There’s something so bracing about Colette. Sometimes the cynicism is hard to take but The Vagabond is maybe a little more disciplined than the Claudine books or Chéri. Here Colette isn’t trying to shock or titillate; it feels as if she’s bearing down hard on the issue of feminine self-determination, leaving frivolity strictly aside. The narrator is Renée Neré, a once-respectable artist’s wife who, after divorcing (the guy was a perpetual philanderer), earns her living as a music-hall performer. She is lonely but content. Now that I think of it, her hard-won equlibrium reminds me of certain passages in M.F.K. Fisher’s writing where she talks of loneliness as a friend. It’s not the life one dreams of as a young girl, but it has its consolations. Chief among them is dignity, especially precious after the humiliations of a wandering spouse.
Masculine admiration is naturally part of performing, and Renée is not at first drawn to Maxime Dufferein-Chautel when he appears at her dressing-room door. But he gets beneath her armor. He is sweet, honest, appealing, and mad for her.
We can see where this is going, right?
Matters are brought to a crisis (this is why Colette is so good) when Renée has to go out on tour with her dance partner Brague. Maxime wants to come with her, or to prevent her from going. Renée goes anyway, before committing to Maxime one way or another. She falls back into the practised intimacy of touring with Brague: “An old familiarity had already suppressed between us any politeness, flirtation, modesty, any of the lies…” As contrasted with the relationship with Maxime, which is full of intoxication, physical pleasure, the swoony sense of abandon that Renée has foresworn. Finally Maxime mentions marriage…
But by then it’s too late. Renée has regained her senses. Against a secure, comfortable future, she weighs her sense of her own identity, and there’s no choice. The decision has its price: “I am in pain. I cannot connect to anything I see.” Is there a more succinct description of depression? But you wouldn’t have her make another choice. It’s fascinating to follow how Colette first makes Maxime ridiculous, then attractive, then finally… pitiable. This is a very short book but rich in description and this kind of subtle shading of character.
The music-hall stuff is fascinating: rehearsals, costumes, the tricks of the makeup, the fatigue, the audiences, the entrances and exits and the professional pride in it all. No glamor. In fact that’s pretty much what Renée foregoes, in breaking up with Max: the illusion of happily-ever-after.