Part 1 of several: The Vagabond – 4/5 Stars
The Vagabond is a novel from about 1910 about a Vaudeville/Burlesque performer in her early to mid thirties who, rather being at the end of her long and stories career or getting tired a looking to wind down, finds herself in a strange and scary position of facing the world anew after the radical upheaval of her first husband leaving her.
This change does not institute a period of wildness, but does allow her to see herself no longer as the wife of this previous husband, but as once again her own person. Because she married so young leaving her father’s house and moving into her husband’s there’s that now familiar sense of having never really understood what it meant to be part of the world and being one’s own person. So what comes next is not necessarily the scary proposition of facing the world on her own, but being able to figure out what is and what means love, with the added wisdom and experience of being in one’s 30s, instead of one’s 20s, or younger.
This is a surprisingly modern feeling novel in a lot of ways. I think partly that because it’s French and I don’t read a lot of French literature, in part because of who Colette is and her place in the literary world, and then unfortunately I am also worried that some of the modern feel comes from a too loose translation of the novel. I caught the translator at least once using an anachronistic phrase that not only was not what Colette would have said, is not very French, and was not likely even available for public consumption at the time of the writing.
My Mother’s House – 4/5 Stars
I think this book is somehow connected to Colette’s “Claudine” books but the character’s name throughout this one is Colette, and even though it’s sometimes translated as “Claudine’s House” I am not sure or aware of the reason behind this.
This novel is most definitely a kind of roman a clef or nonfiction novel and was written several years after the Claudine novels that I will read later, and most definitely has the voice of an older and more experienced writer. The novel is about the youngest of many children to a rural French family. The setting of this novel is right at the time that the older children are beginning to leave home and the pressures, tensions, and sadness that creates in the youngest child not only as she begins to lose her mentors and playmates, but also as this shifts the dynamic with her parents.
This novel is sad and wistful, but it’s also quite funny and energetic and full of the weird kinds of stories that stick with a person for a long time even after the specific everyday memories of childhood pass by. If it were the case that Colette started with the very specific memory of feelings and then created the narrative supports those, I would not be surprised.
This reminds me a lot of Jessica Mitford’s “Hons and Rebels” and even my own childhood, because I was also the youngest.
Sido – 4/5 Stars
This very short novel is the immediate follow up to My Mother’s House. It’s important to look at titles here. The previous was called my mother’s house, and while that’s a transliteration of the title, it does speak to an important kind of distinction. This was not “her” house in that sense and it was not her father’s house, but her mother’s. This novel is called Sido, a shortened version of Sidonie, her mother’s name, but also her name. So these connections show us a lot about the kinds of distance and connection between Colette the writer, Claudine/Colette the character, and the narrative being told.
In this novel, we follow Colette back to her mother’s house now as an adult revisiting that childhood, not an adult narrator but the adult character. Colette finds her mother much smaller, much more human, and finds her father even less imposing than the almost non-entity imposition he was during her childhood. So when he dies, even in those moment his presence is barely felt.
This novel is much much more concerned with the nature of specific memories, probably because our character is much closer in time. And as a sequel, it doesn’t so much as add to the narrative, so much as add a narrative lens through which to view the original.
An odd connection for me is that this novel reminds me of Joseph Roth’s brilliant elegy to the Austro-Hungarian empire The Radetsky March, and then completely buried it in a somber follow-up, The Emperor’s Tomb.