Friday, January 6, 2017

it’s so pleasurable to imagine that it makes me clench my teeth slightly - Colette's Retreat from Love

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.


  1. Perhaps the Colette book with the most animals is "Dialogues de bêtes," which is mostly conversations between cats and dogs. It's probably been translated...

  2. Ha - and not just any cats and dogs - there's Toby-Chien!

    Forget translation, this book's French does not look so hard. I should stockpile it.

  3. I would tend to agree with Obooki. How about La chatte? It's marvellous on so many levels.

  4. Colette is fantastic, whichever one you read. I was going to suggest Dialogues too, but pretty much all of her books feature her animals, particularly as she goes on through life. Her later books which are basically her memoirs and thoughts about herself are littered with her animal friends. Now you've made me want to read Colette....


  5. Really why I made that comment is that I can't distinguish in my memory between the novels - all the Claudines and Cheris - so I didn't know which one to pick. I'm not entirely of the opinion that all Colette's novels are of equal quality - one I read recently wasn't so good (possibly The Captive).

    I must read up on the relationship between Willy and Colette. Where all the English editions attribute books solely to Colette, the French edition I have of Claudine at School has both their names on the cover. I imagine Willy as a sort of literary pimp.

  6. Over at Pechorin's Journal people were doggin' on "La Chatte" - "stinko" they called it! - apparently because the cat was too human. Seemed funny to me. It's a Colette cat, right?

    I have read pieces about Colette and Willy several times, but all long ago, so I have gone a bit vague. Willy was mentioned a couple of times in Doug Skinner's latest Alphonse Allais translation, pre-Colette.

    "whichever one you read" - that sounds good to me.

  7. "I hope to add my personal contribution to the sum total of our knowledge of the senses." —Colette

    That's from THE PURE AND THE IMPURE (which Colette deemed her best book) and I think it could stand as a description of what's best about her. No one else teaches as much about the senses, or indeed communicates so well the idea that there can be such a thing as knowledge of the senses. I feel as if she reminds (or informs) me about how to attend to different kinds of objects. My experience of bed-sheets was transformed by the Cheri books, for example.

    Arguably all her books are full of animals, because, as you note, her people are clearly animals. Not in a derogatory way. They just definitely exist as, and are not merely in possession of, bodies...

  8. But that the cat is like a person is the entire point of the story as I remember it (though again, it was long ago). Probably these people are cat-haters.

  9. "Whichever one you read" seems good advice for approaching Colette, whose work seems to form an unusually unified whole. I am especially partial to her autobiography, Earthly Paradise - such radiantly sensual descriptions of childhood and of first love - and to her small, painfully wistful epistolary novel, Mitsou. But I have not read the (explicitly) animal books.

  10. The response to "La Chatte" was pretty funny.

    As I look up the date of each of these suggestions I am reminded what an impressively long career Colette had. Over 50 years as an active writer.

  11. Hmmmm, animals. The only book by Colette I have read is The Ripening Seed, and I suppose you could say the temptress was a fox, of sorts. But probably not in the talking animal sense you mean. She was a nasty piece of work in a fascinating little novel, though.

  12. I think the more Paris-centered books do not have so many animals. Maybe Cheri had a cat? I've read it but I don't remember.

    But The Ripening Seed is set in Brittany. Seems like there ought to be some animals. Some seafood - sorry, I mean fish - at least. A mussel, or a winkle. A beloved pet winkle.

    Colette was a terrific nature writer.

    1. Indeed. Her descriptions of sea-holly were so wonderful I had to look it up. Alas, not even a winkle to my recollection.

  13. I remember the cat discussion On Pechorin's Journal but couldn't agree because one thing that was mentioned as unrealistic is something my cat does all the time. Unfortunately I can't remember what it was. I only remember that I couldn't understand the criticism.

  14. Cats may not be people, but they sure are individuals.

  15. Note to self. "Must read Colette" I like the quotes and I know I have at least one or two or more of her books somewhere..