The Complete Claudine, by Colette – An Introduction by Judith Thurman tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

Every summer I choose to read one chunkster, a big fat book, and this year knowing August would be the month that many others are reading books by women in translation, I decided to combine the two things and so chose to read a book translated from French to English, a classic, by the renowned author and personality Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, referred to by her surname and pen name Colette.

The book I chose The Complete Claudine, is in fact four books combined in one volume, however I’ve written them up separately, including this first post, which is an introduction to the extraordinary personality behind the writer.

Introducing Colette

The book begins with an intriguing introduction by Judith Thurman, which I found helpful as I really knew little about Colette which she used as her writing pen-name.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

She was a colourful, eccentric, driven character, a woman way ahead of her time, who wanted it all and seems to have pretty much lived her life, pursuing that goal, ignoring societal stereotypes and rejecting all labels about who, what and where a woman’s place should be,  attracting as many admiring fans as scathing critics. She detested labels, and while her attitude may be thought of as feminist, she was far from abiding by political correctness or aligning herself with any kind of women’s group.

“Me, a feminist?” she scoffed in a 1910 interview. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.” She saw no contradiction between supporting conservative positions and living her life as an “erotic militant” in revolt against them. Better worlds and just rewards were of no more consequence to her than the prospect of an afterlife. – Judith Thurman, Introduction

She was born in the Burgundy village of Saint-Saveur-en- Puisaye on January 28, 1873, a countryside upbringing that informs the autobiographical Claudine at School; the first volume in this book. Her own school years were likely more conservative that those expressed in her novel, which was influenced by her husband Willy, the pen name she would use when these books were first published, as it was he who introduced her to avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles while engaging in sexual affairs and encouraging her to do the same. It was he who suggested the idea of  “the secondary myth of Sappho…the girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher” (Ladimer, p. 53)

Her mother, “Mme Colette – the splendid earth mother known to Colette’s readers as Sido” came from a family of mixed African and Creole descent from the colonies (Martinique) and:

had boundless ambitions for her youngest daughter and “second self,” Gabrielle, and these never included domestic – or sentimental – drudgery. Sido called marriage, only half-ironically, a “heinous crime,” and would rejoice in Colette’s liaison from 1905 to 1911 with a cultivated and melancholy lesbian transvestite, the Marquise de Morny, largely because “Missy’s” generosity and solicitude were so wholesome for Colette’s fiction. Nor was Sido’s “precious jewel,” childless until forty, ever encouraged by her mother to procreate.

She published nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoir, drama, essays, criticism, and reportage, Gigi the best known to readers in the English language, though unfortunately so according to Judith Thurman as its promise of happiness so misrepresents Colette’s view of love.

The character Claudine was Colette’s invention of the century’s first teenage girl, one who was rebellious, secretive, erotically restless and disturbed, free-spirited and determined to carve her own path. Her rebellion was against convention not family, she had free rein at home, her single parent father poring over his slug manuscript left her to her own devices, though somewhat constrained by the maid who took care of her basic needs.

 

“It is not a bad thing that children

should occasionally, and politely,

put parents in their place.” Colette

Colette married at twenty(1893) and moved to Paris, separating from Willy in 1906 though with no access to royalties for her books as she had penned them in his name, leading her to a stage career in the music halls of Paris, her experience of that way of life informing her novel The Vagabond (1910).

“a novel that anticipates by ninety years, the contemporary fashion for wry, first-person narratives by single, thirty something career women. Its heroine examines her addictions to men with amused detachment, and flirts, alternately, with abstinence and temptation. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom really worth the loneliness that pays for it? These are Colette’s abiding questions.”

Her move to Paris heralded the beginning of a public personality, as she would go on to become one of the most notorious and exuberant personalities of fin-de-siècle Paris. Her subsequent divorce and the years working on the stage exposed her to a poverty consciousness she’d not until then experienced and induced in her a steely determination to be independent and earn her own living at all times. After his death, she sued to have his name removed from her earlier books.

“The frugality of Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year and a room of one’s own had as much allure for her as the ideals of Woolf’s feminism, which is to say, none at all. Colette’s models were never the gentlewomen of letters living on their allowances but the courtesans and artistes she had frequented in her youth, whose notion of a bottom line was fifty thousand a year and a villa of one’s own – with a big garden, a great chef, and a pretty boy.”

She would have a child (a daughter) at forty, though her maternal instinct never developed sufficiently for her to spend much time in the role of mother, allowing her to be raised by a nanny, though she marry the baby’s father Baron Henry de Jouvenel, an influential, flamboyant political journalist in Paris.

Below is a summary of Lessons We Can Learn From Colette, written by Holly Isard on the anniversary of her death, 3 August, do click on the link to read the lessons, they provide an interesting insight into the individualist character Colette was and lived according to. Each lesson has a wonderful anecdote connected to it.

Famous for her free spirit as much her style of writing, Colette was a chronicler of female existence, a precursory feminist who pushed against the bounds of sexuality for women in Paris. To the abhorrence of Parisian society, Colette experimented with androgyny on and off stage. She also frequented the spaces where marginal sexualities were beginning to find some visibility, in the cabarets and pantomimes. Even 142 years after her birth, Colette remains an icon and an indisputably formidable woman. Here, we consider five key lessons we can learn from the great lady herself.

1. Continue on in the face of controversy 

2. Stick with your gut instinct

3. Don’t underestimate a woman’s influence 

4. “Perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”

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Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan tr. Irene Ash #WITMonth

Bonjour TristesseRachel Cooke in this Guardian article The subtle art of translation reflects on the importance of the right translation and relates her memory of reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse.

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart.

She decides to splash out and buy a new copy to read and chooses the Penguin Modern Classics version translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it.

Françoise Sagan

Author, Françoise Sagan

For a while she continued to read it, telling herself it was stupid to cling to one version, as if it were a sacred thing, however she gave up, it may have been an accurate translation but it lacked the magic of that fist reading experience. She ends by saying that if you tried this story and hated it, to please have another go and entrust yourself to Irene Ash’s gorgeous 1955 translation.

Having read the article, I had no hesitation in going straight for the Irene Ash translation and was transfixed from the very first pages, totally put under the spell of this charming little novella.

Cecile is looking back and recalling the summer she was seventeen, when she and her father spent 2 months on the French Riveria near St Raphael, having a blissful holiday. He is a widower who doesn’t lack for female company and she has just finished school and lives a life of privilege and indulgence, her father imposing few if any limits on her, they are in a sense like children both of them in adult bodies.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring.It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks.

She is surprised to enjoy the company of a young man Cyril, preferring the company of more mature men and her father’s friends, and discovers she quite likes the attentions of this young man who is falling in love with her and she with him.

CalanquesIt should have been perfect, but things change when an old friend of her mother’s Anne arrives and she and her father announce their intention to marry. Although it is actually something Cecile feels is right for them and she adores Anne, part of her resents what signifies to her the end to the playful era she and her father have indulged, for Anne’s presence in their lives will certainly bring order and sensibility.

Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced by her into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost. And what did she bring me? I took stock: She wanted my father, she had got him. She would gradually make of us the husband and step-daughter of Anne Larsen; that is to say, she would turn us into two civilised, well-behaved and happy people.

She embarks on a plan to provoke a change in this happy little situation, instantly regretting it, but unable to halt the progress of a development she has initiated.

Tears came into my eyes at the thought of the jokes we used to have together, our laughter as we drove home at dawn through the empty streets of Paris. All that was over. In my turn I would be influenced, re-oriented, remodelled by Anne. I would not even mind it, she would act with intelligence, irony and sweetness, and I would be incapable of resistance; in six months I should no longer even wish to resist.

It is a simple storyline, but what makes it incredible are the adept insights Cecile has into herself and her behaviour and to all those around her. She acts irresponsibly as if she is unable to help herself, but with a certain equanimity, it is as if she stands outside of herself and narrates events and what is driving each character to act their part in her little drama, which will escalate into tragedy.

Utterly engaging, I was riveted, loved that ability her character had to understand the personalities around her and her own flaws, despite being unable to stop the mischief she provoked, not to mention that this was written when the author was only 18 years old.

Buy Bonjour Tristesse from Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

 

The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle

CIMG6788Juan Francisco Manzano was born into the household of a wealthy slave-owner in Cuba in 1797.

We know details about the early years of his life thanks to a collection of his autobiographical notes being smuggled out of Cuba to England, where they were published by abolitionists who hoped to raise support for their cause.

He spent most of his childhood close to a woman who insisted he call her Mama, despite the presence of his own mother Maria del Pilar.

 

Imagine

how he must feel in that other home

CIMG6789where he learns the words

of verses, plays, sermons, sonnets

now he’s a parrot, not a poodle

he listens, listens, listens

repeats every sound he hears

from every book in his godmother’s library

Though he wasn’t formally educated, he had a gift for language and poetry and despite the severe punishments he endured for continuing to express joy and suffering through his words.

The other day he recited words so completely new

that I understood the verse

was his own

not borrowed, memorised,

begged from the godmother’s books

Soaring

he said

Spirit

he whispered

CIMG6790Imprisoned

he murmured

and then he went on

I only caught a  few fragments

of his rhyme of delight,

something about a golden beak

something about singing

and wishes

and hope

The woman who kept him initially allowed his mother and any unborn children to buy their freedom and promised Juan freedom on her death. It was a promise rescinded by those still living after the woman’s death, though his mother continued to try to purchase his freedom without result.

Don’t cry, my other mother, the real one, whispers

this is the end

of your sadness

now you are free!

But I am not

it’s a trick

one swift trip

to the house

of my godparents

and then to La Marquesa

instead of the long-promised

freedom.

The Marquesa is a bitter, cruel woman who even when inflicting the most grotesque punishment on Juan, still finds reason to blame him for her own suffering.

Some people can never be satisfied.

The poet-boy for instance.

Nothing is ever enough for him.

marquesaI have to tell the overseers to teach

the same lessons

over and over

locking his ankles in the stocks

tying him to the cross like Jesus.

Or tying him to a ladder laid out on the ground

face down, mouth down

so he cannot speak

except to count his own lashes out loud.

And even when this is done nine days in a row

still he bleeds and weeps,

trying to show me

that he has won

he has triumphed once again

he has proven that he can still

make me sad.

Evil child.

To find out what happens, read this wonderful story of poems, a beautiful collection and tribute to a life of an exceptional poet.

Juan Francisco Manzano didn’t stop producing spontaneous poems until very late in his life, after being arrested for trying to stir up a slave rebellion through his poetry and spending a year in prison. That experience silenced his voice forever.

His work is astonishing, bold, thought-provoking, intelligent and lengthy. Once you begin reading it you can’t stop and I can see why both his work and his story haunted Margarita Engle for so long. That she has been able to condense his experience and thoughts into this humble volume is a gift to readers young and old.

To read the English translation of some of Juan Francisco’s original work, click on this link or the image below:

Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated;
Translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden, M.D.
With the History of the Early Life of the Negro Poet, Written by Himself

Manzano

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet who has published a number of books for young readers in free verse and prose poetry. She chooses interesting subjects that make me want to read everything she has written, they are an introduction to explore further the subjects she introduces. The titles alone are seductive.

The artwork in all her books is fantastic, this work illustrated beautifully by Sean Qualls.

I have read and reviewed The Wild Book, based on the life of the author’s grandmother who struggled with dyslexia, and she has other tempting titles such as:

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström

Baobab Tree CoverI came across this book by chance, first published as Die kremetartekspedisie in its original Afrikaans in 1981, it was translated into English by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, initially in 1983 and again in 2014.

I had never heard of Wilma Stockenström, but after a little digging, I find:

“For the past four decades Wilma Johanna Stockenström has been enriching Afrikaans literature with her satirical, obstinate and compassionate voice. Along with Elisabeth Eybers, Sheila Cussons, Ina Rousseau and Antjie Krog, she remains one of the most important women writers in Afrikaans.” © Johann de Lange

After recently reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, a story narrated by a female slave, I was interested to read this more literary novel, set in the harsh interior of South Africa.

It is a quiet, compelling, stream of consciousness narrative of a slave woman who finds refuge in the hollow of a baobab tree, attempting to survive following the death of her third master, finding herself abandoned in an often hostile wilderness.

“I was sold off a second time on the square near the sea where even then the raggedy castor-oil trees were standing. Was sold secondhand. I was a damaged plaything, my bundle of baby and myself bid for separately and disposed of separately. Simply playthings. Useful, certainly. My owner thought he had wasted his money.”

The Baobab Tree

The Baobab Tree

Embracing this newfound freedom of her body, mind and time, she thinks back over the years, reflecting on what her existence thus far has meant, the role of her three masters, moments shared with a friend, the loss of her children and the inclinations of man, something she has witnessed both in captivity and in this solitary freedom, where she finds a kind of disturbed though preferable peace.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light as I never knew the huts and rooms where I was ordered to sleep, as I can only know something that is mine and mine only, my dwelling place into which no one ever penetrates. I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints. These are the ashes of my fireplace. These are my grinding stones. These are my beads. My sherds.”

She is viewed by a tribe of small people who make a pilgrimage to the tree and recognise her as some kind of deity. It is their generosity and ritual of giving alms that aids her survival.

She notices everything, she appreciates her surroundings and tunes into small changes and disturbances in it. She becomes it.

Haunting, lyrical, this work is unlike any other narrative of the life of a slave woman I have ever encountered.

 

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.