It is believed that much of the nostalgia that a book evokes in us is due to the memory of reading it during our childhood or youth- that innocent or seemingly innocent stage of life. When I look back upon my college days, one of my cherished memories is reading Colette and especially her ‘Claudine’ books. My lackluster life is a far cry from the colorful and scandalous life the writer led. Yet I have felt a kinship with her and something about the lyrical and lush sensuousness of her writing has always resonated with me. I seized the opportunity during the pandemic to re-read a comforting Colette from my early years.
La Maison de Claudine published in 1922 and translated as My Mother’s House is not about the fictitious Claudine. Claudine doesn’t even make an appearance in the book despite the French title but as the protagonist- author duo of Claudine-Colette are virtually the same, even their names, interestingly, have become interchangeable. La Maison de Claudine is an autobiographical book about Colette’s childhood in the countryside with a warm and loving family that consisted of her mother and father, her brother, a half brother and a half sister and a host of cats and dogs who are as much a part of the family as the two legged creatures. Colette herself was Minet- Chéri or ‘Little Darling’,the youngest of the brood.
There is no story as such. The book is a series of vignettes in the form of sentimental musings of Colette’s childhood and picturesque evocations of provincial life in Burgundy. The episodes are not in chronological order. Some are very short episodes and are barely a page or two long. Some of the chapters describe a later stage in her life when she was living in Paris with her second husband and daughter Bel- Gazou.
But most of the episodes are a charming and sensuous depiction of an idyllic childhood in a house overflowing with pets and books. Her father, the captain who lost a leg during the war, is an absent-minded and amusing man who adores his wife and flirts harmlessly with his neighbor saying that he would teach her the meaning of love for six pence and a packet of tobacco. Then there is Juliette, her recluse of a sister lost in her books and daydreams and her quirky and fun loving brothers- Achille the older brother who loves puttering with pieces of cloth and wire and glass tubes and who eventually becomes a doctor, and Leo, the amazing musician who plays by ear the tunes he hears on the street and has a morbid fascination with creating epitaphs for fun. This eccentric domestic domain is presided over imperiously by a formidable woman- – tender and kind yet resolute, strong willed and assertive- her beloved mother Sido. The entire book can be said to be a tribute to this strong and compassionate lady.
Sido is unconventional in many ways. She is far from religious and her irreverence is charming. She insists that the dog attend mass where she herself reads plays of Corneille hidden in the prayer book and dies of boredom if the sermon lasts longer than ten minutes. She retains her maid who is pregnant out of wedlock, ignoring the gossip of her neighbors. Above all she is this nurturing maternal figure, who, on hearing stories of kidnapping in the news, fears that her little Minet- Chéri will be a victim and sneaks her out of her bedroom at night and brings her close to her own bed, prompting the confused little one to shriek in the morning,” Maman! Come quick! I’ve been abducted.” When her estranged daughter Juliette goes into labor next door, she literally feels the pangs of pain as she hears her wail in agony. Even when age takes a toll on her, she is stubbornly independent and is caught chopping wood on a frosty morning in the backyard dressed only in a nightgown or moving a heavy walnut cupboard from the upper story to the ground floor.
I was amused by all the stories of Sido brushing her daughters’ long hair. Both girls had hair that nearly fell to their feet. Minet Chéri had to be woken up half an hour earlier than her schoolmates every morning just to get her hair ready for school. Her two long plaits were like horse whips. And Juliette needs four plaits – two springing from her temples and two from above the nape of her neck. It’s hilarious how Sido complains that her legs hurt just by standing to comb Juliette’s hair. Ah, braiding a daughter’s hair or getting a hair braided by a mother is one of those quotidian activities filled with pain and pleasure at the same time!
The animals are part of the daily domestic dramas and their feline and canine adventures are as delightful as their names- Toutouque, Pati-Pati, Bâ-tou, Bellaude and Kamaralzaman aka Moumou. Their stories cracked me up although I suspect Colette may have slightly embellished the details for effect. A cat relishes the best strawberries in the garden with all the good taste of a gourmet, and a spider descends from the ceiling in the middle of the night, dangling from a thread to take sips of Sido’s hot chocolate simmering over a little oil lamp on the bedside table. Nonoche, the cat and her daughter Bijou are pregnant at the same time and deliver a day within each other. The daughter cat has a few kittens attached to her breasts but goes to suckle from her mother who has her own set to nurse. There are sad stories too. The neighbor’s cat is grieving her dead kittens and has a lot of milk and the Colette family kitten seeks her abandoning his own distraught mother whose milk dries up. You can tell that Colette has observed animals very closely like many countryside children. These minute details captured so vividly remind me of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
A qui vit aux champs et se sert de ses yeux, tout devient miraculeux et simple. Il y a beau temps que nous trouvions naturel qu’une lice nourrît un jeune chat, qu’une chatte choisît, pour dormir, le dessus de la cage où chantaient des serins verts confiants et qui, parfois, tiraient du bec, au profit de leur nid, quelques poils soyeux de la dormeuse.
“To anyone who lives in the fields and uses his or her eyes, everything becomes miraculous and simple.We had long since felt that it was quite natural that a she-hound would feed a kitten, that a female cat would choose as her sleeping place the top of a cage where trusting green canaries sang, and who sometimes with their beaks pulled out a few silky hairs from the sleeping animal to build their nests.“
Beneath this tranquil surface, there is something simmering that threatens to disturb the harmony. There is a sense of melancholy pervading the air although Colette doesn’t allude to it explicitly. There are hints of financial trouble. I was especially intrigued by the mysterious Juliette and her crowning glory- the girl who is such a bookworm that even when she is sick with typhoid and forbidden to read, she lights matchsticks at night or strains to read clandestinely with nothing but the help of moonlight. Her in laws are not satisfied with her dowry and forbid her from visiting her parents. What secret sorrows lurk behind the thick and dark veil of hair! Who will rescue this Rapunzel from her tower? And why is she referred to repeatedly as an ‘ingrate’ when she is avoiding her parents only because she is afraid of her in laws’ ire? When we write a memoir with the distance of years between us, it affects our objectivity and we tend to gloss over unpleasant or uncomfortable details. Colette doesn’t want to break the spell of those halcyon days of childhood.
We don’t want the spell to break either. Colette summons up a childhood paradise imbued with delight and magic. Yet from the beginning, we are aware of the transience of the house, the garden and the inhabitants. From the very first chapter entitled,” Where are the children?” where Sido is frantically trying to round up the children who are in the garden playing games or hiding on tree tops with their books, we know that they will be leaving the maternal Eden behind. And that eventually their mother will leave them too and they would be left wondering where their mother was just as she was anxious about them.
Maison et jardin vivent encore, je le sais, mais qu’importe si la magie les a quittés, si le secret est perdu qui ouvrait — lumière, odeurs, harmonie d’arbres et d’oiseaux, murmure de voix humaines qu’a déjà suspendu la mort — un monde dont j’ai cessé d’être digne?…
“The house and garden still exist, I know it, but of what use is that if their magic has left them and if their secret has been lost- the secret that once opened up a whole world to me- light, scents, the harmony of trees and birds, the murmur of human voices that death has already stilled…a world of which I have ceased to be worthy?”
The book describes three generations of people who even share names and nicknames. Colette’s full name has her mother’s name Sidonie in it and she took her father’s last name as her first name and passed it on to her own daughter along with her nickname Bel-Gazou. Even though homes and people vanish out of their lives, there is this continuity in retaining the names along with the memories through the generations of this particular family.
And yet, the most amazing part of the book is its universality: it transported me to my own childhood ,which, strangely, was nothing like Colette’s; it made me nostalgic for a place or state of mind that wasn’t even there or perhaps was there in fragments. I used to relate to Minet- Chéri, or the young Colette; now on re-reading the book, I wonder if I have been a mother like Sido to my children in some small way and if I have provided them with enough experiences for sweet reminiscences. All I know is that as they take wing, I am left to lament like her: ” Where are the children?”
* The translations are all mine.