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.
Mr Weston’s Good Wine, by T F Powys (1927), and Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye (1953) are English fantasies about sex, sin and other violations of civilised behaviour. Mr Weston’s Good Wine is an allegorical inter-war rural fantasia about casual rape, and Mr Pye uses a prim and postwar Channel Islands setting that shimmies with loathing and desire amongst the raging jealousy between neighbours. Both authors write from the tradition of dark whimsy that lurks underneath English cosiness. Both novels depict an incomer cunningly manipulating religious faith in the community to secure a power base and a bizarre night-time apotheosis.
Mr Weston’s Good Wine is beautifully written, but disturbing. T F Powys lived in a Dorset village almost all his life. The intense and highly-strung lives he and his sisters, brothers, friends and acolytes led in Chaldon Herring are alarming to read. Judith Stinson’s survey of their community describes the Powys’ family lives, and helps the bemused reader understand where Mr Weston’s Good Wine came from. Never have I less wanted to go back in time to take tea with a literary figure.
Mr Weston arrives in a small country town on a sunny afternoon, in a small van driven by his assistant. They rest in the shade, and wait. A small boy climbs nosily into the back of the van, stares, jumps down and runs away screaming, because he has seen a lion inside, or is it a tiger? A maiden lady secretly in love with the mayor walks neatly past the van, and is perceived in her innocence and goodness as worthy of reward. Mr Weston is an allegory for Christ, or God, and he is giving his Good Wine to the righteous and the worthy. Or is he identifying those who have already drunk his Good Wine by their subsequent good behaviour? A simple country maiden is being urged by an older spinster to go out and meet her lover at night, because the spinster is longing for the maiden’s ruin. She is not nice, and the maiden is simply stupid. The waiting rapists are hearty countrymen who expect to roam freely among the country girls as if by right. Mr Weston moves on before dusk, to park his van above the village above the cliffside, and waits for the evening’s desecrations to begin.
The allegory is as thick as mud: just when you think you’ve got an idea of what is going on, you slip sideways and find something else entirely. It is quite possible that Mr Weston is not God but the Devil, and the Good Wine is the wages of sin, such is the inevitability of illicit sex in every chapter. This confusion about what in heaven or earth is happening is also strong in Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, which also begins with a stranger coming to town. He takes a single ticket for the ferry from St Peter Port in Guernsey to Sark, which signifies that he has no intention of returning. The novel was filmed in the 1980s, but the stills and reviews online don’t seem to persuade me that its essential darkness has been kept.
Mr Pye has booked a room in gruff Miss Dredger’s house, and causes ruptures in the social carapaces of Sark life as soon as he arrives. He forces ancient enemies to speak to each other, he breaks protocol, he dominates by force of personality. He is expansive, cultured, highly persuasive, and gushing. He is a self-proclaimed emissary of God, whom he whimsically calls the Great Pal, intent on saving the Sark people’s souls. He is not an angel, though is in danger of becoming one, since wings begin to grow from his back, to his extreme alarm and embarrassment. When he fights back by doing evil deeds instead, horns begin to grow on his forehead, and the wings retreat. Both processes are painful, despite the soothing care by Miss Dredger, his now devoted acolyte. The islanders are fascinated, and gossip flies everywhere so strongly that Mr Pye’s self-proclaimed work of saving souls is made easier by quietly listening at doors and asking careful questions to people willing to spill out their grudges and hate for each other. The ‘husky beauty’ Tintagieu, who simply can’t resist men, is the island’s spirit of love, and a fine independent thinker. She is the only islander to remain unaffected by Mr Pye’s fanciful plans and social arrangements, yet she helps him escape. The final vision of Mr Pye learning to fly as he leaps from the cliff-edge is supremely fantastical.
A little light browsing online found me a footnote in Colin Manlove’s Modern Fantasy (1975) that speculates about the origin of the character of Mr Pye being influenced by Mr Weston, but nothing else is said about the novels as a pair. If I were setting a student research essay, or pitching ideas for a PhD, I’d throw in Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood (1954) and George Mackay Brown’s novel Greenvoe (1972) as well. They’re linked to Powys and Peake by the poetry of the writing, since Thomas and Brown are much better known for their poetry. All four works are formal tours through the life of the place, looking through windows and listening at doors to hear what goes on there at night.
This podcast was written for the miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen. I was looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. These thrillers were tough, but with good manners.
I was reading Bond, James Bond. I love Ian Fleming’s writing, and used to read him addictively when I was a student, seeking relief from the sterner kinds of books I had to work through when I was writing my PhD. I owned most of the novels, in nice 1950s Pan editions, but moved house too often to keep them, and now I only have one rather horrible mass-market anthology of Bond that I bought cheap when I really could not live without reading Dr No once more. But this podcast was about Bond, rather than about one particular novel. I wanted to see what I could find out about Bond as a product of gentlemanly writing for the clubman and for the post-Second World War officer and gentleman.
Let’s start with who Bond is. He’s ex-Royal Navy, with the rank of Commander, which means he wore three gold stripes and a ring as his uniform insignia while still in the Service. This is the same rank in the US Navy, and is equivalent to Lieutenant-Colonel in the British and US armies. So he’s fairly high up the tree, but not into top brass territory. Now, of course, forever and in perpetuity, he is 007, authorised to kill in Her Majesty’s secret service. In the novels his boss is M, also ex-Navy, and a titled gentleman who, in Moonraker, takes Bond with him to Blades, the venerable card club in St James, Mayfair, to play cards.
Blades is, of course, totally fictional, but is written with such assurance by Fleming that you have to google the place to be embarrassed at how well you’ve been fooled into accepting it as real. Fleming invented this club to be able to write about its activities and members without fear of libel. He also wanted to take Bond to a place where he would fit in, and know how to behave, but would probably not be asked to join, or even want to. Bond is not a fogey; he is a modern, post-war hero. The conflict he has with senior colleagues, even his adversaries, stems from this whipper-snapper identity. He is probably only just past 35 or so, but still fearsomely fit and impressively knowledgeable about pretty much everything, especially manly things to do with metal and power and speed. He knows how to behave in different social circumstances (which is something Fleming borrowed from Buchan: in 1936 the Earl of Clanroyden got away with being disguised as a surrealiste. Was Bond ever a beatnik, or into Sartre?) But is he a gentleman?
Well, we need to look at his record. Let’s stay with Moonraker, a novel published in 1955, and the only Bond novel that Fleming wrote (because, of course, the canon has been extended by many other writers since Fleming’s death: I’m only looking at Fleming’s own novels) that was set entirely in the UK. Unfortunately, the very name Moonraker brings to mind the truly terrible film starring Roger Moore as Bond, which only had the name of the phallic rocket in common with the book. Forget about that. Sweep away those ludicrous images of wrinkly Roger Moore trying to look passionate and stern in a space suit with ankle ties, and think about sharp navy blue suits and a vintage Bentley.
Moonraker starts in a basement firing room, where Bond is trying to beat the machines. He’s still not quite as good as the automatic firing devices he’s been pitted against by the armaments trainer, but, as we learn when Bond has left, he’s the best gun they’ve got. So he’s a sharpshooter: does this make him a gentleman? No. However, the fact that he and the master gunner have a bet on, and Bond loses, and pays up cheerfully, does make him a gentleman. Paying one’s debts is one of the first rules of correct gentlemanly behaviour, and Bond qualifies easily. The reason he’s taken to Blades by M is to see if he can beat a habitual cheat at cards, and he does this easily because he knows how to cheat too. Would a true gentleman know how to cheat at cards? I think so, yes, because a gentleman can recognise ungentlemanly behaviour. Gentlemanly behaviour is mostly unconscious, inherent, the result of training from birth; but it certainly helps to know when the edges of gentlemanhood are being breached, to maintain these standards. It’s also useful for a gentleman to be sufficiently at home in a gentleman’s surroundings, but also able to bring in the rough stuff, when needed.
Next, we see Bond in the office, and hear a lot about his secretary Loelia Ponsonby. Where does Fleming get his women’s names from? The men’s names are either nationality caricatures or anonymous, like ‘Bond’, whereas the women are saddled with impossible names like Moneypenny, Goodnight, Trueblood. They also all wear beautiful clothes. This is one of Fleming’s great strengths as a writer: the magazine-like focus on consumer detail in the descriptions. His attention to the details of the food and guns and drink that Bond consumes are famous, but his fashion writing is really very evocative. Loelia Ponsonby, as a good civil service secretary, wears a skirt and a blouse, as does Miss Moneypenny, and Gala Brand later in the novel, but it’s the detail of a hand-sewn belt and the colour coordination, that grip me. A mere man could only have written that by poring over Vogue beforehand. Does Bond subscribe?
We are told that Bond and the other 00 chaps in that office had cheerfully made assaults on their secretary’s virtue, but that she refused to allow herself to get too fond of any one of them because any one of them could be dead before the end of the next mission. She sounds like a sensible person, and they sound like perfectly normal youngish men, but are they gentlemen, in that regard? Probably not as John Buchan would have understood it, especially if the assaults on her virtue were more about list-ticking conquests after drinks than the expression of a lifelong, monogamous passion, but we are now in the 1950s, after all. Fleming wants us to understand Bond as an all-conquering sex god. We are also asked to believe that Bond cares properly about the women who come his way. In Moonraker we see him stymied, all ready to have an affair with a girl whom he thinks has earned it, and then she tells him quite nicely that the man waiting politely some yards behind her is her fiancé and that they’re getting married tomorrow. Bond behaves very well, and they say goodbye and walk out of each other’s lives. But I do wonder, to whom did he take his bruised pride? He has a string of married women, it appears, with whom he makes love rather coldly at weekends, so perhaps he’ll go and ring one of them up. On being rejected, a gentleman will never make a fuss and will always sublimate his desires decently in something, or someone, discreet and harmless. Another woman, preferably an anonymous one, seems a heartless choice for a gentleman who’s just been rejected, but he may not have been very much into the first girl in the first place. However, he behaves decently, and that’s what matters.
The girl in my favourite Bond novel, Dr No, is Honeychile Rider, a child of nature and what we would now call a zoologist. She’s child-like but not that innocent, and very keen to have sex with Bond, without shame. It’s good for thrillers to have shameless women in them, it gives the sex scenes exuberance without the squealing modesty that must get so boring when you’ve only got a few hours. Honeychile reminds me a lot of Jenny, from Dornford Yates’ thriller She Fell Among Thieves, because Jenny is alarmingly child-like, totally lacking lack in nous and worldly wisdom. Yates created her character to allow some titillating voyeurism in the novel, and to offer a very strange fantasy of an adult bride with a child’s understanding, but Honeychile is not quite that disturbing. She is afraid of land crabs, but she sails Bond back to Jamaica in the dark: a practical role in the plot. She supports herself, lives alone, can and does defend herself, is a born but untaught scientist, and, very importantly, as we only find out at the end, she is a lady. For a gentleman to have an affair it is much better if his partner is at the same social level as well as cultural level. Bond does not have many (any?) affairs with prostitutes. As the orphaned child of an old Jamaican landowning family, Honeychile deserves to be launched in the world properly, whether she gets her broken nose fixed or not, so Bond arranges for her to be found a job at the Zoological Institute in Kingstown, and asks his local friend to get his wife to take Honeychile under her wing socially. We know that soon she’ll be wearing the right clothes and will know where to get her hair done properly. But first she and Bond will have sex in a sleeping-bag because he owes her slave-time. These are gentlemanly courtesies.
The actions of a gentleman are also concerned with noblesse oblige. Bond feels nothing towards what Fleming calls the ‘Chigroes’, the Chinese-negro Jamaicans who work for Dr No, because they are mixed race, and thus in Fleming’s 1950s world view, living on Jamaica, they are socially and culturally inferior to the colonial whites. He also feels nothing for the Chinese girls who flit through this novel, mainly because they are all Dr No’s creatures, but also, I suspect, because they are not presented as people. Fleming just drew them as women of a certain race, and their race is what defines them: not their names or personalities. So these, like the prostitutes, are not where Bond will look for sex (because sex is the only thing he could possibly want from these women). He is protective and admiring of his friend Quarrel, whom he takes on as fixer and local contact once he arrives in Jamaica, but Quarrel, a big warm black man from the Cayman Islands, sleeps on a separate part of the beach from Bond because Bond is his master. Yet Quarrel is indispensable, a knowledgeable hero with the wrong colour of skin for Fleming’s readers. He knows everything important locally, hires the equipment, arranges to lose the car, knows the route, has the expertise, and is the one to die. Why does Quarrel die, and not Honeychile? Maybe because a gentleman can protect a girl better, and is able to fight for his own survival more effectively as part of the struggle to save her? Quarrel is very effective; he just got caught in the wrong place by a flame-thrower. In the 1950s, it was easier to show a character being a gentleman to a white lady, than to a black man.