Alain, spoilt only son to a silk fortune, lives with his mother and the cat he adores in their immaculate home. He marries tempestuous Camille and they move into Patrick's triangular high rise apartment while Camille supervises the alterations that will be necessary before Alain's home will be ready for his new bride. At first they leave the cat, Saha, behind but it pines so Alain, without consulting his wife, takes it to his new home. Camille becomes jealous and Alain, despite enjoying sex with his wife, comes to realise he has made a mistake.
This is a portrait of a marriage doomed from the start. It is both sensitive and brutal, deriving both of these from the uncompromising honesty with which Gigi dissects human relationships. For example, after their first night together, Alain reflects "It is always like this the first night? The bruised, unsatisfactory feeling? This half-success, half-disaster?" (p85) which, for me, is far more realistic than the ecstasy of romantic novels or the utter catastrophe of On Chesil Beach. Camille, on her side, muses: "She was licensed to share his bed, to prop up a young man's naked body against her thigh and shoulder, to become acquainted with its colours and curves and defects. She was free to contemplate boldly and at length the small dry nipples, the loins she envied, and the strange design of the capricious sex." (p 86) I adored that word 'capricious'. It turns on its head the cliche of women being fickle ("La Donna e mobile") whilst at the same time alluding (though actually deriving from the Italian word for a shiver) to Capricorn, the goat, symbol of lechery. Alain thinks the same of Camille: "She could be as violent and capricious as a mountain stream" (p 63). And she is the sexy one; he feels embarrassed by her nakedness: "She paraded for him, so proudly and so completely devoid of modesty that he rather rudely flung her the crumpled pyjama-jacket which lay on the bed." (p 84)
One telling incident comes when Saha, the cat, stands on Alain's chest. "One single claw pierced the silk [remember that Alain's money comes from silk] of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure." (p 70). But when, later, Alain draws "his nails slowly and delicately all the way down her stomach" Camille is shocked, goes stiff, "her hair on end and her eyes hostile and threatening" and asks if he is vicious. (p 88) It becomes clear that Alain's relationship with the cat is a sexual one and that Camille has every justification in being jealous, although Alain, who thinks of sex purely as the mechanical act he has done with his mistresses, denies it. But he loves Saha for her experience: "What about your first seducer, the white tom without a tail? Do you remember that my ugly one, my trollop in the rain, my shameless one?" If that isn't grounds for jealousy, what is?
And when he goes back home, after his first night, to see the cat again, "He stole into the garden like a boy in his teens who has stayed out all night." (p 91) This suggests that it is the sex with Camille that he feels guilty about.
Other brilliant lines:
- "June came with its longer days, its night skies devoid of mystery." (p 93)
- "His heart was beating fast because he had meanly eavesdropped without being punished for it and because he had been listening to prejudiced witnesses and unsought accomplices." (p 113)
- "All the untidiness of a hot night ... a garment forgotten on a deck-chair, empty glasses on a metal table, a pair of sandals." (p 126)
- "All through his life, a man has to be born many times with no other assistance than that of chance, of bruises, of mistakes." (pp 150 - 151)
Colette's ability to describe scenes and characters with economy but intense clarity gives this story a power that Gigi never achieves. I loved it!
September 2016; 97 pages
Page numbers represent the Penguin Vintage Classics edition.