It’s Women in Translation month, so here is my favourite author in translation: the magnificent, audacious, riotously insouciant Colette. I posted a review of her novella Julie de Carneilhan a year ago. Here are two more. Gigi (1944) is the story of a trainee teenage prostitute in the belle époque who avoids joining this family business by her independent thinking. The Cat (1933) is a deeply creepy story of a man who loves his cat more than his wife, and what the wife does to the cat in revenge.
Both novellas were reprinted together in the 1950s by Penguin to tie in with the 1958 film of Gigi starring Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron (its just been republished with a spiffy new cover). In the novella, Gilberte is 15 and a half, lives with her grandmother and mother, and is being given classes in table manners and cigar-selection by her great-aunt Alicia. Their family friend Gaston is heir to a sugar barony, and treats Gigi’s apartment as his comfortable home from home when his mistress is causing mayhem, or when he is bored. Alicia is the most successful of the family, with her apartment, servants, jewels, and beautiful clothes. She is a contemporary of the immortal Léa de Lonval, lover of Chéri (1920), but her sister and niece have not done so well. Gigi’s mother is a second-string singer in a music-hall, and Gigi’s grandmother keeps the family together with tight economy and strict rules for Gigi. Gigi is still dressing as a child because her mother would otherwise be exposed as older than she pretends to be, and she is annoyed because one of the girls at her school has already been given a diamond ring by a middle-aged admirer. Their monde is a little lower than that of Chéri, but it has the same values.
The film plays down the prostitution in the novella, and makes Gigi a school-leaver rather than half Gaston’s age, cleaning up Colette’s immorality for an American audience. This is a story written from the perspective that for a girl of no particular family in the belle époque, elegant, controlled prostitution that follows an established mode with set rules and customs, was the best in a limited set of futures, and was certainly far better than four babies before she turned twenty. There is no titillation, but Colette’s brazenness still feels mildly shocking, as it juxtaposes Gigi’s very strict upbringing with her rapidly-approaching début as a courtesan for hire. Gaston is, of course, the great catch that the older ladies cautiously realise may yet be within Gigi’s reach, but Gigi confounds everyone by refusing to play the accepted game. It’s a joyous and delightful novella, and confirms the values of monogamy as much as it rejects bourgeois expectations about sex. Colette was way ahead of her time.
The Cat, on the other hand, is very strange indeed. It is the story of a man so much in love with his cat that he leaves his wife for it, and abandons his home, his business partnerships and returns to live with mother. Alain is a passive young silk merchant, about to be married to Camille, a greedy and crude young woman whose family is connected to his business and who seems like a reasonable match, since he must marry some time. Saha is his cat. It is an unavoidable flaw in the translation that in English we lose the deliberately gendered inflection La Chatte (rather than le chat) in the title. This feminising of a masculine noun reinforces Saha’s femininity, it positions her as an obvious rival to the young wife, and it opposes the two females in a battle for possession of Alain’s body and mind. His widowed mother is less active in the battle, but she, and her gardens and servants and all the memories of Alain’s happily solitary childhood as the only child of the house, are a formidable force for Camille to overcome. The only weapon Camille has is sex, which we read about a great deal, but Alain tires, eventually, of her body because he is longing for his cat. The story does not end happily. The Cat could so easily turn into a horror story, but veers off into strange psychosexual territories, in the shrubbery, on the grass, under the full moon.