Colette’s The Vagabond is a lyrical autobiographical novel based on Colette’s experiences as a pantomime artist after her divorce in the early twentieth century. The narrator of this stunning novel, Renee, muses on solitude, divorce, the personality of her bulldog, Fossette, her friends in the music halls, and a man she refers to as the “Big Ninny.” I love this novel, both in the new Stanley Applebaum translation and the Enid McLeod translation, and, indeed, when I first read it in my 20s, I found it so vivid I felt as though I were Renee/Colette–as if a college girl could have anything in common with this talented writer-dancer-mime! A biography of Colette enhanced the pleasure, because I understood the autobiographical elements in her novels.
Colette, raised in Northern Burgundy, is known for her loving descriptions of nature, particularly in her famous memoir-cum-novels, My Mother’s House and Sido. Even in The Vagabond, set in Paris, on trains, and in theaters on a 40-day tour, her passion for flowers, trees, and animals is apparent. Although the narrator, Renee, is an exile from the country, she is ecstatic when she walks her dog in the park and when she sees the spring from the windows of trains.
Recently divorced from a flagrantly unfaithful painter, the heroine Renee is lonely, stunned and shocked by the cruelty of her ex-husband, who sometimes kicked her out of the apartment so he could have a liaison with another woman. Her new career as a pantomime artist has given her hope and confidence. She works hard and respects her colleagues. An eccentric friend, Margot, one of the few who has hung on from Renee’s society days, gives her money so she can make ends meet.
Colette, whose life followed a similar trajectory, was married for 13 years to Henri Gauthier-Willars, known as Willy, a writer of novels penned by ghostwriters. Colette was one of the ghostwriters, and her Claudine novels appeared under his name (some say she was locked up and forced to write). He was promiscuous, made her very unhappy, and she left him in 1906 and was divorced in 1910.
The plot of The Vagabond loosely revolves around Renee’s reactions to a gentleman fan’s pursuit of her. Max, or the Big Ninny, sends her flowers daily and more-or-less “stalks” her in a friendly way (it wouldn’t have been called stalking back then). He finally breaks down her resistance through a friend’s intercession. But Renee has many, many doubts, and so do we.
Of course I’m all for romance, or was when I was very young. But Renee is 33, and I understand her doubts now that I am long beyond 33.
Some of the most charming scenes are of Renee’s walks with Fossette, her bulldog. Here is a quote from Stanley Applebaum’s 2010 translation (Dover):
“Sunday again!… And since the dark chill has given way to a bright chill, my dog and I took our exercise in the Bois du Bologne between eleven and noon–I have a matinée after lunch. This animal is ruining me financially. Without her I could get to the Bois on the Metro, but she gives me enough pleasure to compensate for the three-franc cab fare. Black as a truffle, she gleams in the sunshine, groomed with a brush and a flannel rag, and the whole Boris belongs to her: she takes possession of it with a loud snorting noise like a pig’s, and barks amid the dry leaves she scatters…”
THE CHARITY BOOK SALE. Of course I came away with finds from The Charity Book Sale, though I got there AFTER the book scouts. I found:
Colette’s Creatures Great and Small. According to the New York Times in 1957: “In “Creatures Great and Small” the reader will find some of Colette’s liveliest and most beautiful pages finely translated by Enid McLeod. Presumably the Fleuron edition, put in shape under the capable hand of Maurice Goudeket, Colette’s husband, contains only the best of four books on animals which date, respectively, from 1904, 1905, 1916 and 1930 — Colette’s absorption in the ways of animals, reptiles and birds knew no time or season — and certainly there is not a repetitious page or even phrase in this further culling of the rich, amusing, tender collection.”
Eleanor Farjeon’s Humming-Bird. A 1936 adult novel by the famous children’s writer.
Georgette Heyer’s They Found Him Dead (one of her mysteries)
The Diary of Anais Nin (two volumes). Diaries of the famous novelist and diarist, who was the lover of Henry Miller.
Colleen MucCullough’s Caesar. I’ve never read McCullough’s historical novels, but if I like these they’ll keep me going for awhile. There are so many…