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Translated from the French by Enid McLeod.
Thirty-three years old and recently divorced, Renée Néré has begun a new life on her own, supporting herself as a music-hall artist. Maxime, a rich and idle bachelor, intrudes on her independent existence and offers his love and the comforts of marriage. A provincial tour puts distance between them and enables Renée, in a moving series of letters and meditations, to resolve alone the struggle between ...
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Translated from the French by Enid McLeod.
Thirty-three years old and recently divorced, Renée Néré has begun a new life on her own, supporting herself as a music-hall artist. Maxime, a rich and idle bachelor, intrudes on her independent existence and offers his love and the comforts of marriage. A provincial tour puts distance between them and enables Renée, in a moving series of letters and meditations, to resolve alone the struggle between her need to be loved and her need to have a life and work of her own.
Born in 1873 in France, Colette was the author of many acclaimed novels noted for their intimate style. She died in 1954.
". . . one of the first and best feminist novels ever written, is that rare thing: a great book . . . also inspiring." (Erica Jong)
"The paradoxes of great literature are those of human nature, and Colette is nothing if not human . . . Accessible and elusive; greedy and austere; courageous and timid; subversive and complacent; scorchingly honest and sublimely mendacious; an inspired consoler and an existential pessimist—these are the qualities of the artist and the woman. Its is time to rediscover them." —From the Introduction
"The Vagabond, one of the first and best feminist novels ever written, is that rare thing: a great book which is also inspiring." —Erica Jong
Ten thirty ... Once again I'm ready too early. My partner Brague, who helped me out when I was starting in pantomime, frequently reproaches me for this in picturesque terms:
"In a big hurry, aren't you, you damned amateur! There's always a fire burning under your ass. If it was up to you, we'd smear on our foundation at seven thirty while munching our appetizers!"
Three years of vaudeville and plays haven't changed me; I'm always ready too early.
Ten thirty-five ... If I don't open that book, which I've read over and over—the book lying around on my makeup shelf—or the racing form that my dresser was ticking off names in with the tip of my eyebrow pencil, I'm going to end up alone with myself, face to face with that rouged and powdered adviser looking at me from out of the mirror with deepset eyes, their lids rubbed with a greasy purplish paste. She has bright cheekbones, the same color as garden phlox, and very dark-red lips, shiny as if varnished ... She fixes a long gaze on me, and I know she's about to speak ... She's going to say:
"Is that really you there? There, all alone, in this cage with white walls on which idle, impatient, captive hands have scratched monograms and which they've embellished with naively dirty pictures? On these plastered walls, painted fingernails like yours have written a marooned woman's unconscious cry for help ... In back of you a woman's hand has engraved 'Marie ...,' the end of the name breaking out into an ardent flourish that rises like a scream ... Is that really you there, all alone, beneath the ceiling that's buzzing as it's shaken by the dancers' feet like the floor of a mill in operation? Why are you there all alone? Why not elsewhere? ..."
Yes, it's that dangerous hour of lucidity ... Who will knock at the door of my dressing room? What face will come between me and that adviser in her makeup spying on me from out of the mirror? ... Chance, who is my friend and my master, will surely deign once more to send me the genii from his ill-regulated kingdom. My sole remaining faith is in him, and in myself. In him, especially; he fishes me out when I'm sinking, grabs me and shakes me, like a life-saving dog whose teeth pierce my skin a little each time ... So that, whenever I'm in despair, I no longer expect my death, but some adventure, some little commonplace miracle that, like a gleaming clasp, will reassemble and hold together the necklace of my life.
It's faith, it's truly faith, with its sometimes feigned blindness, with the jesuitry of its renunciations and its obstinate hope at the very moment when I cry, "I'm completely deserted! ..." Truly, the day that my master, Chance, bore another name in my heart, I could become a very good Catholic ...
How the floor is shaking tonight! You can tell it's cold: the Russian dancers are trying to keep warm. When they all shout "Ho!" together with the shrill, hoarse voice of young pigs, it will be eleven ten. My clock is infallible; it doesn't lose or gain five minutes in a month. At ten I get here; Madame Cavallier is singing her three songs, "The Little Vagrants," "The Farewell Kiss," and "A Little 'Somebody.'" At ten ten, Antoniev and his dogs. At ten twenty-two, rifle shots, barks, the end of the dog act. The iron staircase creaks and someone coughs: it's Jadin coming down. She swears while coughing because she steps on the hem of her dress every time—it's a ritual ... Ten thirty-five, the comic singer Bouty. Ten forty-seven, the Russian dancers. And finally eleven ten: me!
Me ... When that word arose in my thoughts, I looked at the mirror involuntarily. It's really me there all the same, with a red-purple mask, my eyes ringed with a greasy blue halo that's beginning to melt ... Will I wait for the rest of my face to wash away, too? What if all that will be left of my reflection is a colored trickle, stuck to the glass like a long, muddy tear? ...
But it's really freezing here! I rub together my hands, gray with cold beneath the liquid white pigment, which is crackling. Of course! The radiator pipe is ice-cold: it's Saturday, and on Saturdays this management relies on the plebeian audience, that merry, rowdy, and slightly tipsy audience, to warm up the auditorium. They never think about the performers' dressing rooms.
A knock with a strong fist shakes my door, and my very ears are startled. I open the door, and there is my partner Brague, got up as a Romanian bandit, swarthy and conscientious.
"We're on, you know?"
"I know. And not a minute too soon. You can catch your death here!"
At the top of the iron staircase that ascends to the stage, the welcome dry and dusty heat wraps around me like a comfortable, dirty coat. While the ever-meticulous Brague supervises the erection of the set and the installation of the rear rack of lights—the one that supplies the sunset—I automatically glue my eye to the bright round hole in the curtain.
It's a fine Saturday crowd in this popular neighborhood vaudeville house. A dark auditorium, which the spotlights are unable to illuminate completely, and in which you couldn't possibly find a man in a shirt collar from the tenth row in the orchestra all the way to the second balcony! A brown haze floats over it all, wafting the awful stench of cold tobacco and cheap cigars smoked down to the smallest stump ... On the other hand, the four stage boxes are as resplendent as flower stands ... A fine Saturday! But, to use young Jadin's drastic expression:
"Who gives a damn? I don't get a percentage of the take!"
Right from the first few bars of our overture, I feel relieved and in tune; I've become unburdened and free from responsibility. Leaning my elbow against the canvas balcony, I serenely observe the powdery layer—mud from shoes, dust, dog hairs, crushed rosin— that covers the boards on which in a little while I'll be dragging my bare knees, and I sniff at a red artificial geranium. From that moment on, I'm no longer part of myself, and all is well! I know that I won't fall while dancing, that my heel won't catch in the hem of my skirt, that when I collapse, manhandled by Brague, I won't scrape my elbows or flatten my nose. Keeping a straight face, I'll vaguely hear the young stagehand who, at the most dramatic moment, imitates the sound of farts behind the flat, to crack us up ... The harsh light carries me through, the music governs my gestures, and a mysterious discipline both subjects and protects me ... All's well.
All is very well! Our poorly lit Saturday audience has rewarded us with an uproar in which there were bravos, whistles, shouts, and well-meant obscenities, and I received, right on the corner of my mouth, a small bunch of penny carnations, those anemic white ones which the woman who sells flowers out of a basket dips into a red liquid to dye them ... I carry it off pinned to my jacket lapel; it smells of pepper and wet dogs.
I also carry off a letter I've just been handed:
"Madame, I was in the first row of the orchestra; your talent as a mime leads me to believe that you possess other talents, even more special and more captivating; give me the pleasure of having supper with me tonight ... "
It's signed "Marquis de Fontanges" (I swear!) and it was written at the Delta Café ... How many scions of noble families, long thought to be extinct, take up residence at the Delta Café? ... Unlikely as it may seem, I suspect that this Marquis de Fontanges is a close relative of that Comte de Lavallière who offered me afternoon tea last week in his bachelor apartment. Commonplace hoaxes, but you can detect in them that romantic love for high society and that respect for coats-of-arms which shelter beneath so many shapeless peaked caps in this neighborhood of hooligans.
As usual, it's with a deep sigh that I shut behind me the door of my ground-floor apartment. A sigh of weariness, of relaxation, of relief, or the anguish of loneliness? Let's not go into it, please!
What's wrong with me tonight? ... It's the glacial December fog, all spangles of frost in suspension, which vibrates around the gas lamps in an iridescent halo, which melts on your lips with a taste of wood tar ... And then, this brand-new neighborhood I live in, which has sprung up, all white, beyond Les Ternes, disheartens the eyes and the mind.
Beneath the greenish gas, my street at this hour is a creamy mess of burnt almond, mocha brown, and caramel yellow, a dessert that has caved in and melted, with the nougat of the building stones floating on top. Even my house, all alone on its street, has an unreal look. But its spanking new walls and thin partitions offer at a moderate price a shelter that's sufficiently comfortable for "single ladies" like me.
When you're a "single lady"—that is, a landlord's pet aversion, terror, and pariah rolled into one—you take what you find, you reside where you can, you put up with the freshness of the plaster ...
The house I live in grants merciful asylum to a whole colony of "single ladies." On the mezzanine floor we have the acknowledged mistress of Mr. Young (of Young Automobiles); on the floor above her there's the very well "kept" girlfriend of the Comte de Bravailles; above her, two blonde sisters daily receive a visit from one "very respectable gentleman who's an industrialist"; on the highest floor, a horrible young party girl leads the life of an unleashed fox terrier day and night: yelling, piano playing, singing, empty bottles thrown out of the window.
"She's the disgrace of the building," Madame Young Automobiles said one day.
Lastly, on the ground floor, there's me. I never yell, I don't play the piano, I seldom receive gentlemen, and ladies even less often ... The little tart on the fifth floor makes too much noise, and I don't make enough; my concierge tells me straight to my face:
"It's odd, I never know if you're in, I don't hear you. No one would ever believe you were a performer!"
Oh, what an ugly December night! The radiator smells of strong disinfectant. Blandine has forgotten to put the hot-water bottle in my bed, and even my dog, in a bad mood, surly, and suffering from the cold, merely casts a black-and-white glance at me, without leaving her basket. My goodness! I'm not asking for triumphal arches or street illuminations, but all the same ...
Oh, I can look all over, in the corners and under the bed, there's no one here, no one but me. The tall mirror in my bedroom reflects only the grease-painted image of a vaudeville Gypsy; it reflects ... only me.
So here I am, in my real shape! Tonight, in front of the long mirror, I won't avoid that soliloquy which a hundred times I've evaded, accepted, fled, resumed, and broken off ... Too bad! I feel in advance that any attempt at diversion will be in vain. Tonight I won't be sleepy, and the charm of the book—ah, that new book, that just-published book whose fragrance of printer's ink and fresh paper reminds me of the smell of coal, locomotives, and the beginning of a journey!—the charm of the book won't keep my thoughts off myself ...
So here I am, in my real shape! Alone, alone, and no doubt, for my whole life. Already alone! It's too soon. Without finding myself mortified by it, I've passed the age of thirty; after all, this face of mine only gains its value from the expression that enlivens it, from the color of my eyes, and from the wary smile that plays over it, what Marinetti calls my gaiezza volpina, my foxlike cheerfulness ... None too wily a fox, one that a chicken could catch! A fox devoid of greed, remembering only the trap and the cage ... Yes, a jollylooking fox, but only because the corners of her mouth and eyes suggest an involuntary smile ... A fox tired of dancing in captivity to the sound of music ...
And yet it's true that I resemble a fox! But a pretty, delicate fox isn't ugly, is it? ... Brague also says I look like a rat when I purse my lips and blink in order to see better ... None of that makes me angry.
Ah, how I dislike seeing myself with this discouraged mouth and these slack shoulders, my whole gloomy body crooked as it rests on one leg! ... Look at that bedraggled hair which has lost its curl, and which I'll presently have to brush for ages to restore its shiny beaver color. Look at those eyes, which retain a blue pencil ring, and those nails, on which the red polish has left an irregular line ... I won't get away with less than fifty long minutes of bathing and grooming ...
It's already one ... What am I waiting for? A little whiplash, nice and smart, to make the headstrong animal get moving again ... But no one will give it to me, since ... since I'm all alone! How evident it is, in this tall frame that embraces my image, that by now I've grown accustomed to living alone!
For an indifferent caller, for a tradesman, even for my chambermaid Blandine, I'd straighten up that drooping neck, that hip off at an angle, I'd clasp these empty hands together ... But tonight I'm so alone ...
Alone! I really seem to be pitying myself for it!
"If you live all alone," Brague has told me, "it's because you're willing to, right?"
Of course I'm "willing to," and I even just plain want to. Only, there it is ... There are some days when solitude, for a person of my age, is an intoxicating wine that makes you drunk with freedom, other days when it's a bitter tonic, and still other days when it's a poison that makes you bang your head on the wall.
Tonight, I'd really like not to choose. I'd like to be satisfied with hesitating, with being unable to tell whether the shiver that will come over me as I slip between my cold sheets will be one of fear or one of comfort.
Alone ... and for so long. Because I'm now yielding to the habit of soliloquizing, of talking to the dog, to the fire, to my reflection ... It's a mania that befalls hermits and long-time prisoners; but I am free ... And if I talk silently to myself, it's out of a writer's need to give his thoughts a rhythm and a form.
Before me, in the mirror, in the mysterious reflected bedroom, I see the image of "a woman of letters who has gone to the dogs." People also say of me that "I'm in the theater," but they never call me an actress. Why? It's a subtle nuance, a polite refusal, on the part of the public and my friends themselves, to assign me a rank in this career which I have chosen, after all ... A woman of letters who has gone to the dogs: that's what I must remain for everyone, since I no longer write and deny myself the pleasure and luxury of writing ...
To write! To be able to write! It means that lengthy reverie over the blank page, that unconscious scribbling, the antics of the pen as it makes circles around an ink blot, as it nibbles away at an incompleted word, scratches it out, makes it bristle with little arrows, adorns it with antennae and legs until it loses its legible appearance as a word and becomes metamorphosed into a fantasy insect and flies away like a fairy butterfly ...
To write ... To have your eyes caught up, hypnotized by the reflection of the window in the silver inkwell, to feel that godlike fever rising to your cheeks, your forehead, while a blissful death freezes the writing hand on the paper. To write also means to forget what time it is; it means that lazy spell in the hollow of the couch, the riot of inventiveness that leaves you aching all over and mentally numb, but already rewarded: the bearer of treasures that you slowly unload onto the virgin sheet of paper, in the small ring of light that is sheltered beneath the lamp ...
To write! To pour out all your sincerest feelings rabidly onto the tempting paper, so quickly, so quickly that your hand sometimes fights back and jibs, overtaxed by the impatient god who guides it ... and to discover, next day, instead of the golden bough that broke into miraculous blossom in a shining hour, a dry bramble branch, an aborted flower ...
To write! The pleasure and pain of those with time on their hands! To write! ... Every so often, I feel the need, as strong as thirst in summertime, to note down my thoughts, to describe what I observe ... I take up my pen anew to begin that dangerous, disappointing game, to seize and hold the iridescent, elusive, thrilling adjective with my flexible double nib ... It's only a passing fit, the itch from a scar ...
It takes too much time to write! And then, I'm no Balzac ... The fragile story that I'm constructing crumbles when the tradesman rings, when the shoemaker presents his bill, when the attorney phones, or the trial lawyer, when the theatrical agent summons me to his office for "a private performance in the home of people who are of the finest quality but who aren't accustomed to pay high fees" ...
Excerpted from The Vagabond by Colette, STANLEY APPELBAUM. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 1, 2012
One of the great joys of reading is to be transported to another world you wouldn't know about otherwise. This is a great example of the fun of being someplace else at another time and feeling part of the scene. I always enjoy reading anything by Colette and this book gives you an insight into her life as well as being a very enjoyable read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 20, 2011
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Posted June 4, 2009
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