Mitsou by Colette
I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet during Women in Translation month last year, when I discovered that there were a few things by the wonderful Colette that I didn’t own and hadn’t read – and one of those was her 1919 novella “Mitsou” which for some reason wasn’t available in the lovely Penguin set I bought in the early 1980s. It seems to bridge a gap between her first ‘adult’ novel, “The Vagabond” (1910) and the very famous “Cheri” from 1920, and of course I had to track down a copy. I picked up a lovely old hardback initially; and then, while recently in Leicester, I came across an old Corgi paperback version, which was the one I eventually read.
I’ve seen “Mitsou” described as a war-time novella, and it’s certainly that. It tells the story of the titular lady, a music hall artiste in Montmartre during the Great War. The book is set in 1917 and Mitsou is somewhat oblivious to the effects of the war; she has an older sugar daddy and is insulated from a lot of the reality around her.
In contrast is her fellow artiste known as Bit of Fluff, or Fluff for short. A lively good-time girl, she happily throws herself at any soldier that comes along without compunction or guilt. Mitsou rather looks down on Fluff; however, things change a little when Mitsou has to hide a couple of Fluff’s visiting soldiers in her wardrobe backstage so that they won’t get into trouble. A lieutenant in a blue uniform is smitten with Mitsou, and despite her denials, she’s rather taken with him. However, his leave is over and he’s sent back to the front – and Mitsou begins to write to him…. Will they ever meet? How will they find real life as opposed to letters? And how will Mitsou’s special friend take to this dalliance?
Although “Mitsou” might sound simply like a love story, it’s a lot more than that (which is hardly surprising from a Colette book). Mitsou herself is a strange, almost detached character at the start. In control of her life, rather dead emotionally, even her name is not real as it was visited on her by her older lover, an acronym made from the initials of the two companies he owns. She’s an old head on a young body, and seems to have lived her life already.
In contrast, Fluff is full of life, throwing herself into the joy of existence as if there’s no tomorrow. Mitsou disapproves of her behaviour, of her contact with all the soldiers, but finds herself developing a passion for the Blue Lieutenant despite herself. Intriguingly certain parts of the story are constructed almost as a playscript, and the rest is composed of letters exchanged by Mitsou and her Lieutenant while he’s away. It’s fascinating watching their tentative relationship develop through the letters, but alas real life turns out to be less of a thrill, and although it’s unlikely that they will stay together for long, at least Mitsou has developed emotionally, enough to condemn “.. that stupid sensible Mitsou, who never laughed and never cried, that poor creature who didn’t even have her own private sorrows.”
But the undercurrent running through the book is the distant conflict; initially seeming not to matter to Mitsou, it becomes real and threatening as she develops her relationship with the Blue Lieutenant. Colette captures brilliantly the knife-edge on which civilisation seemed balance at the time; and Fluff’s spirited defence of her conduct with men who might die at the front tomorrow really brings home the effect that such a colossal conflict had on society. As the Blue Lieutenant says in one of his letters:
Mitsou, we boys of twenty-four, the war grabbed us just as we came out of college. It made us into men, and I am afraid that we shall never recover from having missed the time of growing up. We lost forever that precious period, in which we might have learned poise and balance in voice and manner, and the habit of being free, and how to treat our families and how to approach women without being afraid or acting like cannibals…
As always with Colette, there’s not only wonderful writing and wonderful storytelling, but also an underlying point. The poignancy of the young people grasping what they can in case life is stolen from them is powerful, and reinforces Colette’s strong and earthy love of life. When she wrote “Mitsou”, she had been married since 1912 to Henry de Jouvenel, her second husband, and her music hall days were behind her. She spent much of the Great War bringing up her daughter, who had been born in 1913, and writing journalism; but later in the decade she returned to fiction, drawing on her stage life which helped her create this excellent book.
“Mitsou” is certainly not minor Colette (though minor Colette is better than major anybody else!); it’s a thought-provoking, moving snapshot of life during World War 1, and most definitely deserves more attention than it usually gets. Oh, for a complete, translated edition of all Colette’s works!
Intriguingly, the Corgi paperback gave no indication I could see of who had translated the book; however, as it was the same version as the hardback I was able to identify it was by Raymond Postgate – who must have been very cross at the Corgi omission!