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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.

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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!

 

Goodbye, July – and August reading plans!

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I’m really not sorry to see the back of July – it was a long and busy month, and I spent a lot of it reading one book, Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” (the review for which will be appearing in the next Shiny New Books). It wouldn’t normally take me so long to read 600 pages, but I *was* busy and I *was* tired! The minute I finished work for the summer, I raced through the rest of the book….!

So, with July out of the way, do I have plans for August? Well, yes – there are a number of challenges up this month and I’d like to take part if I can.

hudson river

First of all there’s All Virago/All August, which the LibraryThing Virago group organise. I never go for reading nothing but Viragos for the month, because I would fail – like Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I prefer the approach of “Very Virago/All August” and just read the ones that fall in with my mood. This month, I hope to catch up with the Dorothy Richardsons I’m behind on, and also read a large and interesting-looking Edith Wharton, “Hudson River Bracketed”.

PMP6

I’d also like to keep up the impetus with the Penguin Modern Poets project; the next one is volume 6 and it features two poets I know of (and at least one I’ve read) so it should be an interesting experience.

Keun

August is also Women in Translation month. Goodness knows I have a ton of books by translated women, but choosing will be hard! There are two lovely Irmgard Keun titles lurking on the shelves so I may pick one of them.

baum colette

There’s also “Grand Hotel” which I’m doing for Shiny. Plus I may well re-read my favourite Colette, “Break of Day”, as I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop!

woolf orlando recollections

Last, but most definitely not least, I want to dip into HeavenAli’s #Woolfalong; the current phase is biography of all sorts and I’m considering “Orlando” or possibly “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”. Knowing me, I may end up reading neither of these, but I do want to read something Woolfish soon!

So those are the plans for August as they stand on the first day of the month – watch this space to see what materialises! 🙂

Colette’s Missing Link

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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.

mitsou

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.

Colette with her daughter Colette de Jouvenel (Bel-Gazou) around 1918

Colette with her daughter Colette de Jouvenel (Bel-Gazou) around 1918

“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!

The 1924 Club : Choosing a Virago!

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The Other Woman by Colette

Today sees the start of the 1924 Club, Simon’s clever idea for us to look at, read and enjoy books from that year! When he first mooted the idea, one of the first things that probably sprang into both of our minds was to check which of the Virago titles were published that year, and then to see which ones we had in our collection! Fortunately, the very handy Virago Collection tracker on LibraryThing (cleverly prepared and maintained by members of the group) enables sorting by year and these were the titles which came up:

Precious Bane by Mary Webb
The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
Old New York by Edith Wharton
The Matriarch by G.B. Stern
The Rector’s Daughter by F.M. Mayor
The Other Woman by Colette
Challenge by Vita Sackville-West

An intriguing and mixed bunch, no? Certainly, the first title on the list, “Precious Bane”, seems to inspire either love or hate in a reader; I’ve never had the courage to approach it after reading the parody of it in the form of “Cold Comfort Farm”. However, I do own several of the titles on the list and here are some of them:

1924 viragos(I know I’ve got at least one copy of “The Constant Nymph” in the house; and I do have “Challenge” too, but in a non-Virago edition).

I also might just have downloaded a copy of Wharton’s “Old New York” just for the fun of it…

It’s a tribute to the strength of the Virago list that these are all titles that are highly regarded and could be picked up and read quite happily (but then VMCs are known for their quality). I had to make a very difficult decision as to which one I’d read and in the end I went for the Colette – it’s ages since I read any of her short stories and they rather appealed to me. The collection consists of 20 short stories ranging in length from a couple of pages, to round forty for the closing piece in the book “My Friend Valentine”. And every single one is a gem – I don’t think Colette could write a bad piece of work if she tried!

In a few pages she can lay bare a relationship, expose a woman’s everyday deceptions or reveal the excruciating loneliness when love comes to an end. Her eye is always objective but compassionate – she never judges, but observes, and you can feel her warmth and sympathy and love of life coming through whatever her subject.

The aforementioned “My Friend Valentine” is one of my favourite of Colette’s shorter works, and one in which she features herself as a character. Collecting together a sequence of pieces, we see Valentine as she chastises Colette for dining at a disreputable bar run by the formidable Semiramis; the two ladies take part in the vine harvest; they discuss how to bring up their daughters; and in a pivotal passage, Colette considers the reasons why cutting her hair short is so liberating for a woman.

1924 colette

A case could be made for asserting that Colette’s greatest creation was herself; certainly many of my favourite of her works are those in which she projected herself as a character. I say as a character because the Colette she chose to show to the world was probably not the real woman behind this image; but it’s delightful to feel that you’re in touch with her and getting a glimpse into her world.

The prose is, of course, gorgeous and I could have pulled out masses of quotes but frankly I’d rather just recommend that you get a copy of this book (or indeed her collected short stories, or any of her novels, or basically anything she wrote) and just read it. In 1924 Colette had published many of the great works we still know and love her for, and was a writer at the height of her powers. “The Other Woman” is a wonderful way to get to know her!

Don’t forget to let us know what books you’re reading from 1924, what exciting titles you’ve uncovered and what you think of them all! 

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