I’m having a hard time getting a fix on Colette, though I’m enjoying the process. It seems that, to a greater degree than is true for many writers, her biography strongly influences what she writes. And though I generally try to read without a lot of background, I did have recourse to the introduction when I finished Retreat from Love. Then it all made sense. It was written in 1906, just after she’d split from Willy, and while she is clearly working through the end of that relationship, she equally clearly has not given up on men or monogamous relationships. What’s surprising, in fact, is the way she still seems to idealize romantic love.
The premise is that Claudine, while her husband Renaud takes a cure in a Swiss sanatorium (shades of The Magic Mountain), stays with a friend in an old house in the Jura mountains. Claudine provokes Annie to recount a number of sexual adventures. Then Marcel, Renaud’s gay scapgrace son (Claudine refers to him as “this dubious little trinket”) shows up, on the run from some debtors. Claudine makes the mistake of trying to shove Annie and Marcel into bed together, providing nothing but humiliation for both. Renaud dies, Claudine mourns.
But you don’t read Colette for the plots. It’s the situations, the characters, and her writing that make her worth while. Nobody sees the world the way she does, and while there is an annoying whiff of narcissism to Retreat from Love, Colette/Claudine has enough sense of humor to lampoon her own performance onstage in a pantomime.
Colette’s always very strong on the countryside, and while that’s not so much my thing, she’s lyrical, evocative, and doesn’t go on too terribly long. And the animal stuff is wonderful. She has a grey cat and a black bulldog named Toby. Here she describes going off for a walk with “Toby in walking dress. Toby’s walking dress consists mainly of an apple which he carries in his mouth, and as the apple’s too big it distends his jaws and makes him look like a dolphin. It obviously bores him to death, but he must have made a vow.”
The book ends with Claudine alone in the country, visited by Annie and some friends in a loud red and yellow car. (Prefiguring Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows?Maybe not.) Then they drive away, leaving Claudine with her animals, you have a distinct feeling of a wrong being righted.