Here I see the Obooki put Colette on his list of “Favourite 53 Novels.” His specific choice is “Something… it really doesn’t matter what.” I would like more opinions on this subject, not because I think the Obooki is wrong – the opinion seems plausible – but because I can’t read Colette’s books all at once and would like some pointers. Not there is anything wrong with “whatever is at hand.”
What was at hand last month was Retreat from Love (1907), a lovely novel that I had read previously. The novel has an odd history. It’s Colette’s first book after freeing herself from her odious husband Willy, who forced his brilliant wife to churn out books in his smut factory, or something like that. Retreat from Love is the fifth book in the Claudine series, but the first that is written without the shadow of Willy, and also the only one that I have read.
You might think that it would be helpful to know the histories of the characters and so on. Maybe! In Margaret Crosland’s translation, some endnotes catch me up, although I am not sure any are needed. Claudine is living in the countryside in Jura with a friend, Annie, who “has become a despairing nymphomaniac” (3, translator’s introduction). Claudine’s much older husband is ill and in a sanitarium. Her stepson Marcel, almost her age, and a flaming homosexual, drops in to escape some trouble in Paris. Marcel and Annie are both in the thrall of “young bodies,” while Claudine is devoted to an absent old one. Mild complications ensue.
Claudine thinks about the sex life of her friend, misses her husband, gathers flowers and pine cones, and watches the animals, all of the novel’s magnificent animals:
As light as an elf, a little squirrel flies along in front of us from branch to branch. Its russet tail fans out like smoke, its fleecy front moving up and down as he leaps along. He’s plumper, better upholstered and richer than an angora rabbit and leans down to look at me, his forelegs wide apart, his fingernails holding on in human fashion. His beautiful black eyes quiver with a timid effrontery, and I yearn to catch hold of him, to feel his tiny little body beneath the soft fleece; it’s so pleasurable to imagine that it makes me clench my teeth slightly. (152)
The sensual theme of the novel is tied to the animal theme. “A crazy bee flew by, passing so close to her mouth that she drew back and wiped her lips with the back of her hand” (205). The people are animals, the animals, “the circle of my animal friends,” people:
all those I can’t see in the dusk, but whose mysterious footsteps I can hear: the tap-tap of the hedgehog who trots adventurously from cabbage to rose, from rose to basket of peelings – a light sound on the gravel, the sound of someone dragging a leg: it’s the slow walk f the very old toad who lives beneath the stones of the fallen wall. Toby’s afraid of him, but Péronelle is not beneath giving a timid scratch to his grainy back with the tip if one teasing paw. (218)
The next few lines move to a hawk moth, “transparent and quivering so violently that he seems to be his own shadow.” The toad, eighteen months younger, can be seen in a quotation I used eight years ago. Péronelle is back there, too. Toby is a bull terrier who practically steals the show.
Maybe I should rephrase my request. Which Colette books have the most animals? I love those animals.