Character and Shadow: The Vagabond by Colette

DownloadedFileThe Vagabond, Colette (fiction, roman a clef)

Ten thirty. . . . Once again I’m ready too soon. My friend Brague, who helped me when I first began acting in pantomimes, often takes me to task for this in that salty language of his: “You poor boob of an amateur! You’ve always got ants in your pants. If we listened to you we’d be putting on our make-up base at half-past seven in the middle of bolting the hors-d’oeuvre!”

After three years of music-hall and theatre I’m still the same: always ready too soon.

In Colette’s novel based on her life as a music-hall artiste, the protagonist states right away that even after three years she cannot relax about performing, and implies that she may never become a professional but will remain an amateur, an anxious bumbler – not what you might expect from a (notorious) woman who dances half-naked on stage. And because she is ready too early, she has time to think, to conduct a long interrogation with her reflection in the mirror during that “dangerous, lucid hour.” As Renee Nere, Colette takes us behind the scenes of her life (which was public knowledge in Paris in 1910, when she wrote this novel), as well as behind the scenes at the music hall.  Renee, “a woman of letters who has turned out badly”, is an object of gossip and scorn to people she used to know because of the way she makes her living. She is also a single woman with no other way to support herself since she has divorced Taillandy (the character based on her philandering first husband, who held the copyrights to her early, best-selling novels); and she is prone to black moods and anxiety. All this is in the first pages, as is the fact that she still observes her world with a writer’s eye, even though she no longer writes. Her need to observe, as well as what she observes – the nomadic and precarious life of music hall performers, the details of ordinary life transmitted through her senses, and her own inner world as she struggles, first to be more than a “forsaken” woman, and secondly for independence (despite a determined new suitor) – make her story.

But as for the protagonist’s shadow forming the story: although Colette is honest about her narrator’s faults — self-pity, despair, bitterness, and pride, just for starters — in this instance the movement of Renee Nere’s story is less about her faults (which are just there, as normal human failings) and more that she has gone against public opinion, first by divorcing, second by working in the music hall. Part of what Renee’s new suitor offers is a return to respectability. As a married woman she will have the protection of his ‘name’ and no need to work in the music hall. But what keeps her from leaping at the chance is her need for independence, for experiencing the world for herself, without the intermediary of ‘The Man’ to tell her what to feel and think about it. In 1910, this may have been seen as a fault in a woman; and maybe it’s why Erica Jong calls this the first feminist novel.

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