Last spring, I did not require a soporific cup of Ovaltine at bedtime, nor did I pop a daring over-the-counter sleeping pill. After 10 minutes of reading Proust’s self-indulgent musings in Sodom and Gomorrah (Book IV of In Search of Lost Time), I fell into a deeply bored, dreamless sleep. The character Albertine was back, and I wished the narrator would hurry up and decide whether she was his girlfriend or a lesbian. But no, he went on and on and on and on. Finally I dismissed Proust as a boring old droner who had only one good book in him – Swann’s Way.
And then I turned to Colette, my favorite French writer of the 20th century, who may be underrated these days because her short, lyrical, decidedly feminine novels often take the form of irreverent meditations on love. People tend to think a sprawling novel in need of a very strict editor is more impressive than a short, concise, perfect novel.
Colette was a celebrity writer, an actress, a music hall artist, bisexual, and married thrice. My favorite of her books is The Vagabond, a charming, witty novel based on Colette’s experiences as a traveling music hall artist. The narrator, Renée, is divorced and a former writer, who has found peace in the routine of the theater and enjoys her financial independence. She describes her life backstage and onstage, the eccentricity of her colleagues, and her blissfully solitary home life with her dog, Fossette.
Renée captures her experiences succinctly and gracefully. From her dressing room she writes:
It’s absolutely freezing in here! I rub my hands together, grey with cold under the wet white which is beginning to crack. Good Lord! the radiator pipes are icy; it is Saturday and on Saturdays here they rely on the high-spirited popular audience, rowdy and slightly drunk, to warm the auditorium. No one has given a thought to the artistes’ dressing-rooms.
This is primarily a theater novel, but it is also the story of a love affair. Renée has an admirer whom she calls Big Noodle: he keeps sending her notes and flowers, though she does nothing to encourage him. Divorced and traumatized by her first marriage to a famous philandering painter (Colette’s first husband was a famous philandering employer of ghostwriters), she does not want a relationship with a man.
You know how it is when you’re in your thirties and single. You tell your friends you don’t want to meet anyone, and still they arrange blind dates. Friends and fate conspire against Renée. They worry that she will be lonely as she ages. And they think Maxime is a good egg. Renée jokingly thinks Maxime is the courtesan, doing nothing, while she goes out to earn her daily bread. She finds it ridiculous that he doesn’t work. And she is determined to go on a 43-day spring tour in France with her co-worker, Brague, and a young man they call “the troglodyte.”
I love Renee’s descriptions of life on the road in the many letters she writes to Maxime. Spring arrives, and she is enchanted by the sudden appearance of flowers (all of which she knows by name) and takes long walks in parks. And she is not at all sure she wants to exchange her solitude for wifehood.
We love Colette’s novels because her characters are shrewd and vulnerable at the same time, as women usually are. But in one of Colette’s later books about a middle-aged women (Break of Day may be the one I’m thinking of), she admits that she and her fictional counterparts diverge in their choices. Colette is not Renée.