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‘Colette’s ‘family plot’ is a garden and a graveyard… The treasure of Colette’s writing is the layered vertical memory that blooms into fiction and thus brings to light those beloved ghosts who, Colette finds, now dwell within the writer herself.’
– Jerry Aline Flieger, Colette and the Fantom Subject of Autobiography
In Colette’s My Mother’s House, her 1922 work of autofiction, the controversial and beloved French novelist remembers her brother’s strange act of creating a fictional graveyard out of cardboard in their mother’s fertile garden, which their mother raked over in anger. This image resonates with Colette’s creative propensity to excavate the ghosts of personal memory in her fiction; themes and images from her life reverberate through her novels. Drawing from her already published narratives of her odd brother Leo, The Cat, published in 1933, is a story that conveys a deep understanding of the kind of boyish man who refuses to grow.
What is most appealing about Colette’s 1933 novel The Cat is her uncanny ability to convey – even across generations and language barriers – something very familiar about relationships and family dynamics. It is well documented in dozens of Colette biographies that she was an active self-promoter and mythologiser of her own childhood and life. Colette’s ability to adapt the details of her own life story into her fiction is perhaps the reason why The Cat is so approachable nearly eighty years later. Her sometimes cruel yet forgiving observations of character – and particularly of gendered dynamics – seem utterly modern and prove that people then and now, here and there, are possibly not so repressed, foreign or different as one might expect.
The Cat is mostly told from the close third person perspective of Alain, an arrogant young man who lives with his mother. It observes a moment in time when this fearful boy could take a step into adulthood via his relationship with the beautiful, sassy and devoted Camille. Although they have a saucy sex life and occasionally enjoy long drives across the French countryside in their roadster, Alain is essentially unwilling to break free of his narrow world. His inner thoughts pepper the narrative, revealing endlessly enthralled observations of his cat Saha, with whom he has an intimate and passionate relationship. But his thoughts of his bride Camille are often disdainful. He acknowledges Camille’s beauty dispassionately, much preferring her shadow on the wall; he thinks she drives too fast; she fibs like a child; her neck can look a bit humpy when she’s vulnerable; her eyes are too big in the morning.
Alain has no real insights about himself, and the novel plots his wilful retreat into ‘purity’, which he articulates as the most sought-after essence of his life and which can only be found with his cat Saha, in his mother’s garden, where he is most at ease and happy.
‘… Admit’ – she folded her arms like a tragic actress – admit that you’re going to see my rival!’
‘Saha’s not your rival,’ said Alain simply.
‘How can she be your rival,’ he went on to himself. ‘You can only have rivals in what’s impure.’
Saha is the catalyst ushering forward the demise of Alain and Camille’s liaison, and although she is a realistically rendered character in herself, she is also Alain’s faithful anchor, a ‘chimera’ safeguarding his dream world, which holds all his unconscious feelings, raw fears and painfully romantic attachments to his childhood.
The Cat resonates precisely because it is woven from the well-defined details of Colette’s personal experience, observation and memory. It was written after a decade of intense introspection which resulted in Sido (named after her mother) and My Mother’s House (about her childhood), both autobiographical prose works in which Colette imaginatively explored her past and perhaps idealised her childhood and family.
Alain is based on Colette’s older brother Leo, who was described by Colette in Sido as a Peter Pan figure, a man who Judith Thurman, in her brilliant biography Secrets of the Flesh, describes as ‘frugal, elfin, unkempt, depressive and “attached to nothing but his native place”’. Their mother Sido also cast a long shadow in Colette’s imagination, and the memories of her all-knowingness and strong pull have found their way into The Cat. Alain’s mother is always in the background, but she doesn’t altogether approve of him or push him away. She is almost always in the garden and the childhood home where Alain is happiest. This is where he returns, thankfully, after a stint with Camille in the tight confines of a city flat:
I’ll withdraw far, far away – under this cherry tree for example, under the wing of that magpie. Or into the peacock’s tail of the hose-jet. Or into my cold room under the protection of a little golden dollar, a handful of relics, and a Russian Blue cat.
Colette was an animal lover, and Saha is based on her beloved Chartreux of the same name (she exchanged many in-depth letters about Saha with her with husband Maurice, who shared her devotion). Camille is said to be loosely reminiscent of Colette’s daughter Bel-Gazou, who was extricating herself from an ill-fated marriage at the time of writing. Perhaps Bel-Gazou felt a rivalry with the Chartreux for the affections of her mother, as Camille does for Alain. In any case, Bel-Gazou was a bold, modern girl privy to the opening of opportunities for women in post-WWI Europe, a new generation that Colette perhaps didn’t fully understand, but begrudgingly admired for their robustness.
Camille is ready to dive into adulthood headfirst and to be the new master of her own domain: a marriage, a house and family. Although the story is told mostly from Alain’s perspective, the novel has a strange way of aligning our sympathies with Camille. Despite her attempts to love him, his evasiveness and private disgust towards her drive her to act in extreme ways. His cowardly aim is to escape the relationship with dignity and without blame. Eventually, we see Camille is a vigorous and fully formed human to Alain’s resistant and fragile child.
Artfully woven together and taking on a life of their own, Colette’s autobiographical fragments are worked into a unique fiction. Writing from the established archives of her life, Colette inscribed for herself a ghostly version of her brother, now a fictional embodiment of their shared childhood experiences of their home, family and mother. But the modern setting, the strange metaphorical dimension of a boy in love with his cat, the tensions between sexual desire and resistance to romantic love: these all become the texture of a work of fiction, or as Jonathan Franzen puts it, a ‘purposeful dreaming’. For Colette, perhaps the reason for creating fiction from her life was to delve into her own longing for a childhood where earthly pleasures and raw fears are never to be tampered with by the ordinary compromises of adulthood.
Maggie Scott is a literary-cine-TV-phile. She co-edits Picture Skew, a screen culture blog: www.pictureskew.net.