Over on Vulpes Libris I wrote about a book pyramid scheme, though which I received James Baldwin’s classic, landmark novel of homosexual desire, Giovanni’s Room. Reader, I had mixed views.
I read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for #ReadingRhys, but, to be truthful, I really don’t think I would have bothered had it not been for that impetus. I tried Wide Sargasso Sea many years ago and didn’t get on with it at all. I don’t even think I finished it. Jacqui suggested this novel as a re-entry to Jean Rhys’ fiction.
It’s a brutal novel, reminding me powerfully of Colette’s writing in its depiction of Julia Martin, but without the gaiety or the affection. Julia is an Englishwoman in 1930s Paris, slipping so far down the social scale that she is staring into the gutter. She is weak, fatalistic, capable of bravery and quixotic moments of self-assertion, but lazily dependent on the man of the moment. Rhys does not flinch at describing Julia’s hopelessness, and she refuses to give her a shining white knight or a crock of gold. Here she is, roosting drearily in shabby hotels, and if she stays at that level, it’ll be a miracle. Prostitution is her life, at present just as a mistress for hire, but the reader is given no hope that Julia won’t soon be on the streets. She’s run out of men to live off, and picks up a stranger without much caring. But he gives her money to go back to England, and she decides to see her sister Norah, who has been looking after their invalid mother for years. Norah is, understandably, unimpressed at the reappearance of her elder sister, and there is a vast amount of ill feeling between them, fuelled by Norah’s quite understandable fear that after all her sacrifices to stay with their mother and be a nurse, Julia will waltz in and take what little money there is.
I found this novel grim and riveting, describing an unhappy life and a brave attempt to try to change it. There is so much to take apart and study in its structure and narration, and it makes a bracing comparison with light and fluffy comedies of the same period. It’s most interesting, I think, for presenting the hideous and long-established English social code that a lady may not take a job, and must live off men or marry. Jane Austen pointed out this universal truth centuries ago, and Rhys’ novel (one of hundreds from this period saying the same thing) points out that this terrible necessity is driven by snobbery and deprivation of education or training. Julia has a mind and presence, and could have made something successful of herself, but is instead given no option other than prostitution, in or out of marriage.
The very few bright specks of hope in this unrelenting series of miserable vignettes show Julia recovering her pride, and her awareness that she has value and charm, if she could use them for the right reasons. A stranger tries to pick her up on the Tube by giving her his business card and asking her out for dinner, but she lets the card fall into her lap, and when she rises to leave the carriage, the card falls onto the ground unnoticed: a fine example of the rebuff direct in the grandest manner. A lady will not deign to notice that she has been publicly propositioned. Poor Julia. I don’t like her, but I feel for her.
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.
I used to own Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado in my twenties, but I don’t think I ever read it properly, and it disappeared from sight in a house move. Oh how foolish I was, because – now that I’ve paid it proper attention – this stunning classic is superbly written and fizzing with good-natured life. I re-bought it last week, started to read it one evening and barely got a decent night’s sleep (much like the heroine), because I was enraptured by the charm, the vim, the verve, the splendid chaotic mess of Sally Jay Gorce’s life as a very young thing in Paris in the 1950s, an American girl on a regular allowance and definitely fancy-free.
This young madam conducts her affairs in an alcoholic haze in bars and restaurants on the Left Bank among Americans and the French. She’s not exactly promiscuous, but has a rather startling way of using her freedom to sleep with whoever she wants that is, so not like the lifestyle of, say, a Barbara Pym character from the same period. She dyes her hair, loses her pearls, gets so behind with her laundry that she has to wear an evening dress during the day, waiting for daywear to return to her closet. She’s like Lorelei Lee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: delicious, wide-eyed, naïve and an enchanting survivor. She’s like Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, with an unequalled appetite for drink, joyous flirtation and dancing. Her year in Paris is packed with incident and exuberance, and my goodness, are we all the better for it.
This novel is so much more enjoyable to read than a Muriel Spark, or a Doris Lessing (my obstinate bêtes noires). It’s not remotely worthy, or learned, or drearily interior, or literarily written, and has no political credibility whatsoever. It’s sheer pleasure, a 1950s Paris fairytale. Naturally all this fun can’t last forever. There are dark elements around every corner, behind every insouciant invitation. The men simply can’t understand Sally Jay’s total refusal to get domestic. Her former lover lays plots to make her miserable. Her dear friend Larry tries to pimp her to a rich Canadian. She thinks she’s been hired as an actress, but is actually just an English coach for a teenage bull-fighter (yet more echoes of Lady Ashley and Hemingway). She loses her passport, which the American Embassy seems unaccountably angry about. At least her allowance from dear eccentric Uncle Roger keeps coming, because without that she’d starve and lose all her possessions.
Sally Jay’s total unconcern with cooking or cleaning is powerfully endearing. When she tries to tackle catering for the first time (‘Which one is the oven and how do you light it?’), because her poor artist lover looks so miserable at not being able to have friends round for dinner, they all have to help Sally Jay with the cooking, and even then the bread is forgotten in the shopping bag (I am sure that Katharine Whitehorn pinched this episode for her 1960s classic Cooking in a Bedsitter). I really liked this refusal to go domestic, because it feels completely revolutionary for a 1950s novel about a woman. But nothing good lasts forever. In the end, Sally Jay may have found the love of her life, because she actually entertains the idea of marriage. Cooking is not mentioned as part of this deal, of course. The unspoken drudgery of housekeeping never is at the pre-betrothal stage, but at least she’s had a brave shot at living without it, before having to grow up.
Note on the author: Elaine Dundy wrote this novel after marrying Kenneth Tynan, the famously sclerotic British theatre critic and opinionated knowitall. He’s name-checked in the novel, and I wonder how much else is borrowed from their life together?
I’ve reviewed their daughter Tracy’s memoir, Wear and Tear, as well.
This week’s letter is C, and today’s author is Colette. Julie de Carneilhan was published in 1941, reprinted by Penguin in the 1950s in an English translation by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Apparently it was filmed in 1950, and in 1990. Leigh Fermor’s translation is over 60 years old now, as timeless as the novel itself, but also not modern; there’s a certain datedness about the vocabulary which makes it classic. Julie de Carneilhan is a story of bleak survival in the demi-monde of prewar Paris, except for the last few pages when, suddenly, Julie walks away from the tangles and grubbinesses of her life, to climb onto a horse and ride off, out of Paris, away from the sunrise. She is brave in the face of indignity and poverty, a magnificent character.
Julie de Carneilhan is a woman in her forties, from a very old noble Breton family. She lives in prewar Paris, a double divorcee surviving on a small allowance from her first husband. In the last week of each month, she begins to starve, waiting for the next cheque of her allowance to arrive. She is too proud to ask anyone for help. Her elder brother is as impoverished as she is, breeding horses on a shoestring, and struggling to find the money to feed them. Julie mends her clothes and furniture, and makes them last with clever stratagems, but she still employs a daily charwoman. She amuses herself by going out with younger people from lower social classes, but she is always aware of her own more noble lineage, as well as her greater experience in life. The feeling throughout this novel is of defiance against fate. She’s going downhill, slowly. She dresses elegantly to go to nightclubs and the cinema, but her resources are shrinking. Like all women of this period, she relies on men to take her out and pay for meals and drinks. She isn’t a prostitute, because her pride is too strong, but she allows her young admirer to take her to bed when she feels like it.
The complication in Julie’s life that produces this story is that Julie’s most recently divorced husband, the Comte d’Espivant, has just had a heart attack. He asks Julie to come and see him, because he wants to use her to make some money from his current wife, whom he dislikes. Julie is thus conveyed to her former home by her former chauffeur, and walks through the rooms she had decorated during her marriage, not many years earlier. She spends a combative lunchtime with Espivant, during which he has another heart attack, which she brings him through. There is affection between them, but also aggressiveness brought on by his masculine assumption that he still has a claim on her, and her anger at his infidelities. They both despise his second wife, Marianne, Julie’s successor, who is an extremely rich widow, but who is not noble, unlike Julie and Espivant.
Aristocratic snobbery fuels their pride, and Colette describes this so persuasively that it seems quite reasonable to accept that the lower classes, rich or not, are as nothing in the French understanding of blood and birth. Despite the clearly historical setting, this is a modern novel of manners and strategies to survive daily life. We warm to Julie because she is poor and prefers to uphold her sense of good taste rather than make money by ignoble behaviour. We applaud her feelings of superiority about the banality of her lover and her nightclub singer friends; and we rather wish that she and Espivant would get together again, and get rid of Marianne. However, this is not a love story. Julie does not care enough about Espivant to put any faith in his moneymaking scheme, even though she considers becoming his lover again. I love the atmosphere in this novel of fierce fighting against fate, the strength of Julie’s free will. She’s a very strong person, but she can change her mind on a whim, and suddenly be kind, or chilly, or frivolous, or depressed.
I am fascinated by the historical detail of maintaining standards of living in a shabby but still respectable studio flat, where a lady can still be a lady even if she is desperately poor. Julie’s capability with her hands, and her housekeeperly knowledge of how to take the shine off the elbows on an old suit, and how to mend a broken chair leg, are not what we expect from a lady at all. Julie comes from a different kind of aristocracy to, say, the English aristocrats described in Nancy Mitford’s novels of the same period. Contrasting with this making do and mend, Julie saves money where she can, and spends freely when she feels like it. She is generous when she can’t afford it, because her generosity is an impulse. It’s cherished as an expression of her free will.
I am also fascinated by Julie’s decisions to allow herself to accept a lover from the trading classes, and to reject him when his bourgeois mind becomes too boring and distasteful. She despises poor Coco Vatard because he fusses over his father’s car, he worries about not getting an early night before a working day, because he talks so importantly about the factory that he runs. She doesn’t bother mentioning her brother to him, because Coco is not significant enough in her life to be told about her family. She won’t talk about what moves her deeply, because she will not share such intimacy with him. She despises Coco’s bourgeois aspirations, and refuses to be part of his domestic fantasies. In the end she refuses to continue this relationship with a man who is simply not up to her standards. She would prefer someone who didn’t care about scratches on a car or who could dance all night. If she can’t have that, she won’t make do with less. She’s picky, but for all the right reasons. Her disdain, and her easy efficiency in getting rid of the poor man, are magnificent.
The main upset to Julie’s emotional equilibrium is Espivant, who is a devious manipulator. Julie cannot resist him, but she is too proud to fight back. He uses her shamelessly, like a hired negotiator, to get money from his wife. A spirited traditional heroine would throw the cash back in his face, despising his attitude, but Julie does not care enough about Espivant for that. She also needs the cash: her charlady must be paid, and so must the rent. Her debts are more important than her personal feelings. But he makes Julie vulnerable. We can see why she married him, and also why she left.
Aristocratic pride is the theme of this novel. It makes Julie real, and makes her brother Léon real. They are both middle-aged with few prospects of getting any richer, but they refuse to abandon their family’s standards of behaviour for money. This is attractive behaviour because it is quixotic: it doesn’t look likely to lead to a happy ending, but they will reach their ending with their heads high. When Léon sells up, and moves his last three horses back to the collapsing family castle in Brittany, Julie abandons her rackety, pointless Paris life to go with him. Their rejection of Paris and a miserable life, is profoundly moving. It has the romance of a new beginning, and of making a last throw of the dice before inevitable poverty and death. Julie is escaping the inward-looking circuit of Paris gossip which knows her entire marital history, and also her two humiliations by marriage. She leaves no-one of any importance behind, and we have no reason to think that anyone will care, except poor Coco Vatard and the little nightclub singer Lucie, who think that Julie is a miraculous dream of sophistication.
The subtext to this novel is that war is about to descend on France. It was published around the time of the German occupation, and, if Léon, and Coco, had gone into the army as it is suggested that they will, they are unlikely to survive. But Julie might survive: she is tough enough, and knows how to endure poverty. That’s probably why I love this novel so much, because it’s about the importance of survival.