A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I was fifteen, I was Claudine. Why not? I was rebellious and had chestnut curls. I read and reread my literary auntie’s lovely copy of Colette’s Claudine at School (a 1928 translation with sprightly illustrations by the Monmartre humorist Henri Mirande) and preened myself as if before a looking glass. Claudine was bold, original, irresistible, charismatic, gloriously narcissistic, loved nature and was a sexy tomboy…I wasn’t very many of those things (well, narcissistic), but wished to be. I thought of it as a school story, but the quality of the writing and the vital, magnetic portrayal of Claudine, Colette’s own alter ego, were different. At the time I knew nothing about Colette, or how she had written her first novel in 1900 under duress by her much older, louche husband Willy, who took all the credit. I only felt the allure of her early genius, and it was the start of a lifelong fascination with Colette.
In 1960s New York, there was no ordering all Colette’s books online, and they weren’t in the library or bookshops either. So you can imagine my delight, a few years later, at finding a newly issued paperback copy of Claudine Married (1902, translated by Antonia White). And look what had happened to my Claudine in the meantime! She had married a dismayingly uninspiring older man (though it’s true there was a rivetingly racy wedding night devirginizing scene). The couple’s fin de siècle Parisian literary life was new to me, glamorous and intriguing – but the central passion was Claudine’s steamy lesbian affair with the dazzling blonde Viennese siren Rezi (“I could see, close enough to touch, the perfectly curved shoulder, Rezi’s anxious profile, and, lower down, two bared young breasts, round and far apart, like the ones gallants toy with in naughty eighteenth-century engravings.”) What had happened to Claudine the schoolgirl? Her flirtation with the naughty schoolmistress Aimee had presaged Rezi, and I was actually more shocked by her marriage to Renaud. Why did she do it? She already had a father.
Later I found Claudine in Paris (1901), the missing link between my heroine as schoolgirl and as wife in the achingly sophisticated Claudine-Rezi-Renaud triangle. I devoured it like the best of bonbons, following Claudine from Montigny to Paris, lapping up her spicy dialogue with her arch (stereotyped by today’s standards) gay cousin Marcel, her introduction into Paris society and the unconvincing explanation of how she fell for that empty shell (Renaud was Marcel’s father, and it still didn’t wash.) The fourth book in the series, Claudine and Annie (1903) was less entrancing, with the submissive slavelike young wife Annie as heroine. Claudine, having learned her lesson about infidelity, was sidelined into settling down in improbable domestic rectitude. The notes said this was the last of the series, and for years I believed it.
Until decades later, with the coming of Amazon, there appeared a fifth Claudine novel, Retreat From Love, written in 1907 and not published in English until 1980. This was the first novel that Colette wrote after separating from Willy, and it’s enough to make the reader wonder just how much he contributed to the insouciant charm of the earlier books. For Retreat from Love is a book that feels dispirited, depressed, even old, next to the spicy gaiety of the others. Hoary old Renaud is in a sanitarium dying by inches, while Claudine rusticates in Annie’s country house. Marcel arrives, and she amuses herself by pushing her gay stepson and the “nymphomaniac” Annie into a disastrous sexual experiment, as joyless as the novel itself. When Renaud dies, Claudine finds solace in nature. The writing is more lyrical and mature than in the earlier books, but I missed the fresh sauciness of the younger, more innocent Claudine, who disappeared with Willy.
Fortunately Colette went on to a long life writing beautiful works of genius that enchant with their shrewd observations of human sexuality and nature. Her life was a full one too, packed with questionable liaisons, dubious alliances, literary glory, and cats. For that story, Judith Thurman’s very great biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, will be thoroughly absorbing and satisfying to anyone who has gone all the way with Claudine.