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After reading Colette’sChéri‘, I decided to read her first book in the Claudine series, ‘Claudine at School‘. I read this for ‘Women in Translation Month‘.

Claudine is a fifteen year old girl. She lives in a village and is in high school. She is the narrator of the story. In the story Claudine tells us about her adventures in school, her friends, her teacher, her love for nature, events that happen in her school and how it impacts her and her friends, her love for her dad, her love for books – these and other things are narrated in the book.

When I first heard of Claudine’s story, I thought it would be the story of a girl at school and the adventures and fun she has. I thought it would be Colette’s French version of a Judy Blume book. Part of the book is that, but there is more to the book than that. Claudine falls in love with her teacher, but her headmistress is also in love with her teacher, and there is a three-way lesbian love story there. It is amazing because Colette wrote this book in 1900, and I don’t know anyone else who wrote a lesbian love story in 1900. Even if there was, things would have been described in vague language, so that it could be open to different interpretations. Colette will have none of that nonsense and she describes things as they are. Colette was brave and she was a pioneer. After reading more of her work, I am able to understand why she has been revered by readers and writers of her time and since.

Claudine is a charming narrator and from the first lines – “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there” – she grabs our attention and never lets go. Claudine’s voice is somewhere between that of a child and a grown-up and she describes the hypocrisies of the grown-up world as she sees it. There are no bad characters in the book, atleast I didn’t feel there were any. There were just imperfect human beings with flaws, and Claudine describes them perceptively through her fifteen year old voice. There are people she likes and people she doesn’t like, and she herself is not nice sometimes, but she doesn’t shy away from describing things as she sees them. One of the things I loved about the book is the way it beautifully describes the real world of children and teenagers – how they are nasty and fight one day and exhibit kindness towards each other the next, sometimes even in the next moment. Claudine keeps treating with contempt, one of the girls in the class who likes her, but fights for her when she is in trouble, and helps her when she needs that. Reading that took me back to my schooldays. My favourite part of the book is the one in which Claudine tells us what happens when she and her classmates go to write their final exams. Claudine takes on one of the tough professors during the oral exam and she has her own opinion on history based on her wide reading and he disagrees with her strongly, though he respects her for holding on to her opinion and standing up to him. At one point when Claudine’s headmistress tries to intervene and cool things down he says – “Let her alone, Mademoiselle, there’s no harm done. I hold to my own opinions, but I’m all in favour of others holding to theirs. This young person has false ideas and bad reading-habits, but she is not lacking in personality – one sees so many dull ones.” I smiled when I read that 🙂

The book has an introduction in which Colette describes how she wrote the book – her husband asked her to write the book and then published it in his name. It was one more case where the husband took credit for the wife’s work, and it makes us angry when we read it, and we are glad to read how Colette came out of that situation and how the books were later published in her own name.

I loved ‘Claudine at School‘. It was almost as if Colette’s was speaking in Claudine’s voice. I don’t know how much of the book is autobiographical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Claudine is one of the great charming heroines and one of my favourites. She made me remember Ronja and Pippi, Astrid Lindgren’s great heroines. I can’t wait to read the second part of the series now, ‘Claudine in Paris‘.

Have you read ‘Claudine at School‘ or other books in the Claudine series? What do you think about this book?

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This is the third book I read for ‘Women in Translation‘ Month. I have had Colette’sChéri‘ with me for many years. I finally took it down from the bookshelf and read it.

Léa is a courtesan. She is forty-nine years old. She is in love with twenty-five year old Chéri. They have been together for a few years. Now Chéri’s mother decides that it is time for him to get married to a rich young woman. Léa reluctantly accepts that this is the end of their relationship. But both she and Chéri find it hard to let go. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked very much, the first part, which runs to around fifty pages. Léa is the main character in that, she is my favourite character, and we see things from her point of view. Then she disappears from the story for around thirty pages, and we see things from Chéri’s point of view. In my opinion, this part wasn’t that appealing. Then Léa comes back into the story, but for some reason the story isn’t as good as it was in the first part. The ending is heartbreaking.

The book created a lot of waves when it first came out in 1920. Interestingly, this year is the book’s centenary. There are other books which tell the love story of an older woman and a younger man. But I think ‘Chéri’ must have been the first story or one of the earliest ones with this plot, written by a woman writer. The blurb says that this is Colette’s finest novel. I liked the book in parts, but I feel that the book hasn’t aged well. I think it will make a great movie though, and I want to watch the movie adaptation.

Colette’s prose is beautiful. There were beautiful sentences and passages sprinkled across the book. I am sharing one of my favourites here.

“She took a thermometer from the drawer of her bedside table and put it under her arm. ‘My temperature’s normal, so it’s nothing physical. I see. I’m just unhappy. Something must be done about it.’ She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known : grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living : years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless.”

Colette was one of the great French writers and someone who defied the conservative world of her time. She once gave this advice to a young writer – “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you.” That always makes me think. I have heard great things about her Claudine books. I want to read them sometime.

Have you read ‘Chéri‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Colette book?

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