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#1944club – a heroine takes control of her own destiny

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Gigi by Colette
Translated by Roger Senhouse

Well, what a week it’s been so far! We’re getting to the end and today I wanted to post about one of my favourite authors, a writer I was so pleased I could re-read for the #1944Club! I’ve written fairly extensively on the Ramblings about Colette (and she’s probably trending, as they say, at the moment owing to there being a biopic in the offing); so the fact that one of her most famous works was published in 1944 was a real bonus.

Pretty but fragile Penguin edition….

“Gigi” is one of the titles that springs to the lips of those in the know when Colette’s name is mentioned; possibly because of the film starring Leslie Caron; and yet when I picked it up for a re-read I was astonished at how short it actually is. At around 50 pages in my pretty old Penguin, it would struggle to be classed as a novella, and I would almost expect to find it in my volume of her collected short stories. In fact, my Penguin has “Gigi” paired with “The Cat”, a longer work; yet reputation of the title story is large, and for a very good reason.

Gilberte, known affectionately as Gigi, is 15 going on grown-up; on the cusp of womanhood, still naive and closely protected by her mother, her Grandmother and her aunt Alicia, she is being discreetly lined up for life as a courtesan. The family is slightly on the outside of things; although they have higher class associates, they struggle financially, with Gigi’s mother singing at night to earn money. A legacy of one of Grandmother’s past liaisons is a current friendship with Gaston Lachaille, a rich man who nevertheless seems to enjoy calling on the little family of women where he can relax. Gigi calls him Uncle Tonton, and is happy to be spoiled with little treats. However, Tonton has broken up with his society girlfriend, at a point where Gigi is reaching an age to be of interest as more than a family friend. The older women seem to be considering some kind of modern version of Grandmother’s friendship with the Lachaille family; however, Gigi has ideas of her own…

As always, Colette’s writing is a pure delight. Despite its short length, “Gigi” brims with atmosphere, characters, settings and stories. Gigi herself is headstrong and engaging; Tonton a convincing besotted man . Leaving aside any morals here (when did we ever look to a Colette book for morals???), the story is beautifully told and it’s a joy seeing Gigi get her own way despite the attempts of the older women to control her.

So I might have shelled out on an expensive ‘paper lovers’ magazine just because it had some postcards of women reading, including Colette and Hepburn….

OK, OK, the morals. Tonton is 33, Gigi is 15; that age gap and her youth are problematic, although it has to be borne in mind that the story is set some considerable time in the past (which is no excuse really). However, I can’t help being reminded of how Colette married a man older than her, the libertine Willy (she was a naive looking 20, he was 34); and I wondered how much this coloured her narrative. Nevertheless, “Gigi” is beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and a fascinating look at the lives of certain women too easily dismissed. This was a time when being wife or mistress seemed the only options, unless you had money, and Gigi is intelligent enough to know which was the better choice.

“Gigi” was made into a successful stage show, and then a film; the former launched the career of Audrey Hepburn, when Colette reputedly pointed her out as the perfect actress to play her heroine. The film became a classic (though staring Caron not Hepburn) and Colette continued writing until her death. I wouldn’t say “Gigi” is necessarily the best place to start with her work; but nothing she writes is ever dull, and I’m happy to have become reacquainted with “Gigi” again for the 1944 Club!

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Plans? What plans?? #WITmonth

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It’s no great secret that reading plans and I don’t get on that well together. More often than not if I make a schedule, join a challenge or even just try to think a few books ahead to what I’ll be reading next it all tends to go straight out of the window while I follow some random reading whim. However! August is Women in Translation month and I *do* always try to join in with that one – particularly as I read a lot of translated work and a lot of women’s writing!

So here is a little pile of possibles off the TBR which may attract my attention during this month. You’ll see one book which ticks the box for another August event – All Virago, All August, a little challenge by the members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. This takes in Viragos, other books by Virago authors and Persephones too, and although I don’t commit to reading only those for the month I do try to enjoy at least one title. And the Triolet counts for WIT too so that would be ideal. Although a re-read of the Colette is very tempting. And I love Tsvetaeva at the moment so her diaries would be fab. And the others sound great too…

However, this is the book I’m currently reading and loving, and so as it will be the first book I finish and review in August, it will also definitely be my first WIT book!

Unfortunately, there are other volumes vying for my attention… As I was having a rummage for WIT titles I came across a few others which caught my eye:

The Spark, of course, would tie in with HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration. The Baudelaire is Baudelaire and therefore needs no explanation. And the Malcolm Bradbury was mentioned on the From First Page to Last blog and I recalled I had a copy which I have now found! It’s set in a university and since I find universities and academics endlessly fascinating (probably because I never went to one…) it sounds like I really might enjoy it.

And then there are the review books lurking:

And don’t they look pretty and appealing, and I wish I could read them all in one go… Fortunately, I shall be doing some train travelling this month which may mean that I can get through a few of these titles while on the road (or the rails…). Come to think of it, Catherine the Great’s letters would count for WIT month as well, wouldn’t they??? 😀

So lots of choices again, alas. Are you planning any Women in Translation books this month, or any Viragos? Are you a planner or do you just follow your reading whims? Do tell! 🙂

Some booky and arty digressions! (or; drowning in books….)

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have picked up that I’ve been having a bit of a clear out recently – the pile of books on the landing, known locally as Death Row, has been severely pruned and there are now boxes in the hallway waiting for a local charity shop to collect. Unfortunately, the pruning process wasn’t as rigorous as I might have wished, as I ended up reprieving a fair number of books – but at least the landing is now passable without danger of falling over a pile of volumes…

Needless to say, however, this somehow spurred on a burst of buying (and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of things locally). So in the spirit of sharing gratuitous book pictures with those who love them, here are some lovelies! 🙂

They come from a variety of sources, new and used, and are all tempting me to pick them up straight away to read…

First up, a couple of finds in the local Samaritans Book Cave – and as I mentioned when I posted images of them on social media, I had only popped in to ask about donating…. But the Wharton is one I’ve never seen before and it sounds fascinating. I do of course have the Colette already, but it’s a very old, small Penguin with browning crumbly pages which I’m a bit scared to read again. And I *do* want to re-read the Cheri books, so of course want to start reading both of these at once.

These two are brand new, pay-day treats from an online source (ahem). I basically couldn’t resist Bergeners as I’ve heard such good things about it (and as I posted excitedly on Twitter, I now own a Seagull Books book!) The Patti Smith was essential, as I have just about everything else ever published by her (including old and rare poetry pamphlets from the 1970s). I just discovered she has an Instagram account you can follow – how exciting is that????

Finally in the new arrivals, a recent post by Liz reminded me that I had always wanted to own a book issued by the Left Book Club. A quick online search revealed that Orwells are prohibitively expensive; but I rather liked the look of this one about Rosa Luxemburg and so it was soon winging its way to me.

I could of course start reading any of these straight away (but which one?); though I am rather suffering from lots of books calling for my attention at once. There’s the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics I featured a photo of recently, as well as other review books. Then there is this enticing pile featuring some books I’m keen on getting to soon:

I’ve already started the Chateaubriand and it’s excellent; long and full of beautiful prose. I want to read more RLS, and I’m very drawn to New Arabian Nights. Then there is poetry – perhaps I should have a couple of weeks of reading only verse???

Finally, here’s an author who’s been getting a lot of online love recently:

I was pretty sure that I’d read Jane Bowles, and I thought it was “Two Serious Ladies” that I’d read – but apparently not… The pretty Virago above is a fairly recently acquisition; the short story collection is a book I’ve had for decades (it has an old book-plate I used to use); and so I’ve obviously never read Bowles’ only novel. So tempting.

And there is, of course, this rather daunting volume – Dr. Richard Clay’s book on “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris”, which is currently sitting on my shelf glaring at me as if to say “Well, you went through all that angst to get me, so damn well read me!”

Here it is on the aforesaid shelf, and as you can see it has a new heavyweight companion…

The new arrival is another Big Book on iconoclasm which has just come out in paperback. It’s obvious I need to give up work and find some kind of employment that will pay me just to read…

So, I’m really not quite sure where to commit my reading energies at the moment: do I read review books or follow my whim? Or let myself by swayed by other people’s suggestions or go for a re-read? Or go for Difficult but Fascinating? Decisions, decisions…

The Arty Bit

This post is getting a bit long, but anyway. Ramblings readers will probably have picked up that I love a good art exhibition, but I pretty much always end up travelling to London for them as not much seems to happen locally. However, OH (that great enabler) noticed that the nearest Big Town had an art gallery and it was showing a collection of contemporary Chinese art, so I popped over during the recent half term break.

I confess that I know little about Chinese art (probably more about Japanese art, tbh) but this was fascinating. The works are remarkable varied, some drawing on traditional Chinese methods and others embracing more Western techniques. I took quick snaps of a few favourites (I’m never sure if you’re allowed to take photos in galleries, though phone cameras seem to be acceptable).

It really is an eye-opener of an exhibition, and even had free postcards!

What was disappointing, however, was how quiet the gallery was in the middle of a half term week. I do feel that perhaps they need to give themselves a higher profile; I wasn’t sure I even knew there was a gallery there, although I now find myself questioning that because of a very strange incident. I was on my up the stairs in the gallery to the upper mezzanine level, and halfway up there is a big list on the wall of supporters and past volunteers. I was a bit surprised to notice, therefore, that Middle Child’s name was featured…. Especially as when I quizzed her about it she claimed to have no idea why it’s up there!

She is, however, the arty one of the family, and I suspect may have been involved in something there when she was at college doing art. But obviously having a bad memory run in the family.

Well. I’m sorry – this is a really long post (but then I do like to live up to my name and ramble….) Now I just need to focus and decide what to read next…

The Price of Love #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust

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The Captive by Colette
Translated by Antonia White

I always enjoy taking part in Women in Translation month during August; I read a lot of translated literature anyway, and likewise a lot of women authors, so in some ways it’s a bit of a case of the month being what I already do. However, I haven’t managed to get on to so many titles this year because of “War and Peace”; but having picked up a lovely edition of Colette’s “The Captive” on my recent travels, I decided this would be an ideal re-read, particularly as she’s a Virago author too (and translated by another Virago author!).

I first read Colette in the early 1980s, and this was one of the titles I had, so it’s been over 35 years since I read this particular book (gulp!). I’ve returned to certain of her works over and over again (particularly “Break of Day”) but I’m pretty sure I’ve never re-read “The Captive” so I was very eager to see what I made of it after all this time.

Published in 1913, “The Captive” is narrated by Colette’s alter ego, Renée Néré, who featured in a number of the author’s works, most notably “The Vagabond”. In the latter story she was a music hall artist, travelling the country, living out of a trunk and performing wherever fate took her. In “The Captive”, Néré has retired from music hall after receiving a legacy and is frankly at a loose end. We first encounter her living in a hotel in Nice and basically wasting her time hanging around with Jean and May, a pair of young lovers with a destructive relationship, and the rather entertaining Masseau, an opium addict who serves as light relief! Renée is alternately bored and amused with her companions and often seems to wish she could be on her own, communing with nature and relishing her solitude.

Nice in the 1900s

However, Renée is not as straightforward as she seems, and despite her age still has her attractions. Inevitably, Jean is drawn to the older, more experienced woman and despite her attempts to escape him by running off to Geneva, they begin an affair which is characterised from the start by a simple physical connection rather than anything deeper. However, this relationship is nothing if not complex and we follow its twists and turns until it reaches a perhaps unexpected conclusion…

A simple sounding tale, perhaps, but in the hands of an author like Colette it’s anything but. Renée herself is a complex mix, attempting to resist the allure of the younger man yet unable to; despite her avowed independence, she craves love, and also to be reassured that she’s still attractive. As for Jean, for much of the book he’s unreadable and it’s only towards the end of the story that we see a little more of his personality emerge. All the nuances and complexities of an affair between man and woman are laid bare here: the little lies and compromises, the obsession and the disillusionment, the arguments and the bliss. In many ways Renée is trying to keep herself detached during the affair; she tries to convince herself that it’s simply a physical thing between them, but the longer the relationship goes on, the harder it is to really believe that. The title has been translated before as “The Shackle”, perhaps to indicate that love is such a thing and that Renée has been captured by the emotion. However, I believe the literal translation of the original French “L’Entrave” is ‘obstacle’, and Renée certainly encounters one in her quest for freedom.

You pretend to love me; this means that all day long I must bear the burden of your anxiety, your watch-dog vigilance, your suspicion. Tonight I am not off the chain, but it has slipped from your hand and trails behind me so that I do not feel the pull of it.

There are elements of the story which might sit uncomfortably with modern readers: the casual violence between Jean and May; the constant smoking; and the fact that a woman is considered past it at the ripe old age of 36… (heavens!) This latter is particularly striking, as modern attitudes would consider 36 to be in the prime of life; but Renée/Colette makes constant reference to her increasing age, the need to keep up certain barriers between the lovers, a certain heaviness of age – most odd! Much of the plot is concerned with the power balance within the relationship, which shifts as the story develops, and a to modern eyes the sacrifices Renée makes might be unacceptable; although I would wager that things have not changed as much as we might think they have… And it’s worth remembering that she is in a position of having basically no occupation: she misses the music hall (and a visit to her old colleague Brague makes that pain even worse), has no need to make a living and is at a loose end, so ripe for an emotional intrigue. There is a hint at one point that she is attempting a career as a writer, but this is never stated outright, and Renée seems very much a woman at a transitional period of her life.

Colette in the 1900s by Henri Manuel – this is rather how I image Renée…

The story itself is fascinating and involving; and I felt it very much reflected Colette’s view at the time, as she was a woman who certainly needed love. Yet there are other elements creeping in, those which became more prominent in her later books: her profound love of nature is evident, as well as her wonderful powers of observation and her ability to capture a place or person in a few lines. As I read I really felt as if I was *in* the South of France, or Paris, or Geneva, so vivid are the pictures she paints.

I’m never sure how widely known Colette is nowadays; in my feminist youth, she was someone we turned to readily as a pioneering woman who carved out her own life and lived it on her own terms, while writing wonderful books along the way. Returning to her writing with this book I felt, as I always do, not only what wonderful prose she wrote but what a wonderfully adventurous life she must have had. I loved my re-read of “The Captive” and if you haven’t read anything by the marvellous Colette I would strongly urge you to – a remarkable woman and a remarkable writer.

A teeny, tiny haul…

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I’ve been slightly off grid lately as I was away making my usual summer round trip visit to my Aged Mother and then the Offspring in Leicester. It was an enjoyable, if tiring, week and not without its issues, as the Aged Mother is getting very forgetful nowadays which causes the occasional bit of friction. But I took her out for several visits, and also of course had the opportunity to visit the Leicester shops, so it was inevitable that I would come into contact with books…

However, I think I was pretty restrained (possibly owing to being completely embroiled in “War and Peace”) and so I came book with only a few volumes:

These first two came from a little hop I took with mum to Market Harborough, one of her favourite places to go. It was a bit of a mission as the buses are erratic, but she enjoyed it, and I did get to pick up a couple of treats from the Oxfam. “Algernon” is a title I’ve heard recommended highly, and I keep meaning to read more sci-fi…. As for the Carey book, I’ve always found him an erudite and entertaining commentator when he’s been on TV; I did borrow this from the library once but never actually read it, so was happy to find a second-hand copy for myself!

Leicester has a bookish area in Queens Road, with Loros and Age Concern charity bookshops, and I persuaded Eldest Child to accompany me for a visit to them this year. Let’s not talk about the detour we had to take because Victoria Park was closed for a festival, or the rain; suffice to say that the local Costa was very welcome! However, I did find a couple of nice treasures – a collection of interviews with Margaret Atwood, and a nice edition of a Colette. I already had an old edition of the latter book, but it’s very fragile, and I’m a bit nervous of reading it again, so this one was just the ticket.

The final find was from a little secondhand bookshop in The Lanes at Leicester. There was a very tempting section of Golden Age crime, including a lot of Green Penguins, but I was strong and only came away with a John Dickson Carr. Really, I’m enjoying his books so much that I’m likely to pick up whichever one comes my way, and this one has such a wonderfully lurid cover!

So those were my bookish finds while I was away; I could have picked up many more volumes, but of course I would have had to lug them back on the train, and as it was my very small suitcase was already half full of reading matter…. 😉

The Bookish Time Travel Tag!

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As I rule, I don’t often get tagged for memes and the like, but englishlitgeek mentioned me in connection with a rather nice bookish time travel tag and I really couldn’t resist. The tag is created by The Library Lizard and you can see their site here. Apparently all you have to do is answer the questions as best you can and suggest some other bloggers who might be interested in taking part – with no pressure and no obligation of course! So here goes with the questions!

1. What is your favourite historical setting for a book?

rare_russian_books

The most obvious setting that springs to mind for me is Russia – a country I have a great fondness for in the form of its culture, literature and art. Reading books set in either Tsarist or Soviet or modern Russia is one of my favourite things, and you can guarantee that I won’t go for long without reading a Russian! I still don’t quite know where the fascination comes from – maybe I have distant relations there…. J

2. What writer/s would you like to travel back in time to meet?

Virginia Woolf

Well, how long is a piece of string? Some of my favourites will be obvious to readers of the Ramblings, and spending time with Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Mikhail Bulgakov, Mervyn Peake, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Colette and Georges Perec, to name but a few, would be such a wonderful experience. I’m the kind of reader who, when they really like an author’s books, feels they have a kind of personal relationship with that author so actually meeting them in real life would be kind of wonderful!

3.What book/s would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

lifeperec

That’s a hard one, but I would probably pick out Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual”. I read this fairly recently and it engendered a huge obsession with Perec’s work. It’s a book I wish I’d discovered earlier in my life so I would definitely like to send it back to myself!

4.What book/s would you travel forward in time and give to your older self?

I don’t think there are *any* books I would rather have read now than when I was younger; and I certainly revisit the ones which had the most impact on me at the time. That’s the joy of reading – you can go back to your favourites…

5.What is your favourite futuristic setting from a book?

viriconium

Another tricky one… I’m very fond of M. John Harrison’s “Viriconium”; I read his novels and stories of the place back in the day and I’m intending a re-visit when I have the right reading moment. The sprawling, undefined and ever-changing city is endlessly fascinating and vividly created, and I can’t recommend these books strongly enough. Ballard’s futuristic settings are of course wonderful and I do need to get back to reading his short stories again.

6.What is your favourite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?

mervynpeake_gormenghast

I’m not going to be able to pick just one – impossible to pick favourites! – but I would like to mention Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books. As I’ve said before, I read these back in the late 1970s and was transfixed. The setting is nebulous, but obviously somewhere else and sometime else, the writing is glorious, the characters fantastic and larger than life, and it’s a series of books like no other. In fact, I suspect that a re-read might be due some time soon….

7.Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book just to see what happens?

Very rarely… I’d rather read the book through and watch what happens, because even if you read the end of a book, you don’t necessarily find out the complete solution. Fortunately, I’m a fairly fast reader so even if the book is very suspenseful and I’m desperate to get to the end, I can usually hold out until the last pages!

8.If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

break of day

Ooooh, so many temptations! I’d be very keen to visit the Cote D’Azur before it became what it is today – Colette’s “Break of Day’, possibly my favourite of her books, features the south of France before it became the commercialised millionaires’ playground it is today, and I would absolutely love to see that. Popping into post-revolutionary Russia to visit Mayakovsky and Bulgakov is tempting – as is visiting every single author I’ve ever liked, actually! I’ve always fancied early 20th century Britain, and in fact living through the 20th century from the very start must have been a fascinating experience. Choices, choices!

9.Favourite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods?

half a life

Again, I don’t like to pick favourites; but I read Connie Willis’ “To say nothing of the Dog” pre-blog and liked it very much. Another work I like that straddles time periods is the short story “May I Please Speak to Nina” by Kirill Bulychev which I reviewed here and absolutely loved.

10. What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

if-on-a-winters-night-a-traveller

Well, the Gormenghast books and The Lord of the Rings are obvious choices – both are series I’ve read many times over the years and both have had a big effect on me. And I would like to encounter Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter night a traveler” for the first time again – it was one of those life-changing reads and I still love it to bits.

Phew! An interesting tag, which really made me think about some of the books I’ve read! As for other bloggers who might like to take the tag up, I’ll mention a few below who could well be interested – though as I said, no pressure and I don’t like to drop people into things they don’t want to do. But thanks to englishlitgeek for mentioning this tag to me – it’s been fun! 🙂

Annabel’s House of Books

Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home

Beyond Eden Rock

HeavenAli

JacquiWine’s Journal

Exploring My Library – Colette (#WIT Month)

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As it’s Women in Translation Month, I thought it might be a nice idea to share a part of my library which features works from someone who qualifies; and there are lots of candidates but I’m going for an author who was probably one of the earliest translated women I read, and is still among my favourites – Colette.

I’ve written about Colette here before, and she was a gutsy, fascinating woman who lived an incredible life. Her writing is just wonderful and so let’s got onto the books – and I own quite a few… In fact, they go two rows deep on the shelves and here they are:

front shelf

This is what the front looks like – a mixed selection of biographies and fiction.

back shelfAnd this is the back row – mainly my original Penguins from the early 1980s when I first read Colette, stored in chronological order together with other editions – because there wasn’t a complete set in Penguin, which was one of my bugbears, and still annoys me.

matching penguinsAs you can see, the Penguins at that time were quite lovely, with beautiful covers featuring a vintage photograph and very pretty design around it, in varying colours. I bought and read my way through all of these that were available, absolutely loving Colette, and I do wish Penguin had brought out all of her books in this style. Alas, not all were in Penguin and so the gaps were filled by different publishers.

unusual ones

These are some of my more unusual ones – two copies of “Mitsou” (which I only read recently), a very odd “Earthly Paradise” apparently featuring a flapper, a pretty older Penguin of “Ripening Seed” and an old hardback of “The Blue Lantern”. The latter is one of my favourite Colettes and yet not very easily obtained – I can’t imagine why…

animalsAnother more obscure title in a couple of variants – Colette’s “Dialogues des Betes” is another lesser-known title which I’ve only just picked up. She was known for her love of animals and it’s a shame this work isn’t easier to come by.

letters storiesCollected Stories is a wonderful volume, and I’d recommend it without hesitation – her shorter fictions are presented chronologically here, covering her time in music hall to the later stages of her life, and she’s as good at short stories as longer fictions. Her Letters are a delight too, and both of these books are overseen by Robert Phelps, something of a Colette scholar I believe.

some biogsThere’s a lot of biographical material on Colette as well, and these are just some of the books I have. The Thurman book is an excellent read, and probably a good place to start if you’re new to Colette and want a good biog.

claudines

Evidence, if  you ever needed it, that I really do buy too many books. I have a lovely set of the Claudine books in the original Penguin pastel type covers, so I don’t need an omnibus or a set of the older Penguins. But they’re so pretty………

break of day

Last, but certainly not least, “Break of Day”, my first and possibly favourite Colette. The Women’s Press edition on the left is the one I read back in about 1981 and it completely sold me on Colette. I then went on to read all of the books I could get in chronological order. Recently I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop, just because I could – I did have another edition, a Heron hardback with a nasty cover, so I donated that as it was taking up a lot of space. I love “Break of Day” – I’ve read it more than any other Colette and can’t help thinking I’d like to pick it up again soon!

So there you have some of my Colette collection – I could have made this post a lot longer by showing you the inside of some of the picture books I have about her, reminiscences of her third husband, etc etc but I’d risk boring you to death. Colette was a wonderful woman and a marvellous writer, and is certainly a good choice if you’re looking for a translated woman to read this month!

 

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