Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A toad sings amorously, his throat full of pearls - Colette's animals

"A little later comes a hedgehog, a muddle-headed, scatter-brained creature, bold yet easily frightened, who scuttles along in a nearsighted way, goes into the wrong hole, eats greedily, is frightened of the car and makes a noise like a young pig on the loose. The gray cat hates him, but hardly ever goes near him, and her green eyes grow bitter when she looks at him." (23)

That hedgehog and cat live in Colette's Retreat from Love (1907), where we also find a toad, a bat, a dog, a crab, and probably other critters that I have forgotten. I read this novel fifteen years ago, I would guess, and I had to remind myself what it was about - a bunch of crisscrossing love affairs, lovely but diaphanous, hard to remember.

But I remembered that hedgehog, and the bitter cat. And the toad, definitely the toad:

"under the five loose stone steps a toad sings amorously, his throat full of pearls. At dusk he drives away the last midges, the little grubs which live in the cracked stones. From time to time he looks at me deferentially, but with reassurance, then - leaning one hand against the wall in human fashion he stands up to swallow - I hear the nop sound of his wide mouth. When he rests he moves his eyelids in such a pensive and lofty way that I haven't yet dared say a word to him." (22-3)

I found it interesting that Chingiz Aitmatov had been a veterinarian, which certainly informed his writing about animals. Aitmatov reminded me of Colette, oddly. I mean, her world of Parisian courtesans seems pretty far removed from the Kazakhstani steppes. Who knows why she wrote about animals so much, and so well? She, like Aitmatov, observed their world carefully, and made it part of her book. Few novelists do that.

Or am I wrong? Juvenile novels are menageries, right, definitely. I remember reading all sorts of animal stories - raccoons as pets, bears as pets, dogs and more dogs. I don't remember too well if any of them were that well written. I'll think some more. I had not really planned to write about this; maybe it won't go anywhere.

Suggestions, though, are most welcome - who, novelist or otherwise, was good at writing about animals?

Quotations from the Margaret Crosland translation, the only English version, I think.


  1. This may be off-topic, though only slightly I hope, but I remember being particularly affected by Richard Adams' WATERSHIP DOWN when I read it long, long ago. I wonder if re-reading it would now spoil the recollection?

  2. I just finished Robyn McKinley's Spindle's End (YA fantasy) and I think that the animals are very believable. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and all of the Redwall books have good rodent thoughts. E.B. White writes very well about animals, in Charlotte's Web and elsewhere. The goose book I recently reviewed on my blog had really fantastic descriptions of goose life without much romanticizing. I could be way off, but I recall that one of the redeeming qualities of Animal Farm was that the pigs really did seem pig like, the sheep sheep like and so forth.

  3. In a really off-beat approach to your subject, let me share with you a different kind of reading experience in which animals--for very special reasons--are featured. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP by Philip K. Dick features a sheep (of course), a cat, a goat, a spider, and a toad. These animals' cameo appearances--not intended for children--underscore the disturbing outlook for human beings in this dystopian novel.

  4. No, I don't think this is off-topic at all. In good animal fables, going back to Aesop, the animals are on the one hand supposed to be people, but on the other hand they have to retain their animal qualities for the story to work at all.

    It's interesting, though, that animal characters are so central to children's books, while its assumed that adults are not interested. Black Beauty and The Jungle Book and The Call of the Wild become redefined as children's stories. Animal Farm is an exception, for now.

    The Dick novel is a good example, too. The animals are really worked into the story. Some of the animals are themselves androids, right? I may be misremembering.

  5. Indeed. Some of the animals are androids, though it would be a "spoiler" for uninitiated readers to say much more about that.
    I think there is at least one reason animals feature so prominently in children's books rather than books written exclusively for adult readers. Children still have unspoiled imaginations, and they are (to adapt a phrase from Coleridge) completely willing to suspend disbelief. Children aren't yet cynical enough to do anything other than enjoy the sometimes speculative, magical quality that is the foundation for stories in which animals figure as prominent characters.
    Books like Black Beauty and Call of the Wild (among many others) are, I think, a different category. I would prefer to immerse myself in the tales that are more fantastic and imaginative.

  6. I guess another possible reason for a novel to be retrofitted as a kids' book is that it's not actually too sphisticated. Maybe Black Beauty is not so complex. Been a long, long time since I read it.

    Then I remember the Alice books, and immediately want to retract any generalized notions of simplicity or complexity in novels for children.

  7. I need to start reading all of the comments before I comment on one post something that has already been suggested on another. Alas.

  8. Repetition is a valuable pedagogical tool. Repetition is a useful pedagogical tool.

  9. An amazing children's book that all should read, that has animals in it is Erich Kästner's "The Animal Conference", althouh he personified the animals, like many authors do. Yet it's still a beautifully written book.

  10. Thanks for the recommendation. I hadn't heard of this book. I guess I've heard of the author - wrote The Parent Trap.