Colette Week: Day 1 – Claudine at School (1900)

Last year I undertook to blog on a Novella a Day in May, which I really enjoyed. I’m hoping to do it again this year, but I fear I may end up delaying it until 2020. To tide me over I’m going to do a mini-version with a favourite writer who wrote short novels: Colette each day for a week, starting today as it’s her birthday.

Image from here

I’ll begin obviously, with Colette’s first novel, Claudine a l’ecole which I read in English translation, Claudine at School (trans. Antonia White 1956). Claudine is fifteen and in her final year at school. She lives in Burgundy with her father, who is distant but loving, interested mainly in slugs. As a result, Claudine is left to her own devices; her voice is strong and distinctive but she can also be something of a bitch, manipulating people and freely giving out slaps and other violence to her classmates.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside which Colette clearly had great feeling for:

“The charm, the delight of this countryside composed of hills and valleys so narrow that some are ravines, lies in the woods – the deep, encroaching woods that ripple and wave away into the distance as far as you can see….Green meadows make rifts in them here and there, so do little plots of cultivation.”

A new teacher arrives at the school, Aimee Lanthenay, and Claudine is immediately entranced:

“My English mistress seemed adorable to me that night under the library lamp. Her cat’s eyes shone like pure gold, at once malicious and caressing, and I admired them, not without reminding myself that they were neither kind nor frank nor trustworthy. But they sparkled so brilliantly in her fresh face and she seemed so utterly at ease in this warm, softly-lit room that I already felt ready to love her so much, so very much, with all my irrational heart. Yes, I’ve known perfectly well, for a long time, that I have an irrational heart. But knowing it doesn’t stop me in the least.”

Claudine is aware of her own attractions and confident in them, including her appeal to the school’s District Superintendent Dutertre, who she sees clear-sightedly as something of a lech. Ultimately however, she loses Aimee to her Headmistress:

“The class was well-trained now. All the girls even down to those in the Third Division knew that, during recreation, they must never enter a classroom in which the mistresses had shut themselves up… we found them so tenderly entwined, or so absorbed in their whisperings, or else Madame Sergent holding her little Aimee on her lap with such a total lack of reserve that even the stupidest were nonplussed”

The treatment of sexual attraction between women is dealt with frankly in the novel. It is never apologised for, explained away as schoolgirl crushes, or treated as anything extraordinary. Claudine is at once inexperienced but wise and somewhat cynical beyond her years:

“In a week she will possess another fiancée who will leave her at the end of three months; she is not cunning enough to hold the boys and not practical enough to get herself married. And, as she obstinately insists on remaining virtuous, this may go on for a long time.”

The plot is minimal, the novel is Claudine’s diary of her final school year and all that entails. Yet Claudine’s distinctive voice propelled me along as I wanted to see what the precocious teenager would do next.

“Papa was sending me to Paris to a rich childless aunt… How should I do without the country; with this hunger for green, growing things that never left me?”

The answer to that question tomorrow 😊

“There shall be no more novels about incest. No, not even ones in very bad taste.” (Julian Barnes)

Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of upsetting sexual subject matter.  Please do not read if you are not an adult or if you will find such discussion traumatic.

I’ve picked a rather disturbing theme for my post this week, as you may have guessed from the title quote. I try and pick a theme based on what’s been happening at the time, and for me this week it’s incest.  I feel I should qualify that statement rather rapidly: I went to see Maxine Peake’s Hamlet – that Oedipal family drama to end all Oedipal family dramas – and then I saw A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong.

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(Images from: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/21/hamlet-maxine-peake-royal-exchange-review-delicate-ferocityhttp://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout9-a-view-from-the-bridge )

Then in my early modern literature class, someone pointed out that Tis Pity She’s a Whore (where a brother and sister are in a relationship) had warped her mind because when we read A King and No King (where a brother & sister struggle with their mutual attraction) she couldn’t see what the problem was & why they didn’t just get on with it.  Don’t get an education kids, it will put your moral compass on permanent fritz.

But if you can cope with the upsetting subject matter, there’s been some wonderful novels written about circumstances where incest occurs, so I hope you’ll stick with me.

Firstly, Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992).  This is the first of the Patrick Melrose quintet, St Aubyn’s series of autobiographical novels (the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was nominated for the Booker in 2006).  In this first novel , Patrick is five years old, living in France for the summer with his alcoholic mother and controlling, cruel father.  As Patrick explores the garden, creating adventures for himself, St Aubyn brilliantly evokes the microscopic view of a child:

“As Patrick approached the house, climbing as usual the right–hand flight of the double staircase because it was luckier, he turned into the garden to see if he could find the frog that lived in the fig tree.  Seeing the tree frog was very lucky indeed.  Its bright green skin was even smoother against the smooth grey skin of the fig tree, and it was hard to find it amongst the fig leaves which were almost the same colour as itself.  In fact, Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes…above all at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewellery, but greedier for breath.”

The third person narrative enables St Aubyn to shift between the various Melroses so that while the parents are reprehensible (the mother) and downright repugnant (the father) you understand why they are the way they are; how damaged they are and how they continue to inflict damage on all who surround them.

What makes it bearable is St Aubyn’s beautiful, intelligent prose; the delicate way he approaches the Melroses to capture this moment in family history.

“’What did you do today?’

‘Nothing,’ said Patrick, looking down at the floor.

‘Did you for a walk with Daddy?’ asked Eleanor bravely.  She felt the inadequacy of her questions, but could not overcome the dread of having them scantily answered.

Patrick shook his head. A branch swayed outside the window, and watched the shadow of its leaves flickering above the curtain pole.  The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like deflated lungs.  Down the corridor a door slammed. Patrick looked at the clutter on his mother’s desk. It was covered in letters, envelopes, paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, and a profusion of different-coloured cheque books.  An empty champagne glass stood beside a full ashtray.”

SPOILER: And now, to quote the vampire Lestat, I’m going to give you the choice I never had. Never Mind is a great novel.  Edward St Aubyn is a hugely talented writer.  He was also repeatedly raped by his father as a small child and his novels are autobiographical.  In Never Mind, there is a scene where Patrick is raped by his father. I didn’t know this when I was reading the novel (I read the scene on a train, and had to get off at the next stop because I genuinely thought I was going to be sick), and I’m telling you so you can decide whether or not to read it. I would urge you to do as it is such a brilliant novel, but go in prepared.

Phew!  Let’s pause for a moment and go to a happy place:

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Secondly, The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville (1997) which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997.  Set in Guyana and spanning most of the twentieth century, Melville uses the lives of generations of an Amerindian family to explore large themes: colonialism, the nature of love, religion and progress.  In contrast to Never Mind, this is a tale told with vivacity, serious but not depressing.

“Where was I? Oh yes. My grandmother.  She still refers with rage to a man called Charles Darwin who wandered through the region with the slow-motion frenzy of a sloth, measuring and collecting.  No one round here likes measurers, collectors and enumerators.  We cannot hoard in the tropics.  Use it or some other creature will eat it.  Sooner or later everything falls to the glorious spirit of rot with its fanfares of colours and nose-twisting stenches.”

The narrator/ventriloquist tells the story of the McKinnon family: Scottish Alexander McKinnon who builds a life in Guyana with 2 wives; his incestuous son and daughter; and the present day Chofy McKinnon, drawn back to Guyana through a love affair.

“It was confusing for McKinnon. He settled into the life well at one level, but every now and then he caught a glimpse of a world he did not understand at all.  He tried to discuss things with his father-in-law who was something of a philosopher and who explained to McKinnon that there was no point in trying to do anything about everyday life.  It was an illusion behind which lay the unchanging reality of dream and myth.”

These themes of The Ventriloquist’s Tale are heightened by the heady environment that challenges what is real:

“It was night and the deer was hiding somewhere in the tall grasses. Danny lay on the side of the sloping hill.  The rough grass under him felt like the pelt of an animal.  He almost imagined he could feel it breathing.”

Reading this novel engages all the senses: you can see, smell and taste all that is happening.  There’s a strong current of humour too; Melville has accomplished a novel that would be astonishing at any point in a writer’s career, but all the more so as a first novel.

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