Gigi and The Cat: Colette

★★★½

When reading a book that’s been translated from another language, I don’t often think too much about the act of translation. Indeed, I usually think the mark of a good translator is that he or she should be almost self-effacing: you shouldn’t notice that there’s a degree of separation between you as the reader and the original author. However, I couldn’t help but notice the translation in this book: in a good way. As you might remember, I’ve only read one book by Colette before, and that was Chéri, translated by Roger Senhouse. My French isn’t good enough to be able to judge it against the original, but in English Chéri was entirely successful, giving the story an elegiac and slightly satirical tone which worked perfectly. And so I began specifically to look out for other translations by Senhouse.

This volume contains two of Colette’s short stories: Gigi and The Cat, the former translated by Senhouse and the latter by Antonia White. To begin with Gigi: Senhouse bowled me over once again. Admittedly, he had wonderful source material. His translation is sprightly and sparkling, turning the (surprisingly short) story into the literary equivalent of a glass of champagne. I’m now on a mission to find more Senhouse.

Gigi is a coming-of-age story and, at its heart, a celebration of freshness and naturalism. Its message struck me as the antithesis of Pygmalion. Here we meet fifteen-year-old Gilberte, known as Gigi to her friends and family. She is one of the most plausible adolescent girls I’ve come across in fiction: a gauche creature of knees and jutting elbows, still confined by her over-protective grandmother in childish pinafores, short skirts and sailor hats. Gigi has suffered a particularly strict upbringing, because her mother and grandmother (respectively an opera singer and retired courtesan) know only too well the price of a girl’s reputation. Youthful respectability may be dull, but in the long run it gives a woman a certain cachet. Of course, there’s little question of what Madame Alvarez plans for Gigi’s future: the girl is expected to grow up to provide elegant companionship for wealthy unmarried men, and to negotiate what Colette charmingly describes as ‘the fitful opulence of a life of gallantry’.

Orbiting this little family of women are two other significant characters: Madame Alvarez’s sister Alicia, whose life of gallantry has left her rather well set up; and the family friend Gaston Lachaille. A sugar magnate, playboy and local celebrity, Gaston enjoys the modest domesticity of Madame Alvarez’s flat, where he plays at being a member of the family and is known to the irrepressible Gigi as ‘Tonton’. But then everything changes. Gaston’s mistress publicly leaves him and tries (not very hard) to kill herself, which results in this wonderful exchange between Gigi and her grandmother, who have both seen it all before:

‘Call your mother, Gigi! Liane d’Exelmans has committed suicide.’ …
‘Is she dead?’
‘Of course not. She knows what she’s about.’ …
‘The last time she killed herself, Grandmamma, was for the sake of Prince Georgevitch, wasn’t it?’
‘Where are your brains, my darling? It was for Count Berthou de Sauveterre.’
‘Oh, so it was. And what will Tonton do now, do you think?’

And that is the question. Seeing their opportunity, Gigi’s grandmother and great-aunt make their move. The elegant Alicia takes Gigi under her wing and enrols her in a course of lessons: how to eat asparagus, boiled eggs and ortolans; how to have good taste in clothes; and how to distinguish between fine jewels and those which should be turned down. (‘Don’t ever wear artistic jewellery; it wrecks a woman’s reputation’: there’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years!) But Gigi can’t shake off the feeling that she would rather make a life to fit herself, rather than be moulded to fit a lifestyle. And so she takes her destiny into her own hands, with delightful consequences.

Gigi is so wonderful because it’s a story about breaking with convention, even though in this case convention means the rather scandalous life of a courtesan. It’s an argument for being true to yourself, avoiding pressure to change, and making your dreams come true; and as such it’s a thoroughly feel-good story. I wish I’d read it when I was fifteen because I would have adored it just as much as I do now, even though it might have given me rather expensive tastes. My only regret was that the ending felt rather abrupt, but maybe that’s only because I was so absorbed in the story. Now of course I have to seek out the 1958 musical with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier, though I do wonder how they managed to make a full-length film of something which, while fizzing with joie de vivre, is so short.

The second story in this volume is The Cat, which is considerably longer than Gigi and is another meditation on love and the pressure to change for our lovers. It has a more modern feel than Gigi, which exists in a kind of golden-hued fin de siècle world; The Cat, which was published in 1933, feels almost contemporary. Cars and telephones are taken for granted and the young couple at the story’s heart, Alain and Camille, begin their married life in an Art Deco block of flats with glass walls and concrete balconies. I think this ruthless modernity contributed towards the sense I had of this story being, somehow, ‘cold’.

It certainly has a more sinister feel than the effervescent Gigi and there is a very strong psychological element, which was particularly interesting for me as it focuses on the issues of being an only child. Alain has grown up without siblings at the centre of his world: his mother adores and pampers him; the servants are proud of him; and his family’s large house, although it’s a bit worn around the edges, preserves cherished memories of his childhood in every corner. And then there is his cat. In lieu of a close human friend, Alain is devoted to his Russian Blue, Saha, who for her part has an almost anthropomorphic possessiveness of her master. As Alain marries and brings another female influence into his life, he frets at the impact that the progressive, domineering Camille will have on his precious existence. He begins to dread the thought of her invading ‘his’ home and, most of all, he is deeply troubled by the dislike that he senses between her and Saha. How can he insulate ‘his’ world from Camille’s destructive influence, and can he ever bring her to understand and accept his companionship with his beloved cat?

After the light-heartedness of Gigi and the lethargic sensuality of Chéri, I certainly hadn’t been expecting something quite like this and I found The Cat distinctly unsettling. Perhaps I allowed myself to read too much into it. Did I just imagine the stark, film-noirish angles and the rising threat of menace that was almost Hitchcockian? And what of the ending, which felt so weird for a novel of this date (the final lines had a faint flavour of Angela Carter about them)? If I had to compare Antonia White’s style of translation to that of Senhouse, I’d say that she tends towards a more sedate and formal kind of language; but that suits this story, in which everything is formal on the surface, belying the disconcerting obsessions bubbling underneath. No; it wasn’t as easy to like as Gigi, but it was more haunting and, even a day after finishing it, I find my thoughts creeping back to certain scenes. I know Antonia White has translated the Claudine novels for Vintage, so I look forward to reading more of her work soon.

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