“Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” (Colette)

Mallika’s annual Book and Author Anniversaries post alerted me to the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of Colette’s  birthday, and the perfect prompt for me to get two of her books out of the TBR (in Women’s Press editions which pleases me – how I regret clearing out loads of my The Women’s Press books when I was trying to streamline before a move one time. Never get rid of books kids – better to die under a toppling pile than live with regret 😉 )

Firstly, Duo and it’s short sequel Le Toutounier (1934 & 1939; trans. Margaret Crosland 1974). Duo follows the discovery by Michel and immediate aftermath of his wife Alice’s short-lived affair with a colleague. They are on holiday in the south of France, somewhat isolated and under the watchful eye of Michel’s family retainer Maria. The novel is primarily dialogue between the couple as they try and decide what remains for them.

Colette’s love of the natural world is very much in evidence as she captures their holiday home and Alice’s feelings of suffocation:

“On the poplars the golden bronze of the new leaves still wrongfully occupied the place of the green. A crabapple tree, its white petals lined with bright red, had defeated the somewhat sickly Judas tree and the syringas in their attempt to escape the destructive shade of the shiny aucubas, extended their slender branches and their butter white stars through the broad grasping leaves, which were mottled like snakes.”

Her precise descriptions of people and their mannerisms also suit this tale especially well, expertly capturing the tension and careful watchfulness between two people fearful of their disintegrating relationship.

“He caressed her with a few crude words, which she heard with a quiver of her eyelashes, as though he had shaken a bunch of flowers over her. They both accepted these exchanges, which were caused by chance, travel, a sudden change of season.”

Michel and Alice don’t tear each other apart, but at the same time their relationship seems doomed. However, the precision and containment of the story to a few days in a specific place, doesn’t make for a heavy or oppressive read. Colette’s humour is always present, with some surprising phrases:

“Out of modesty the servant placed a saucepan lid over the milk.”

During Duo, we learn something of Alice’s family, her sisters Colombe, Hermine and Bizoute.

“When I think about my family as much as that, it’s because I’m finding Michel terribly boring.”

In Le Toutounier she visits their stuffy, smoke-filled Paris apartment with the titular “huge, indestructible sofa of English origin, battered down like a forest road in the rainy season.”

It’s a short novel (80 pages) and I can see why it was put in the same volume as Duo as I think it is best read following on from its predecessor, forming a portrait of an interlude in Alice’s life.

Bizoute is away from home, leaving Colombe and Hermine together with their complicated love lives. Neither of them are with available men and the situation escalates. But the focus in Le Toutounier is not on relationships between the sexes but rather between the sisters, and what it means for women in a family to be close to one another. As so often, Colette focuses her sensual descriptions on women, showing appreciation but not sentimentality:

“The fine woollen dressing gown with a pattern of embossed stitching fell over her quivering shoulders, and it’s pink glow rose to her cheeks, where the makeup had lost its delicate morning colour beneath successive layers of powder.”

Secondly, Break of Day (1928, trans. Enid McLeod 1949) which nowadays would probably be called autofiction, occupying a place between biography and outright fiction. ‘Colette’ spends the summer in Provence, contemplating her past and wondering about the future. All her preoccupations are here – the natural world, animals:

“After dinner I mustn’t forget to irrigate the little runnels that surround the melons, and to water by hand the balsams, phlox and dahlias, and the young tangerine trees, which haven’t yet got roots long enough to drink unaided in the depths of the earth, or strength to break into leaf without help, under the steady scorching of the heavens. The young tangerine trees, planted … for whom? I don’t know. Perhaps for me. The cats will spring sideways at the months when by ten the air is blue as a morning glory. The pair of Japanese hens, perching drowsily on the arm of a rustic arm chair, will chirp like birds in a nest. The dogs, already far away from this world, will be thinking of the coming dawn, and I shall have the choice of a book, bed, or the coast road”

Men and women:

“My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved.”

“When a man’s glance is following certain household preparations, especially those for a meal, there is apt to be a look on his face that combines religious attention, boredom and fear.”

Her mother:

“On an autumn morning she was the first and only one to see herself reflected in the first disc of ephemeral ice in the well bucket, before her nail cracked it.”

“She would, alas, have judged us plainly, with that divine cruelty of hers which was innocent of wrath.”

Break of Day is fairly plotless save for a slight drama with two young people, but not quite stream of consciousness either, written in a more structured style. If you enjoy Colette’s writing then this is a little gem, but definitely not one to read when you want to be pulled along by a cracking yarn.

Overall the sense is of Colette (author/character) coming to terms with the last part of her life, with aging and with what remains. It isn’t sad but it has a melancholy quality, although I sensed few regrets and an acceptance of how her life had been lived so far and how it would continue.

“Everything is much as it was in the first years of my life, and little by little I recognised the road back.”

I loved all of these reads. It’s been a while since I picked up Colette and I wondered why I’d left it so long. She’s funny, incisive, precise, sensual, and absolutely in command of her own voice. There’s no-one like her.

To end, a 1970s performance to match my 1970s editions, about the breaking of day:  

25 thoughts on ““Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” (Colette)

  1. Just when I was beginning to think of weeding out some books I might never reread 😃 but looks like I should much rather risk a hospital visit when the pile squashes me flat than get rid of them!

    I do like the sound of both these. My only reading of Collette years ago was a couple of the Claudine books, and I never did get down to looking up others.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Totally unrelated to Colette – I used to play (very reluctantly) Morning Has Broken on the flute. My dad would sing along (badly!) and at some point, I lost it – stopped playing, put my flute down and said I was never playing that song again!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How lovely to see this post celebrating 150 years since Colette was born, another world away in terms of time! I haven’t read nearly enough of her, so it’s a timely reminder to remedy that at some point, maybe later this year. I especially love the descriptions of the poplars, the crab-apple tree and the syringas. Her prose is so evocative, isn’t it? Full of vivid imagery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s incredible really, because as you say she’s writing of another world, and yet she still feels so fresh and relevant. I love her writing, it’s so lush but for me never feels overwritten. I hope you enjoy any Colette reading if you get to her later this year Jacqui.


  4. Lovely lovely post Madame B, and I have those very editions myself and have kept them all these years and am increasingly convinced that I should run the risk of keeping all the books and dying rather than part with them! Oddly, Break of Day was my first Colette, and despite the relatively slim plot I was hooked for life. I think it’s her conjuring of the natural world which hit me so strongly – those were the bits I remembered when it came to a re-read. Perhaps I need to spend some time revisiting her this year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kaggsy! Lovely to hear you have these editions too and how Colette hooked you. She’s such a wonderful writer and I agree she’s so memorable in her depictions of the natural world. I hope you enjoy some re-reads this year if you find time!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You’re so lucky to have secured these books. I’ve been wanting to read Colette’s, but just found two of her novellas “Gigi” and “Cheri”, and one novel “The Vagabond” available. I’ve wanted to read more French authors (other than the big names such as Hugo, Zola, Dumas, etc.) and plan to read Gigi this year. I tried to search Duo and Break of Day, but none available, or if any, they’re so expensive.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really haven’t read much, Collette. I loved My Mother’s House and Sido, and I really should have acquired more. These sound wonderful, by the way, and I love the photos. As for getting rid of books, there’s always the risk one will regret the ones consigned to charity, but I don’t yet regret culling the piles I needed to for my move.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve not read My Mother’s House or Sido, I’ll look forward to them. I think you’d enjoy these Ali! Yes, I do need to clear out more, but I have been known to go to the charity shop and buy them back 😀 It’s a ridiculous way to behave and I live in a small flat, so I need to be realistic!


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