Friday, 10 December 2010

Colette: The Other Woman

(Virago Modern Classics, 1993)

This book had been sitting, lost, on my bookshelf for a number of years, decades even. It was lent to me by a huge Colette fan with a high recommendation, but somehow it became forgotten and never returned. Alas now I am unable to return the book. So when, recently, searching through a pile of books, it appeared in my hands, I forced myself to find time to read it. In memory of that Colette fan.

Colette (1873-1954) died at the ripe old age of 81. Her full name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and she always caused controversy. She had many lovers and marriages as well as lesbian affairs. She worked in the music halls of Paris as well mixing it with the artistic avant garde.

These stories in The Other Woman are drawn from the short story collections La Femme Cachée (1924) and Paysages et Portraits (Published in 1954, after her death). It would have been nice to have some details on the source of each story and a date when it was written. A one page editorial note containing this information would have been helpful. In fact I have provided more details here in this review then is contained in the book itself.

Most of the stories in this collection are very brief, atmospheric and somewhat ephemeral. Hence many of the stories do not much of what could be called a plot - not that every story has to have a 'plot'. Still these stories are so effervescent and transient that the desired image is often over before it has a chance to establish itself in your mind. A bit like visiting a designer food restaurant, it tasted nice but you leave wanting to visit the chip shop.

One thing that is noticeable, and common with much literature of this period and before, is that only the upper classes are allowed to have feelings. Anyone from a lower orders has a strictly walk on role. At best when anyone from the lower class enters the plot their aspirations can only be expressed through the feeling of someone from an upper class background.

This is most explicit in last two stories and these happen to be the most interesting stories in the book. They are both set during the War. I guess this is the First World War but I cannot be completely sure (no dates for the stories are given as I said before). Because of the setting you see some of the real world impinging on the world of bourgeois women.

In one of these stories two bourgeois women are upstaged by their maids while picking the grape harvest. Still it's the bourgeois women we are expected to feel for and pity.

I suppose it's my modern eyes but I do find the walk on role of servants in these stories disturbing. These entities never have any personality. (I was going to use the word 'characters' in the previous sentence, but 'entities' is more accurate.) And it's automatically assumed that real people will own one of these entities. I find this attitude offensive.

In the end I think Colette was a good writer and I'm glad I have read the book. But a great writer? No, I think not. The book does not leave me with thoughts ringing in my mind. Just some vague impression bourgeois angst.

But to finish on a more positive note, for that Colette fan. I did like the jealous WWI grape pickers being upstaged by their maids. Maybe I should try one of Colette's novels?

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