Colette’s My Apprenticeships & Music-Hall Sidelights and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

I have been busy.

I am reading Proust. (Proust is long, life is short.)

When I looked at my book journal, I discovered to my surprise that my book count is down this year.

A few bloggers, some a bit desperately, have written about this phenomenon lately:  they are reading less than usual, or finishing fewer books.  Blogging, new jobs, reading too many books at one time, and putting aside “difficult” books to read more entertaining novels have been blamed.

It is obvious to me that this is about the internet.

Our attention spans are shorter.

And so we have several books on the go.

Every year I try to decrease my time online to have more time for “real life.”  Last year I cut out Twitter; this year it was Goodreads.

I am behind on my book-blogging.

I’ve cut down on blogging so I can get more done, but here is a Reading Catch-up post.

Colette My Apprenticeships & Music-Hall Sidelights 102499b1.  Colette’s My Apprenticeships and Music-Hall Sidelights.  I’ve had this Penguin for years, and have  procrastinated reading it.  I am so glad I finally got around to it.  What a delightful book!  My Apprenticeships is a stunning memoir of Colette’s first marriage.  Her first husband was Willy (Henri Gauthiers-Villars), a philanderer, liar, writer and journalist, who hired a stable of ghostwriters to do his work.  He locked Colette in her room to write the partly-autobiographical Claudine books, which went through hundreds of editions, first under Willy’s name and later under Colette’s.  A popular play, starring the famous actress, Polaire, was adapted from the books, and Claudine merchandise was manufactured, including “Claudine” shirts with round collars.  Colette did not admire the Claudine books–they were spiced up by Willy’s erotic suggestions–but she did take credit for these first novels eventually.  She was fondest of Claudine in Paris and Claudine and Annie.

As to Willi:  why he did not write his own books and articles she did not know. He came up with the ideas and  plots.  Once the manuscript came in, he had it retyped so it would look like his work, farmed it out to editors, and sometimes farmed it out again to other writers and editors.

I also loved Music-Hall Sideights, a charming series of scenes and sketches about Colette’s years as a pantomime artist in the music-hall.  If you have read her novel The Vagabond, you already know about her life as a traveling performer, but she approaches it here from a different angle.  She writes vividly about the troupe lounging in a park during train delays, a circus horse,  the exhaustion of matinees, a talented young ballerina, and a listless young lesbian abandoned by her actress friend and kindly taken into their music-hall troupe as a chorus girl because she has no home.

sassoon memoirs of a fox-hungint man faber and faber image2.  Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man:  The Memoirs of George Sherston Is this a classic?  Yes, no, maybe.  It is charming, well-written, and won the James Tait Memorial Prize. But after 200 pages of horse purchases, fox-hunts, and point-to-point races,  I did wonder if I would ever get through it.

The last chapters about the beginning of World War I make it worth reading.

The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is the first of a trilogy of novels based on Sassoon’s life as a soldier. This first book describes pastoral life in England, which is, of course, ended by the war.  George, the narrator, has no intellectual interests:  he is content to read Surtee’s racing novels and pursue sports.  After coming down from Cambridge without a degree, he lives on a small stipend with Aunt Evelyn in the country and soon becomes involved in the world of horses.

I am not a horsey person. Please, dear God, don’t make me go to the races ever again.  I learned everything I know about horses from Trollope, and here from Aunt Evelyn’s groom, Dixon. I did very much enjoy George’s schooling by Dixon in riding and hunting. George is such a simple soul, not very bright, and he has a good sense of humor.  The first hundred pages or so are captivating.

But one really reads this for the last two chapters, when George enlists in the army and describes the incredible boredom of military life.  After he breaks his arm, he has a kind of nervous breakdown, malingering at home with Aunt Evelyn for months. Fortunately a colonel friend gets him transferred into the Special Reserve, where life is less grim.

It is grim at the front.  It is hell in the trenches.  Friends die.  Dixon dies.

Sassoon’s book reminds me very slightly of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, which is much more complicated, better-written, and more interesting.

Fox-Hunting Man has historical interest, but it is very slight.

I do, however, look forward to reading the other two books, because I am interested in World War I.