CBR10Bingo – This Old Thing? for Claudine at School
CBR10Bingo – Dream Vacation for Claudine in Paris
Claudine in School
Book 1! from 1904
Man, French people are way more cool about sex than Americans are. This is not a surprise as most countries are way more cool about sex than Americans are. But this is a book that doesn’t just imply sex between characters, but heavily suggests it. And there’s very clearly sexual attraction and playfulness between school-age girls, and this book was widely popular.
So, this is a book from 1904 and collects the fictionalized (or more so novelized) memoirs of Colette under the name of Claudine while she’s at school. Her presence at school of of a kind of detached, highly intelligent student who’s probably better than her contemporaries but refuses to put the work in.
What’s really interesting about this one is learning about the social mores of French middle-class culture of the 1890s or so, but also seeing a more or less functional school being taken advantage of, but not being abusive. Usually when I read about schools one of two things happen: either the school is so abusive that the learning the students go through is minuscule in comparison to the abuse or the students are so resistant and abusive that no learning gets done. For example, the Neapolitan schooling of the Elena Ferrante books come to mind. In this school, certainly bad schooling is happening, but it’s not abusive. It’s not great teaching…based entirely in memorizing rote material and not building critical thinking or analytical skills, but it’s not abusive.
Claudine in Paris
This is a very funny follow-up to the first book. For one, it’s a funny book, like the first one, but also, it’s a funny book in general because not a whole lot happens, but it’s still perfectly satisfying. Claudine has left her school, is still very mischievous and precocious, but now is living in Paris.
She’s not really working and she’s not really doing things, but she is spying on people around Paris, meeting with her friends and potential paramours, and tending to her cat. The exciting news is that her cat is pregnant! There’s a funny moment where she describes the newborn kittens as little grey maggots.
Anyway, for a book that is a follow-up to a much longer and more active book this is interesting. It relies heavily on your connections to the series and the characters, and if you’re in for a pound, etc etc.
It does connect directly to the follow up book because Claudine, spoiler alert, does get married at the end, but there’s enough knowledge of the character to make us assume it’s not going to work out for the two of them.
The opening of this book is something like: There are serious problems in my marriage and my husband, of course, does not know.
This is one of those books where a young wife quickly realizes that men have been trained to see marriage as a goal, as a commonality, as an expectation, all that, but not actually trained to understand that marriage is a partnership or worse that it requires any kind of change or compromise or well, anything from them whatsoever except perhaps some money.
So here Colette finds herself, a year and a half into her marriage married to the man who has her, but doesn’t know what to do with her, still goes out all the time, kisses other women (his friends, he says) and she finds herself caring less and less.
Now the difference between those books and this one is that a) this Colette, b) she’s French, and c) she DOES know that there are alternatives. And so the book is less about the despondent wife having to figure out or never figuring out what to do with her situation, but instead realizing that she has a lot of options.
It’s refreshing in all those ways, and of course, like the previous novels and most of the Colette novels I’ve read so far, the results are quite funny.
The results of this book is that we have a kind of closing of the Claudine books in a certain way, and they get reopened with the later books Sido and My Mother’s House which are more about the mother and less about Claudine directly, and more importantly are written by a more mature version of the writer and character.
Claudine and Annie
But before we go anywhere, whether to the very strong novels not connected to Claudine, like The Vagabond, which I read earlier this summer, or the other autobiographical novels, we do have one more dip into the universe of Claudine.
This novel presents a significant shift in the novels though because the titular Annie is also the narrator. So for the first time in the set we have Claudine not through her own eyes. In addition, and I think this is more interesting and entertaining, we have the world of Claudine (her sphere of habitation and influence) not from her perspective. Claudine is rapacious and mischievous and Annie just isn’t. Though we know the cracks in the veneer of Claudine and especially of her marriage, Annie doesn’t, and so when the cracks of her own marriage and her own struggles with life get compared in Annie’s head to those of Claudine, Annie comes up convinced that’s she a true failure. The irony of course is that after three books told from Claudine, we know that while she is quite capable, she’s not perfect and she’s more conscientious than she otherwise lets on.
These four novels together are strong in both their collective and individual strengths. What I think works best about them is the focused narrative gaze. There’s a reason there’s four books, each is distinct, and while there’s some overlap in time period, there’s very little overlap in story. There’s also a respective scope to each and each covers what it needs to. Never is there much of a sense that one big story is being told and therefore each part is simply the next step, but instead, there’s a clear purpose behind all the different novels and what each is doing here.