So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.

 

Advertisements

Petit Pays by Gaël Faye

Once I got into the rhythm of this, which is to say, reading in French, and getting past the need to look up too many new words, I couldn’t put this down, by the time I found my reading rhythm, the lives of Gabriel (Gaby) and his sister Ana, his parents, his friends had their claws in me and I had to know what was going to happen next.

I heard about this book initially via a French friend who retired here, but spent most of her married life living in a number of African countries. She introduced the book to me, as having been written by the son of friends. I was intrigued, it wasn’t too long – and then it began to win a lot of prizes! I suspected it might get translated, but decided not to wait.

Gaël Faye, like the protagonist of the book, is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother and the historical facts which run alongside this narrative coincide with what he would have experienced, born in Bujumbura in Burundi and similarly fleeing the country to live in exile when civil war broke out in 1993 at the same time as the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi in 1994.

The book starts with Gaby reflecting on a conversation with his father, a turning point in his understanding of the ethnic origin of his people, of the difference between the Hutu, and the Tutsi. He is trying to understand the motivation for the ethnic violence that caused his mother to flee her country of origin.

His father is French, his mother Tutsi from Rwanda, they live in the small country bordering Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Burundi. It boasts the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika, which occupies a large portion of the country’s border and is part of the African Great Lakes region.

An italicised chapter depicts Gaby in France on his 33rd birthday, unable to reach his sister Ana, falling into what has become an annual day of melancholy, he remembers his exceptional 11th birthday, his parents and friends. And thus begins the novel, back to Burundi when he is 10 years old, remembering those last days of his parents marriage, replaying scenes that may have contributed to the demise of their relationship and many that contribute to his homesickness today.

Conversations highlight the cultural differences between his parents, disputes provoke them to raise age-old issues, two people, neither of whom are really at home where they are, whose references come from elsewhere, who yearn for different things, Yvonne dreams of Paris, Michel is content with his piece of paradise in Burundi; his business, their beautiful home, domestic servants, the climate, the lake, the mountains, he refers to her dream of Paris and Europe as if it is a fantasy, far from the paradise she imagines.

For Gaby and Ana, Bujumbura is home, it is where they belong. Each day unfolds according to the same routine, as the domestics arrive, the gate is opened, they prepare for school, are driven, there is a change as Gaby begins college and new friendships develop. His close friends live in the same alleyway, the twins, Gino, Armand.  And Francis who they conflict with. They like to hang out in an abandoned Combi, talking, laughing, planning things.

On connaissait tous les recoins de l’impasse et on voulait y rester pour la vie entière, tous les cinq, ensemble.

(We know all the nooks of the alley and we would like to stay there the rest of our lives, all five of us, together.)

J’ai beau chercher, je ne me souviens pas du moment ou l’on s’est mis à penser différemment. A considérer que, dorévenant il y aurait nous d’un côté et, de l’autre, des ennemis, comme Francis.

(I looked hard, I don’t remember the moment when we began to think differently. To consider that, from now on, there would be us on one side and on the other, enemies, like Francis.)

Slowly unsettling news penetrates their utopia, Yvonne is worried for her Aunt and four children who never left Rwanda and for her nephew Pacifique who decides to return there to fight. They begin to listen more often to the radio for news, adults start making confidential telephone calls behind closed doors.

Despite the unsettled times, they plan a visit to Rwanda for a family marriage, excitement and tension mount and while they make the event, the changing atmosphere forces them to return in haste.

The book continues to follow the daily life revolving around Gaby, the highs of the adventures with his friends, despite the unease that pervades their township, the lows of news from Rwanda and a fear that the divisions that have become violent will trickle across to Burundi.

The news of a coup d’etat arrives when the radio plays classic music nonstop, it is a sign, one that has happened before, in November 1966 it was a Schubert piano sonata, in 1987 Chopin. Now, it’s Wagner they hear.

Ce jour-là, le 21 October 1993, nous avons eu droit au Crépsucule des dieux de Wagner.

Attitudes change and begin to take effect in the playground and in the neighbourhood. Gaby befriends an elderly neighbour, a widow with large bookshelves, he seeks respite between the pages of a newfound love, literature.

The story is told through scenes viewed from the perspective of Gaby, we slowly understand the beauty and stability of his life and how that is slowly dismantled and it is no wonder, miles away and many years in the future, something in him yearns for that lost youth.

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

The ending is not really an ending, it could be said there is more than one ending and perhaps there may even be another book. I found it incredibly moving and was amazed to be so moved in a language that is not my own. An incredible feat of writing, a wonderful talent.

Winner of five French literary prizes including the sought after Prix Goncourt des lycéens, it is due to be translated into English in June 2018 under the title Small Country by Hogarth Press.

As you can see from the photo above Gaël Faye is also a singer, rapper, composer and poet. Unfortunately that concert above is already sold out. However, there is a beautiful song, also named Petit Pays, which gives you a glimpse of that small country he is nostalgic for and the wonderful musical talent he possesses.

A top read, highly recommended.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

Claudine and Annie (Book 4) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After her abrupt departure from Paris back to her father’s home in Montigny, to the village home where she grew up, I was curious to know what was to come of our troubled Claudine and her errant husband.

It was something of a surprise to realise that in this fourth book, we are back in Paris, but in the home and seeing through the eyes of a weeping Annie who is the narrator of this fourth book in The Complete Claudine series.

Annie is weeping because her husband of four years Alain, whom she known since she a child and rarely left his side, is about to depart on a boat for Brazil, due to notice of a recent inheritance which necessitates his going there to relinquish assets, prize bulls or something or other!

“Before I had turned thirteen, he was already the master of my life. Such a handsome master! A red-haired boy, with a skin whiter than an egg and blue eyes that dazzled me.”

Annie writes in beautiful notebook he gave her for the purpose of keeping her ‘Diary of his journey’. She reads the list of duties he drew up for her, with his usual solicitous firmness, in which we see reference to Claudine among those she has permission to call on and with which frequency:

“Only one call on Claudine and her husband. Too fantastically unconventional a couple for a young woman to frequent while her husband is away on a long journey.”

However he is more than happy that she spend time with his sister Marthe, about whom he writes:

“My dear Annie will give me much pleasure if she frequently consults my sister Marthe and goes out with her. Marthe has a great deal of good sense and even common-sense under her rather unconventional exterior.”

Annie’s perception of herself at the beginning is defined only in terms of her husband, and her husband’s interests are solely related to himself and how he wishes her to be.

“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”

She even goes so far to refer to herself, as if it were a term of endearment as his ‘little slave girl’, a term her husband often called her, of course he says it without malice, with only a faint contempt for my dark-skinned race.

This passive, domestic Annie, grieving for her master husband is something of a disappointment, after the more confident, sensuous and outspoken Claudine, but I’m thankful there is at least an acquaintance, which promises Annie’s potential awakening.

In fact, Annie’s awakening and change in perception begins, soon after, when her sister-in-law makes an unkind comment on a portrait of her brother, likening him to a cockerel, an image thereafter Annie finds hard to remove from her mind, it serves to lift a little the blinkers from her view of this husband.

Parisian friends depart for the summer, to a thermal spa for the cure, to the annual opera festival in Germany, and it is here we see glimpses of Claudine and her husband, showing her grown in confidence within her marriage, having negotiated a way to curb their potentially destructive impulses.

Marthe’s husband is a novelist she continuously pushes to write faster, to hurry deadlines to meet the many financial commitments required to keep their lifestyle in the lavish manner she is accustomed to.

While Annie is able to confide in Claudine, the behaviour of her sister-in-law is too much for her and she decides to return to Paris to consider and prepare for the return of her husband, to make sense of how his absence has changed her.

“To free myself from the obsession – was it really to free myself?…I jumped out of bed and ran to look for Alain’s latest photograph that I had hidden between two sachets.

Whatever had happened? Was I actually dreaming? I could not recognise that handsome young man there. Those harsh eyebrows, that arrogant stance like a cock! No, surely I was mistaken or perhaps the photographer had absurdly overdone the re-touching?

But no, that man there was my husband who is far away at sea. I trembled before his picture as I tremble before myself. A slavish creature, conscious of its chains – that is what he has made of me ..Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory of our past as a young married couple that could delude me again, that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”

Colette and Willy

Claudine and Annie is very different to the first three books and while I don’t know why Colette turned to an alternative narrator and wrote about such a submissive character, it makes me ponder a corollary with her own life, as she was a free-spirited child, close to nature, who married young to an older man, who put her to work on these novels.

It is said she was no great writer initially, but that he turned her into one, locking her in her room until she turned out something, which he faithfully edited and published in his own name. After thirteen years of such an apprenticeship, she was undoubtedly disillusioned, divorced him and then fought to be recognised for the work she had produced. She was also determined not to be financially dependent on a man.

Claudine and Annie strikes me as a novel of resistance, but using a character that is almost unrecognisable, the alter-ego of Colette perhaps, that aspect of her that was suppressed and oppressed all those years, whose slow awakening allowed her to see that man before her for who he really was, her slave master.

I was asked which of the series had been my favourite and I find I am really unable to choose as they go together so well and should be read as one.

Clearly, as this review suggests, the first three have a particular harmony as they are all narrated by Claudine and more centred around her life and growth, this fourth book is less about Claudine and we see her only from afar, as a confidante of the troubled Annie, however it deserves its place as I suspect there is more to Annie than the character on the page, for me it was read with a question hanging over it in relation to the life Colette was living at the time.

I loved Claudine at School for her exuberant overconfidence and love of nature, Claudine in Paris for her naivety and prudence, realising there was much about life she had still to learn and Claudine Married for the melancholy of marriage, of the realisation of her false ideals and indulgence of strong emotional impulses.

And where to from here? Well, I will be continuing to read a few more women in translation during August, but will also be looking out for La Maison de Claudine (My Mother’s House), a memoir of Sido (her mother) and her own provincial childhood.

Further Reading

An Introduction to the Author, Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 3 – Claudine Married

Claudine Married (Book 3) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

The impulsive Claudine, thinking a marriage of her own making and choice (not one chosen by her father or suggested by a man who had feelings for her that weren’t reciprocated) embarks on her marital journey which begins with fifteen months of a vagabond life, travelling to the annual opera Festival de Bayreuth, in Germany, to Switzerland and the south of France.

It might have been more enjoyable had she not had to endure the many introductions to numerous of her husband’s friends and their families, whom he made himself most agreeable to and put himself out for, something the young bride was unable to fully appreciate.

“As he explains, with impudent charm, it is not worthwhile doing violence to one’s nature to please one’s real friends, since one’s sure of them anyway…”

Claudine demands mercy and a fixed abode and thus this book of her marriage begins when they are reinstalled back in Paris, however Claudine still feels as though something is lacking. Before they returned she requested they visit Montigny and while unable to visit her childhood home (now rented), they visit the school and for a brief period she reconnects to something of her former self and notes one of the differences between herself and her husband in so doing.

“How willingly I look back over this recent past and dwell on it! But my husband lives in the future. This paradoxical man who is devoured by the terror of growing old, who studies himself minutely in looking-glasses and desperately notes every tiny wrinkle in the network at the corner of his eyes, is uneasy in the present and feverishly hurries Today on Tomorrow. I myself linger in the past, even if that past be only Yesterday, and I look back almost always with regret.”

This living in the past causes her even to forget that she now lives in this new apartment, coming out of her daydream, she readies herself to return home (to her father) only to realise she no longer lives there and ponders where her home really is.

“To go home! But where? Isn’t this my home, then? No, no, it isn’t, and that’s the whole source of my trouble. To go home? Where? Definitely not to Rue Jacob, where Papa has piled up mountains of papers on my bed. Not to Montigny, because neither the beloved house…not the School…”

Her husband decides to re-initiate his “at-home day”, a day when society friends can call to visit, Claudine isn’t too enthusiastic, but agrees as long as she doesn’t have to be the hostess. It is here she will meet Rézi, a woman she is both charmed by and fearful of, one whom she becomes attached to, visiting her daily, encouraged by her husband.

“Rézi… Her whole person gives off a scent of fern and iris, a respectable artless, rustic smell I find surprising and enchanting by contrast..”

Having achieved his objective in coming to Paris, to find his daughter a suitor, Claudine’s father announces he’s had enough of Paris and is returning to Montigny, and taking her cat Fanchette with him.

Claudine is drawn into the intoxicating intimacy of her friendship with Rézi, albeit somewhat bothered by the overly attentive encouragement of her husband.

“The violence of Rézi’s attraction, the vanity of my resistance, the sense that I am behaving ridiculously, all urge me to get it over and done with; to intoxicate myself with her till I have exhausted her charm. But, I resist! And I despise myself for my own stubborn obstinacy.”

Their relationship plays itself out, up to the denouement, when Claudine seeking refuge decides to return to Montigny, to the safety of her childhood home, the woods, her animals whose loyalty she is assured of, and the affection of the maid Mélie and her humble, absent-minded father.

She writes a letter to her husband, the last pages arrive and we are on to the next book, in English entitled Claudine and Annie, in French Claudine s’en va, meaning Claudine Leaves!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 4 – Claudine and Annie (to come)…

Claudine in Paris (Book 2) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After years of freedom in her beloved countryside of Montigny, having been Queen of her domain and revered in school, Claudine weakens on arrival in Paris, forcibly confined to the rooms within their new home in illness. She wonders what has happened to her, hardly recognising herself.

Her father assumes his previous habits, embarking on his latest project, confined to his library most days, employing an assistant to help him, a young man who appears to have a crush on Claudine.

Seeking company outside the home, Claudine asks after her father’s sister.

“Why haven’t we seen my aunt yet? Haven’t you written to her? Haven’t you been to see her?”

Papa, with the condescension one displays to mad people, asked me gently, with a clear eye and a soothing voice:

“Which aunt, darling?”

Accustomed to his absent-mindedness, I made him grasp that I was actually talking about his sister.

Thereupon he exclaimed, full of admiration:

“You think of everything! Ten thousand herds of swine! Dear old girl, how pleased she’ll be to know we are in Paris.” He added, his face clouding: “She’ll hook on to me like a damn’ leech.”

She is delighted to finally meet her Aunt and to discover Marcel, the young man Claudine’s age who she is guardian to, in fact Marcel is Claudine’s nephew, sent to live with his grandmother after the premature death of his mother.

If Claudine at School represents the unfettered, exuberant joys of teenage freedom, of the innocent and immature love between friends and the cruel indulgences of playful spite, Claudine in Paris is the slap in the face of regarding an approaching adult, urban world, one where the streets are inhabited by hidden dangers, the skies are more gloomy, people are not what they seem, even old friends from school become unrecognisable when the city and her frustrated inhabitants get their clutch onto the innocent.

Claudine wants to embrace it all with the same fervour she did her old school, but discovers her own prudence, when confronted with the reality of entering adulthood.

“There I was, making myself out completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! you can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen.’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways. I lay about me with my umbrella or else I flee from vice with a noble gesture. In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl. How Marcel would despise me if he knew that!”

Marcel’s father, whom she calls Uncle Renaud, introduces her to the theatre, she gets outfitted with a more appropriate wardrobe for a social life in Paris, she begins to delight in her new surroundings, although a melancholy often arises when she thinks of her life in the countryside, an affliction she thinks might be resolved by finding the right relationship.

“The lilies-of-the-valley on the chimney-piece intoxicated me and gave me a migraine. What was the matter with me? My unhappiness over Luce, yes, but something else too – my heart was aching with homesickness. I felt as ridiculous as that sentimental engraving hanging on the wall of Mademoiselle’s drawing-room Mignon regretting her fatherland. And I thought I was cured of so many things and had lost so many of my illusions! Alas, my mind kept going back to Montigny.”

She even misses her homework and having to explain those mindless subjects she used to abhor, such as ‘Idleness is the mother of all vices,’ one she has had the misfortune to come to understand better .

A marriage proposal awakens her from her misery, an idea forms in her mind and before we know it, the page has turned and we are into Claudine Married!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 3 – Claudine Married (to come)

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.”

 Next Up: