. But she is not alone: she has an active social life. Painters and their mistresses gather at her house; they go on night picnics and dancing.

The most faithful guest is her neighbor, 35-year-old Dial, an antique dealer and decorator. He doesn’t talk much, but he has fallen in love with her. Age doesn’t matter to Colette, but she doesn’t feel strongly about him, and treats him casually. After an encounter with a jealous young woman, she gently rebuff shis love. Although she doesn’t want Vial as a lover, we feel her chagrin when she knows she is letting love go.

This reminds me slightly of Doris Lessing’s Love, Again, in which the heroine is in her sixties and attracts three younger men. But she knows love cannot last in old age, and she rages. And, indeed, we see her aged at the end of the book.

Colette laughs about the independence of her heroines. In real life she didn’t let love go so easily. “And I said to myself that… I should be thenceforward like the woman I have described many a time…. while I was painting this lonely creature, I would go to show my lie, page by page, to a man, asking him, ‘Have I lied well?'”

That’s how we all feel at times. Don’t you remember reading Colette when you were an aspiring artist, or a world traveler, or a Buddhist, or something? Love would never get in your way. Well…

A few years later after Break of Day was published, Colette knew love again: she married a younger man who stayed with her till the end of life.

Smart Rereadings: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Colette’s The Vagabond, & D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy

Rereadings:  Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman, is a little-known classic.  When I first read this charming collection of essays, I was inspired by Evelyn Toynton’s  “Revisiting Brideshead” to reread Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The first time I’d read it, I was teaching at a lovely snob school, and so steeped in classics that Brideshead did not measure up.   When I reread it in 2005,  I admired the exquisite style and the witty dialogue.  Toynton, on the other hand, disliked it.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, published in 1946, the narrator Charles Ryder remembers a romantic pre-war past.  At Oxford he was befriended by the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte; later he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia.  At Oxford, the charming Sebastian carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere.  I regret to say that no one I knew ever carried a teddy bear, but then I didn’t know any English aristocrats.

The essays follow a pattern of discovery and reassessment, and quite often the book turns out to be different from the writer’s memory of it.  In my favorite essay, “Love with a Capital L,” Vivian Gornick revisits  Colette’s The Vagabond and  The Shackle, its sequel.  And what she loved in her twenties is not what she loves now.

Gornick writes,

When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.  She was our Book of Wisdom.  We read her for solace, and for moral instruction.  We read her to learn better who we were, and how, given the constraint of our condition, we were to live.

Gornikc found the experience of rereading Colette “unsettling.” She writes,  “The wholly unexpected occurred:  I came away from them with mixed feelings.” She loved the lyricism but was surprised by the emptiness of the narrator Renee, whose life revolves around love.   Although  The Vagabond is my favorite of Colette’s books, I know what she means.  In The Vagabond, Renee rejects a charming lover who isn’t quite as intelligent as she:  she feels it wouldn’t work.    But in The Shackle she falls for a man who has beaten his previous girlfriend.  Why?   What happened to Renee that she would find him attractive?

Most of the essays in the collection are elegant and insightful, though I am not interested in David Micahelis’s revisiting of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band (and anyway wasn’t that cheating?).  Pico Iyer writes brilliantly about D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy, which he read at an English boarding school and admired upon rereading. I reread the novella in 2016 and wrote here:  “Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover, only sillier.”

In Rereadings, Patricia Hampl writes perceptively on Katherine Mansfield, Jamie James on Joseph Conrad, Philip Lopate on The Charterhouse of Parma,  David Samuels on J. D. Salinger, and more.  A very entertaining book.  I want to read more on rereadings.

Abortion in Literature: Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return and Colette’s “Gribiche”

There are advantages to menopause.

We no longer bleed on our skirts, we secretly like the new crepey texture of our skin, and, finally, we are no longer defined by our sex.  And we are all waiting for the organic yam “lube” concocted by Frankie (Lily Tomlin) on Grace and Frankie.  (Alas, it seems to be fictional, but there are others.)

But as menopausal women become more powerful, menstruating women must still worry about the future of reproductive rights.  When even Planned Parenthood is under attack, we are all shocked.  It looks as if the pro-choice button will never go out of style.

Coincidentally, I recently read two fascinating works of fiction on the perils of illegal abortion, Margaret Millar’s suspense novel, Do Evil in Return,  and Colette’s  “Gribiche” from The Collected Stories of Colette.

Syndicate Books has recently reissued Margaret Millar’s classic crime fiction, and I am racing through  Collected Millar:  Dawn of Domestic Suspense. The addictive fourth novel in this volume, Do Evil in Return (1950), is an eerie exploration of the consequences of illegal abortion.

What happens when a young woman dies, not because she has an abortion but because she cannot find a doctor to perform one?

A wan young woman, Mrs. Violet O’Gorman,  shows up at Dr. Charotte Keating’s office.  Violet desperately wants an abortion: she was impregnated during a one-night stand, not by her husband.   Charlotte gently explains that she cannot perform an illegal  abortion.

This decision sets in motion an unstoppable Greek-style tragedy.  The Eumenides (the Furies) are milling and thronging.

In Millar’s taut, short novels, the dialogue is spare and snappy.  In addition to writing novels,  Millar wrote screenplays for Warner Brothers–and it shows.   This would make a brilliant noir film, but perhaps it is too radical these days.

The girl let out a cry of despair.  “I thought–I thought being you was a woman like me–being you…”
“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said again.
“What can I do?  What can I do with this–this thing growing inside me, growing and growing, and me with no money and no job and no husband.  Oh, God, I wish I was dead!”  She struck her thighs with both fists.  “I’ll kill myself!”

Charlotte is not heartless.  She believes she may have made a mistake in denying Violet the abortion, as she tells her married boyfriend Lewis Ballard (the two met because his “nervous” wife Gwen is Charlotte’s patient). But Lewis points out that Charlotte was not obligated to break the law to help a strange woman.

“You’ve had cases like this before.  Why does this one worry you?”
“Because of us, Lewis.  Don’t you see…?”
“If we go on together, if we become lovers, I might accidentally end up in the same boat she’s in.”

In a fit of conscience, Charlotte attempts to find Violet at her uncle’s rooming house in a  bad neighborhood.  Violet is out, and the visit ends in violence. Charlotte is attacked in front of her garage and robbed of her purse.

When Violet is found drowned, it looks like suicide.  Detective Easter does not buy it.  Easter likes Charlotte, but unfortunately she is linked to the death when a card with her name typed on it is found in Violet’s purse.

As Millar turns upside down our ideas of powerful and powerlessness–is the well-educated doctor the most powerful woman in the book, or not?– Charlotte investigates on her own.  She falls into a trap of blackmail, betrayal, and violence. No line is wasted, every word matters, and Charlotte is a champ.  But the noir tragedy that unfolds makes Aeschylus look like Aristophanes.

Colette’s short story “Gribiche” (1937), in The Collected Stories of Colette,  is lyrical, poignant, and heartbreaking. The narrator is Colette herself: her fictional counterpart is working as a music-hall artist in a revue, as Colette did after she left her husband Willi.

In the witty opening scene, she describes a typical night in “the women’s quarters” at the theater. The steps of the iron staircase clang like a xylophone, the fifty pairs of high heels are “clattering up and down like hail,” and the basement dressing rooms smell of powder, makeup, and different perfumes.

But that very night a young actress in a chorus of soldiers faints, falls down the stairs, and is bleeding heavily.   When Carmen, “a little green-eyed Basque,” says that things are going “pretty badly,” Colette asks what she means.

Carmen looked slightly embarrassed.
“Oh! Colettewilli, don’t be nasty, dear. Gribiche, of course. Not allowed to get up. Chemist, medicine, dressings, and all that…”
“Not to mention food,” added Lise Damoiseau….
“But where’s she been hurt, then?”
“It’s her..back,” said Lise.
“It’s her stomach,” said Carmen, at the same time.

And then Colette realizes Gribiche had an abortion.

The women at the theater are sympathetic, and every one of them believes in the right to abortion.  But this dark, un-preachy story realistically describes the danger of backstreet abortions.

Colette writes beautifully, and I highly recommend this story.

Colette’s Duo and Le Toutounier

The name and image of Michel came to torment her. She harbored against her dead husband a grudge which often distracted her from her variable, capricious and ill-controlled grief.”—”Le Toutounier” by Colette

colette-duo-641782-_uy475_ss475_Colette was a fascinating bisexual woman with multiple husbands and lovers, a lyrical writer, a traveling music-hall artist, a critic, a journalist, and the owner of a cosmetics business. Not only was Colette extraordinarily beautiful and original but she wrote beautifully and originally about love and work.  As Erica Jong says in the introduction to The Colette Omnibus, “Colette’s fiction…is self-mythologizing in the way Proust’s or Henry Miller’s fiction is.   It often draws upon the author’s life with seeming candor, but is not literal autobiography.  The facts of the author’s life have been shaped, honed, and elevated to myth.”

And it is perhaps the myth that raises Colette to cult status.  Was any writer more popular than Colette among women readers when Farrar Straus Giroux reissued her books in paperback in the ’70s? Judging from the number of Goodreads reviews, she is still popular today.  How much is fiction? How much is fact?  Some years ago I read two biographies of Colette, Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh:  A Life of Colette and Creating Colette By Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier.  And still I mix up fact with fiction, because her memoirs seem so closely tied up with her novels.  Of course Renée, a traveling music-hall artist in the novel, The Vagabond,  is not Colette, but she is what we would like Colette to be.

The time comes when one can’t reread the favorites constantly, and goes back to lesser works.  I recently reread Duo, a novel I didn’t care for much years ago, and Le Toutounier, a sequel I’d never heard of.

In the quotation at the top of the page, from her novel Le Toutounier, the heroine, Alice, is bewildered, sad, and angry. Her  husband Michel drowned in what she calls “an accident” on the river while they were on vacation. She has returned to Paris and, as she lets herself into her bohemian, impoverished sisters’ flat, she does not quite allow herself to realize it was suicide.  In Alice’s case, he died so suddenly that she can’t come to grips with it.  Readers of Duo know he committed suicide.

duo-harcover-colette-9780672518492-usThis diptych of novels is rather stagy:  indeed Duo was later adapted as a play. And this “duet” between a theatrical couple, Michel and Alice, beautifully reveals their characters in dialogue.  Michel, who directs theatrical seasons in casino towns, is the more sensitive of the two, worried about the business.  Practical Alice, who grew up poor with three sisters who also worked in different capacities in the theater, designs costumes and doesn’t worry .

The plot of Duo centers on Michel’s discovery that Alice had a brief affair with his business partner. When she attempts to hide a purple portfolio, he insists on looking at it.  As he carries orchids in a glass jar to the table of the run-down family manor house where they are vacationing,  the dialogue is charming and lyrical.

“The purple light looked so pretty in your eyes and on your cheeks…like that. But we need that other thing too; it’s the same color—you know what I mean?”

“What other thing? Look out, Michel—you’re spilling the water from the flowers. Are you coming?”

“I’ve never knocked over the water from flowers in all my life! Some kind of blotter—it was there, on your bureau…it isn’t there anymore. Have you put it away? What were you doing with it? Were you writing?”

colette-duo-dell-9780440321439-uk-300There is a  love letter in the portfolio. He does not take the affair in stride, even when she tries to sugar-coat it.  He is, however, aware that he cannot express his anger while their housekeeper, Maria, is in the house. Alice is annoyed that he cares so much what people think but what Michel says is true:  they are vacationing in his manor house in the country where gossip spreads very quickly.  Finally, she tells him more about the affair, since he can’t seem to get over it, and he commits suicide while she is sleeping.  He is thinking grimly on the way to the river that she’ll have no problems dealing with the business and the estate.

In Le Toutounier, Alice returns to Paris, after being hassled by the insurance agents trying to prove it was suicide. She moves into the crowded flat with her sisters, bright, brittle, pretty women, Colombe and Hermine, with married lovers. Actually, Colombe is a virgin, faithful to her inaccessible man, while Hermine is dramatic, having a nearly fatal meeting with the wife.   Le toutounier is the  big American sofa where they relax and where two of them sleep. And, ironically, her sisters’ involvements with their inappropriate men mean that soon Alice will have le toutounier all to herself.  She doesn’t want to be alone, but she will be alone.

I preferred Le Toutounier to Duo, though that, too, was much better than I had remembered.  Her best books are great; her lesser books are better than you think.

Colette under Different Titles & a 1951 Anthology of Six Novels

short-novels-of-colette-good-pictureHave you ever discovered  a “new” book by a favorite author?  And then it turns out you have already read it—under a different title?

That was the case with one of the books in Short Novels of Colette, a 1951 omnibus including Cheri, The Last of Cheri, The Other One, Duo,  The Cat, and The Indulgent Husband.

I bought the anthology for The Other One, which IS new to me, but I was also unfamiliar with The Indulgent Husband.  Turns out it is just the third Claudine book (Claudine Married), under a different name–my least favorite Claudine.  It’s the one where Claudine has an affair with a seductive young woman who turns out to be her husband’s lover—ewwww!

Colette wrote the (slightly) risqué Claudine books for Willi, her first husband, who employed and exploited dozens of ghostwriters.  (He spent so much time commissioning work that he could easily have written it.)  The Claudine books were fantastically popular and adapted for the stage.

the-indulgent-husband-colette-cfee468a9027beb3623a24ac01456d46Oh, well,  it is worth having the anthology for The Other One, and  for Glenway Westcott’s 57-page introduction   He loves every word Colette wrote, good or bad.  Proust and Gide wrote letters to Colette about their great admiration of her work.  Westcott writes,” …now that the inditers are both dead and gone, Colette is the greatest living French fiction-writer.”

Westcott’s introduction is a mix of biography, separate sections with incisive criticism, and personal comments about his love of Colette. He gushes about her looks and the artistry of photographs of her.

“I wish we could have illustrated this volume with photographs of Colette; there are plenty, entrancing, at all ages. The first written description of her that I ever read was an entry in Jules Renard’s Journal, November 1894: her appearance at the first night of Maeterlinck’s translation of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, bright-eyed, laughing, ‘with a braid of hair long enough to let the bucket down a well with”; Melisande-like.”

The Other One was a first read for me, and if the translation by Viola Gerard Garvin is stilted, it still captures Colette’s originality.  It is rather stagy, which is appropriate, because the heroine, Fanny, is a  playwright’s wife accustomed to the intrigues of the theater. She is happy except for one problem:  Farou has affairs.

colette-the-other-one-101049Fanny lives  with Farou and her stepson, Little Farou.  It is summer, and there is much emphasis on her laziness, the heat, and  her Oriental eyes.  Contrasted with the dark Fanny is their cool ash-blond housemate, the efficient Jane, Farou’s smart secretary, who  helps Fanny with the housekeeping. The lives of Fanny and Jane revolve around Farou.  When he is away, they wait for word from him.

The novel begins:

The postman brought nothing at eleven o’clock. If Farou did not write last night before going to bed, it’s certain he had a late rehearsal.”

“You think so, Fanny?”

“I’m sure. ‘The House Without Women’ is not difficult to stage, but little Asselin isn’t at at all the type of woman to play Suzanne.”

“She’s very pretty, though,” said Jane.

Fanny shrugged her shoulders.

“My poor Jane, how does it help her to be pretty? No one ever wanted a pretty woman to play Suzanne. It’s a part for a Cinderella like Doriyls. Didn’t you see the play when it was first produced?”

Jane’s comment about Suzanne’s prettiness is the first clue to her  jealousy.  Jane is having an affair with Farou.   It is Little Farou, who has a crush on Jane, who tips off Fanny.  And when  Fanny sees her husband embracing Jane, and then a minute later Jane mimics Fanny and her habit of saying “oo-la-la,” we see the ugliness of an otherwise pretty woman.   Fanny realizes that her friend of four years is far from a friend. But she hides her knowledge while she figures out what to do.

The ending is abrupt, and not altogether believable to me, but in the world of Colette–who know?  And in a way it is the shock of the sophistication of the women that makes it true.

I so much love reading Colette, even if it’s not the best Colette

My Colette Paperbacks Are Falling Apart!

IMG_3852Alas, woe is me, oimoi! My faded Colette paperbacks are falling apart.  I had a set of 16 FSG/Noonday Press editions, but the bindings cracked and I’m down to seven.  I love the delicate drawings on these white covers now faded to cream.  I found them at the Union bookstore as a freshman and charged the books on my student ID.  Reading Colette made me feel sophisticated (says she who wore bell-bottom jeans and t-shirts).

Sure, my cat used the top edge of  My Mother’s House and Sido as  a scratching post, but  all remained readable until the glue began to dissolve.  The bindings have cracked: p.  84, The Pure and the Impure, p.  26, The Vagabond, etc..

I’ve replaced The Blue Lantern, Break of Day, The Shackle, The Complete Claudine, Mitsou/Music-Hall Sidelights, My Apprenticeships, and Gigi, to name a few.  Several are in print from FSG, thank God.  But most of mine are used:  an   NYRB, an old hardcover Colette omnibus with an introduction by Erica Jong,  old Penguins, a Dover,  and  Peter Owens.

How can I replace this pretty edition of Sido and My Mother’s House?  (Mine is not as pretty as this picture of someone else’s online.)

My Mother's House and Sido colette 0374512183.1.zoom

Well, it is in print from  FSG, but with a different cover.

my mother's house sido colette new fsg 51IOr+jGOJL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

And what about The Vagabond?  I am very attached to this book.

the vagabond colette noonday 904293My favorite Colette is The Vagabond, the first one I read.  The heroine, Renee, is a witty, sophisticated, reserved writer-turned-music-hall artist,  enjoying casual friendships with  the troupe and life on the road, while trying to avoid her fan, “Big Noodle,”  who sends her flowers and is determined to seduce and marry her. Renee is divorced and resists a new relationship. She prefers to spend time with her bulldog.  I wanted to be just like Renee, but how would that would have would been possible?  Should I have been a mime/dancer instead of a Latin teacher/flunky editor/perpetual student/waitress?  Well, I can’t mime or dance…but I do know Latin.

colette erica jong il_340x270.766889536_leuuFortunately, The Vagabond is included in an omnibus edition of Colette with an introduction by Erica Jong, so I’m covered if this one falls apart.

Omnibuses are the salvation of biblio-civilation!

Do your books fall part?  Can they be saved?  What is their shelf life (ha ha)?  I have turned on comments just for this post.

Good Things in Threes: Edward Carey’s Heap House, Colette’s The Innocent Libertine, & Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Good things come in threes!  I thoroughly enjoyed three feather-light classics this month, Edward Carey’s Heap House, Colette’s The Innocent Libertine, and Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

Edward Carey HEAP-HOUSE1. While reading Heap House, written and illustrated by Edward Carey, I thought, “It’s ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ meets Edward Gorey and Mervyn Peake!” This eerie fantasy, the first of the Iremonger trilogy, is set in an alternate nineteenth century. The extended family of the Iremongers lives in a huge mansion, Heap House, built on “the heaps,” i.e., hills of trash and rubble collected from London.  Servants toil in the heaps, wearing gas masks and tied to human anchors as they salvage valuable objects.

Heap House is told in two alternating narratives.  The first narrator is 15-year-old Clod,  a  brilliant, sickly orphan with a special gift:  objects speak to him.  Each Iremonger is presented with  an object at birth:   Clod’s is a bath plug; his cousin Pinalippy has a doily; and an aunt a brass door handle.  The owners must carry their birth objects at all times.  When Clod enters a room, objects speak their names to him.  His bath plug says, “James Henry Hayward.’

Lucy Pennant, an orphan recently brought to live at Heap House, relates the story of  the servants downstairs.  After she arrives, the objects, ranging from utensils to furniture, start acting strangely. She meets Clod while cleaning the fireplaces upstairs and they share information and form an alliance.

I loved this book!  which was praised by Kelly Link and Eleanor Catton.  And it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  (And I have two to go.)

Colette innocent libertine 1323302. Colette’s The Innocent Libertine. Colette explains in the preface that this slight novel was intended as a short story, but her first husband, Willy, saw the commercial value and insisted that she pad it.  Then she wrote a sequel. Later she welded the two stories into one novel, but fears “that this definitive edition itself fails to… reconcile me completely to the first aspects of my career as a novelist.”

It is charming but feather-light, not up to Colette’s usual standard.  In Part I, she introduces the heroine, Minne, a  schoolgirl who pores over sensational newspapers while she pretends to do schoolwork.  She is fascinated by a column called”Paris at Night”:  she loves the stories of a gang of brigands living in the boulevards of Paris. She thinks the gang is romantic:  she likes their names,Copper-nob, the Moth, the Viper, and Curly.  She fantasizes that a young man she has seen sleeping in the park is Curly.  When she sneaks out one night, she discovers the world is not like “Paris at Night.”

In Part 2, Minne is unhappily married to her handsome cousin, who had a crush on her as a teenager. She is unfulfilled and wonders what other women find in love.  Her ideas of sex and romance are as naive as her girlhood vision of the gangs of Paris.  Will she ever find love?

When you’ve read all of Colette, read this.

3. I’ve always wanted to join a stuffy club where men lounge in comfortable chairs and smoke cigars.  (Are women still barred?) In Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), the fifth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, the amateur detective hero, Wimsey, is at his wittiest and most dashing as he solves a puzzle plot full of red herrings and twists.

It opens at the club:   Captain George Fentiman, a shell-shocked, unemployed veteran of World War I, tells Wimsey that he would resort to crime if he could.

Wimsey gently, humorously reins in his friend, who is on the verge of a breakdown.

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Wimsey lightly.  “Crime’s a skilled occupation, y’know.  Even a comparative imbecile like myself can play the giddy sleuth on the amateur Moriarty.  If you’re thinkin’ of puttin ‘ on a false moustache and lammin’ a millionaire, don’t do it…”

the unpleasantness at the bellona club sayers 192887Then George’s grandfather, General Fentiman, is found dead in the club’s library, in an advanced state of rigor mortis.  The time of death is important to quarreling heirs, because the general’s sister also died that morning:   if she died first,  her fortune belonged to the general, and would go to George and his brother, Robert.

Wimsey examines timetables, romps through Europe, and interviews artists (one of whom half jokingly proposes to him:  he sweetly refuses).

Really a great read!  One of Sayers’s best!

Colette’s The Vagabond & The Shackle

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


Colette as a music-hall artist.

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.

Colette vagabondBut 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 ColetteThe 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.

Why We Like Middle-Aged Heroines: Bridget Jones, Louise Bickford, and Julie de Carneilhan

Helen fielding bridget jones mad about the boyOne day a friend in her fifties, feeling confident and beautiful, walked along the beach wearing a bikini.  A young man came up behind her and then blanched when he saw her face.

“That’s when I knew I was middle-aged,” she said.

Many of us have moments like this, but we secretly remain confident, loving our crow’s feet, our gray hair, and our bodies.

And so a lot of us are laughing aloud at the moxie of Bridget in Helen Fielding’s new novel, Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy.

Bridget, 51, now a widow and a single mother, is attempting to get out of the house and meet men.  It is a jungle in clubs and on Twitter and she makes many faux pas.   She tells “Leatherjacketman,” a man she meets at a club, that she hasn’t had sex in four and a half years.  And when she is on a date with a younger man, he takes away her phone so she won’t tweet the whole date.

Reviewers hate this book, and why it should be reviewed in the first place–it’s light, it’s charming, it’s not literature–I do not know.  It is not a comedy in the class of, say, Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Weissport, a retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  If reviewers expect Bridget to be a role model, they are not good readers.

Jen Chaney at The Washington Post says,

While parenthood and profound loss may have forced Bridget to grow up in some ways, she hasn’t grown up much. And that’s one of this novel’s key problems. Readers may expect a middle-aged woman who has dealt with such loss to have lowered her narcissism levels a tad. Not Bridget Jones . . . or, pardon me, ­@JonesyBJ.

Bridget is middle-aged, not dead.

Bridget is still in what I call the flirt zone, and that, too, is a problem for some reviewers.  One of Bridget’s suitors is 21 years younger, and of course we know it won’t last.  But, as Bridget points out, younger men like older women because they’re “refreshingly not looking to them to be bread-winners and not thinking about babies any more.”

And Bridget says of the fifties:

It used to be the age of Germaine Greer’s ‘Invisible Woman,’ branded as non-viable, post-menopausal sitcom fodder. But now with the Talitha school of branding combined with Kim Cattrall, Julianne and Demi Moore, etc., is all starting to change!

Well, Ashton left Demi…but I like Bridget’s viewpoint.

Reading about middle-aged women is empowering for those of us who are middle-aged.   Though women are believed not to age as well as men, that is probably a power thing:  we’re still doing everything we’ve always done, just as middle-aged men are.  And,  frankly, we  want to read about people our age now and then.  Young men and women can be…well…boring…if very sweet.

I have enjoyed other novels about aging women.

monica dickens 1 the winds of heavenIn Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, Louise Bickford, a 57-year-old widow, spends part of each year living with each of her three daughters.  (Thank God I didn’t reproduce, though I’ll probably regret it in old age.)   She spends the winter at a hotel owned by a friend who doesn’t want her.

In London, which seems unbearably exciting and sophisticated to Louise, she waits in a tea room for her daughter, wishing she were more attractive.

“Louise was always much concerned with how people were thinking of her and summing her up; not knowing that a small, middle-aged woman with stubby features and hair no longer brown and not yet grey usually goes unnoticed.”

But she does attract Gordon, a fat mystery writer, whom she meets in a tea room.  She has read his books.  They become good friends.

And Louise gradually finds herself.  This is a charming comedy-drama, not great literature, but entertaining.

Of course Colette’s Julie de Carneilhan is great literature, not a pop novel.  Julie, the beautiful heroine, in her early forties, still regrets her divorce from her second husband, Herbert.  Her brother tells her that people will talk if she goes out partying with her younger boyfriend, Coco, while Herbert is very ill.

Julie asks, “Am I expected to put on mourning in advance for a man who was unfaithful to me for eight years and has been married again for another three?”

She is bitter but deeply cares for Herbert, and has a revelation when she visits him.  This is a graceful, lyrical novel about the consequences of divorce.

I’m always interested in “middle-aged” literature.  So what are your favorite books about middle age and old age?  (And I don’t mean that book about menopause that recommends we have an orgasm a day to stay healthy.  I’m still laughing about that.)

The Colette Project: Claudine Married

Colette and Willy

Colette and Willy

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.

Claudine MarriedIf 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.

Colette the complete claudineWhen 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.

Perhaps tomorrow…