I was penetrated by sunlight

Claudine Married
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

Claudine Married

Getting hold of this book was a little bit of a saga. I came across the first Claudine book in a secondhand bookshop and fell in love with both the charming story and the attractive old Penguin edition I had picked up. I resolved to collect the set of four in the same design and soon had three, but this one proved a bit of a challenge. Twice I ordered it from sellers on Abe Books only for the sale to fall through because they didn’t have it in stock after all. It was with some excitement I finally lined up my little collection.

It’s a shame then that this instalment didn’t quite live up to the first two, though I hasten to add that it’s still a beautifully written and insightful book. But one of the things that I liked about the character of Claudine was her mixture of naughty wilfulness and youthful innocence. Now she is innocent no more. Or isn’t she?

In this third book in the Claudine series she returns to Paris from a long, leisurely honeymoon with her husband Renaud. She is just 18 years old and her husband in his 40s, which gives us an early clue as to his sexual tastes. There is an uncomfortable section where the newlyweds visit Claudine’s old school and both flirt outrageously with the 15-year-old girls boarding there.

Sexual attraction had been a major topic of the series previously but here that’s what it’s all about. Claudine had dabbled with both sexes before her marriage and the pattern continues. As well as loving her husband, she falls hopelessly in lust with a new acquaintance, Rezi, the buxom wife of a jealous invalid. Renaud immediately sees this and encourages Claudine in what she sees as him being an understanding husband, but I read as straightforward lechery. I won’t say which of us was right, but Claudine certainly has some lessons to learn.

As always, Colette writes with great affection for the French countryside.

“At least I had been able to bathe my bare hands and trembling legs in thick, deep grass, sprawl my tired limbs on the dry velvet of moss and pine-needles, rest without a thought in my head, baked by the fierce, mounting sun. I was penetrated by sunlight, rustling with breezes, echoing with crickets and birdsong, like a room open on a garden.”

This book is fairly sexually explicit but it’s not Henry Miller. The deed itself is usually skipped past. The narrative concentrates instead on Claudine’s reaction to events. It was with some relief I realised that her reluctance to give in to her desire for Rezi stems from wanting to be faithful to her husband, not the fact that Rezi is a woman. She has, after all, been there before.

I can see why it took almost 60 years for an English translation to appear in print but I do wonder how shocking (or not) these novels were in France.

First published as Claudine amoureuse 1902.
Published as Claudine en ménage after the above edition had been destroyed.
This translation published 1960 by Secker & Warburg.
My edition published 1972 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg

This was a book club pick and I thought somehow that it would be light and fluffy and girly, possibly because that’s how I remember the film (though on rewatching the film this week I discovered it’s not really those things either). It’s certainly an easy, enjoyable read, but it covers a lot of issues without labouring the point and has some very interesting things to say.

In the 1980s middle-aged Alabama housewife Evelyn Couch is visiting a nursing home and gets talking to a resident there, Mrs Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny is old and a little forgetful but also charming and immediately launches into stories about her early life in a small town called Whistle Stop. At the heart of these stories are Idgie and Ruth, the two women who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe from 1929 until it closed. However, inbetween there are snippets about other characters from the town and their lives, all told with a wonderful sense of humour.

“This skinny little man, so black he was a deep royal blue, had caused a lot of trouble for the opposite sex. One gal drank a can of floor wax and topped it off with a cup of Clorox, trying to separate herself from the same world he was in. When she survived, claiming that the liquids had ruined her complexion for life, he became continually uneasy after dark, because she had snuck up behind him more than once and cracked him in the head with a purseful of rocks.”

And at that level it all sounds a bit twee. But this book covers racist violence, domestic abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, extreme poverty and death, which is some pretty dark stuff for a story that’s so nice and chirpy on the surface. I know some at book group felt that this meant none of the themes were really explored, but were just thrown in there, and certainly the only subjects really talked about are female empowerment and death.

But then one of the running themes in this book is not talking about important things. Idgie and Ruth are a couple, which you would think was a big no-no in a small southern US town in the 1930s, but the whole town seems to know and just accept the situation. I wondered if this was because they all consider Idgie an honorary man. She certainly not only joins in with but often takes lead in hunting, fishing, gambling, drinking and the other manly pursuits of the town. But she’s far from being the only strong woman in town.

“Cleo, Idgie’s brother, was concerned…
‘Idgie, I’m telling you, you don’t need to feed every [hobo] that shows up at your door. You’ve got a business to run here. Julian…says he thinks you’d let Ruth and the baby go without to feed those bums.’
…’What does Julian know? He’d starve to death himself if Opal didn’t have the beauty shop. What are you listening to him for? He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat.’
Cleo couldn’t disagree with her on that point.”

Each chapter takes a different source or viewpoint, so there’s Evelyn’s daily life, Ninny’s reminiscences, the Whistle Stop newsletter and other newspaper articles, and occasionally a plain old omniscient narrator. There’s also lots of jumping back and forth in time, which was confusing at first because there seemed to be sections that were unrelated, but by the end it all ties together. And also, in the end there is no single character who knows everything that the reader does, which I quite liked.

Generally, I found what could have been a heavy-handed moral tale a much more subtle look at life in the southern US. The one unsubtle message was about strong women. Really, it’s Evelyn’s story, and she is discovering through Ninny’s stories how unhappy she is with her life, downtrodden and ignored by her husband.

“After the boy at the supermarket had called her those names, Evelyn Couch had felt violated. Raped by words. Stripped of everything. She had…always been terrified of displeasing men…She had spent her life tiptoeing around them like someone lifting her skirt stepping through a cow pasture.”

As someone at book club pointed out, at the novel’s heart is the power of storytelling. Ninny’s stories have to be good for us to believe they would have such a profound effect on Evelyn. And it is all a rollicking good yarn, with a running theme of tall tales.

I seem to be saying this of every other book at the moment, but I think I would get a lot out of re-reading this.

First published 1987 by Random House.

You’re gonna get screwed but good in this town

Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin

After hearing this book praised left, right and centre since I started book blogging I figured I had to give it a go. And what a joy it is!

This is the first in what has turned out to be a very long-running series about a large cast of characters in San Francisco. In this book (I don’t know if this is true of any of the rest) the focus is on a boarding house on Russian Hill run by the inimitable Anna Madrigal (who grows her own weed and claims to have been raised in a whorehouse), and in particular her tenant Mary Ann Singleton. Mary Ann has newly arrived in the city from Cleveland and her sweet naivety is in for a shock. Or several shocks.

According to something I heard on Radio 4 (I think it was on A Good Read) the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which this started life as a serial, kept a tally of straight versus gay sex scenes because there was a concern about it being “too gay”. Which tells you a little about the book. It is outrageous and wickedly funny but also intelligent and insightful. The characters lean very slightly into the larger-than-life category but they are not stereotypical or predictable. It really is an achievement that so much silliness can be so lovable.

There are dozens of storylines at work, only a couple of which are wrapped up by the end of the novel. The characters are introduced separately but their lives quickly overlap to the point where I was hard-pressed to remember who knew who from where. I’ll just have to read it again!

The extra character is, of course, the city of San Francisco. Maupin lovingly describes its streets and views and bars and people with all the little details of someone who calls it home. It is very much a tale of 1978, with an undercurrent of the politics and social nuances of the time. I was (perhaps naively) surprised by how much of the “pretentious” of middle-class life today (organic food, over-earnest attempts to appear not racist or homophobic, caring about global warming) was considered pretentious back then too. It is satirical but somehow firmly on the side of the people it satirises. Both prudish innocent (Mary Ann) and sexaholic (most everyone else) are celebrated in their own way.

I can see why it has been called a literary soap opera and it is indeed both those things. It isn’t literary in floweriness but rather in insight and cleverly spare language that gives you just enough, while finding room for some fantastic little jokes with words and meanings. So that’s six more books to add to the wishlist then, I guess!

First published in 1978 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Published in book form in 1980 by Corgi Books.

The shock of growing up

Claudine in Paris
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

After thoroughly enjoying the first book in the Claudine series, I was glad to already have the second book waiting in my TBR. It was another wonderful, rollicking read and I’m now going to have to search out the other two.

These were the first novels written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, who was an absolutely fascinating literary figure. I visited her grave in Paris a few years ago and was moved in a way I hadn’t expected to be (especially considering that previous to this series her novels have failed to move me).

Ici repose Colette

In this volume, Claudine and her father have moved to Paris, so that he can further his studies of slugs. She discovers to her surprise that she suffers greatly from homesickness for her beloved countryside village. She also discovers, on exposure to a new male friend who is gay and an old female friend who has become a rich man’s mistress, that she is far more easily shocked than she would have expected of herself:

“Disgust, yes definitely! There I was, making myself completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! You can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen!’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways…In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl.”

Well, Claudine may have discovered that the big wide world isn’t as easily bluffed as her old schoolmates were, but she is still far from common or everyday. Claudine is hypersensitive enough to catch a fever when she gets anxious but she is also tomboyish enough to do exercises every morning and speak her mind almost thoughtlessly. She is still vain enough to admire herself in every window or mirror and look coquettishly at every man she sees, but is self-aware enough to know that she is silly and vain and inexperienced to boot. She catches herself feeling jealous of an old friend who is marrying a sensible, dull sort of man and presses her friend the kept woman for information about sex while all the while feeling scared and sickened by the whole business.

Most of all, Claudine is still a witty, entertaining narrator who lets you into her world with disarming honesty, beside the occasionally withheld nugget of interest. The main switch in this book is that Claudine appears to have left behind the lesbian intrigues of school, only revisiting them for the entertainment of her cousin Marcel, who is left hot under the collar by her accounts and begs for more detail. Claudine’s romantic interest now seems to be firmly aimed toward men and marriage.

For all its shocking content and its youthful, not as sophisticated as she’d like to be narrator, this book is extremely well written with a wonderful, colourful cast of characters and a clever humour that must have been a challenge to translate this deftly.

Claudine à Paris first published in 1901 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1958 by Secker and Warburg

The trials of being above the rest

Claudine at School
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This was the first novel written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, the result of her entertaining her first husband with stories of her own schooldays. It is a thoroughly charming read that I was reluctant to put down yet wanted to linger over.

Perfect breakfast

Claudine is sassy, bitchy, talented, beautiful and entitled. She attends the local day school because she refused to be sent to a boarding school, with the result that she’s a rich girl surrounded by the daughters of farmers and shopkeepers. She doesn’t need to do well at school but she takes pleasure in achieving more than the other girls whose future livelihoods depend on their test scores. Really, she should be completely unlikeable. But she’s not. She also has a very sweet relationship with her doting but distracted father.

The book takes the form of Claudine’s diary. She confides her own bitchy actions, with the full awareness that she has acted badly. She also confides all the gossip she has learned and her own intimate thoughts. I mean, this isn’t Judy Blume, no-one’s going to learn how to deal with periods or ill-fitting bras from this book, but she does admit to her crushes and flirtations.

The thing that will stand out for a lot of people about this book is the lesbianism. It’s pretty rife. Claudine herself, as well as the headmistress of the school, know how to gain advantage from flirtation and suggestion with men but are only really interested in women. This is never stated outright, but gradually becomes apparent from the actions of both characters. It’s also never clear if this is accepted by the people around them (or indeed known in Claudine’s case). One character does come under criticism for her lesbian relationship but the criticism is based on the fact that she’s engaged to a man at the time. Which is a fair point.

Claudine is aged 16 and 17 in this novel and it feels like a very realistic portrait of being that age. She is confident and brassy around others but alone she experiences doubts and insecurities about her future, her looks and her love life. This may be partly because she has not fully acknowledged that she is gay, or at least bisexual. She talks vaguely about how one day she will do this, that or the other with a man, without any enthusiasm or interest. She does show great interest in her friend Claire’s string of boyfriends but she vacillates between admiration and disapproval of such an active (and yet virtuous) love life. She pretends to know better how to keep hold of a man, and yet admits to never having been in a situation to put her knowledge to the test.

Looking back, very little actually happens in this book. And in many ways that is the point. Claudine can be obsessively excited by, and then deeply bored by, the day-to-day minutiae of school life. Which is precisely how I remember school being. She views herself as worldly and cosmopolitan but actually lives in a small country village where very little happens. Which I suspect leads to all kinds of fun in the next book in the series, Claudine in Paris.

This book was so much fun. It’s the schoolgirl book I wish I had read when I was a teenager instead of all those sappy American ones. I’m so entranced I fully intend to read all of the Claudine sequels.

Claudine à l’école first published in 1900 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1956 by Secker and Warburg

At the end

A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood

This is probably a book I should have saved for 30 or so years, because it’s difficult to sympathise with a meditation on old age when you’re fairly far from being old. I’ll have to read it again later in life to see if my reaction is any different.

I picked this up because Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of the best books I have ever read. This was written much later in his life and it shows. The characterisation is much improved (which is odd seeing as both have strong elements of autobiography) but the atmosphere is very different. The similarly self-involved lead characters have rather different lives about which to obsess.

The single man of the title is George, an Englishman living in California, teaching literature, approaching old age and trying not to think too much about his dead gay lover Jim. He has distractions – the noisy neighbourhood children, the eclectic ever-so-young students and a few friends – but invariably his mind returns to Jim.

In the manner of Ulysses this book covers one day in George’s life in great detail, including his morning bowel movement, a drunken romp and a, er, act of self-pleasure. In fact, I’m sure if I went back and looked carefully I’d find more similarities – the detailed routes of each journey that George takes, for instance. But (thankfully?) this book is 160 pages, not 600, and it sticks to just the one writing style.

Like George himself, the tone is slightly sad, romantic, angry, bitter, occasionally hopeful and eventually accepting. George has his faults – some bizarre notions about women, for instance – but overall he is a sweet, intelligent man trying to grow old gracefully in a world that does not make it easy. He may be living in ultramodern LA but in the 1960s it was still illegal to be a practising homosexual there and the secrecy that this requires of George has clearly taken its toll. It is heartbreaking that he feels he has to bury his grief around most people for fear of what it will reveal but this is the way the world was not so long ago and in some places still is.

The writing is undeniably brilliant. George came to life for me right from page one and his interaction with a favourite student was particularly well played. And yet – I was not hooked. I wanted more excitement of some kind and it wasn’t there. As I said, I’ll take this book out again when I’m older and maybe the added empathy will make it more meaningful for me.

First published 1964 by Eyre Methuen & Co