Already an entire week of February is gone – high time for my first contribution to the Books on France 2014 reading challenge! For today’s review I wanted a classic by a woman writer who has been much celebrated in her time and whose work has long been on my wish list. In the end I picked a novel which attracted me first of all because of its title: The Cat by Colette. There are many stories about love and unfounded jealousy, but to my knowledge none of them has a cat playing a central role in it like in this extraordinary short novel.
Colette, in full Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, was born in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in Burgundy, France, in January 1873. She began her literary career during her first marriage writing the novels lately brought out in English as The Complete Claudine, a collection which comprises Claudine at School (Claudine à l’école: 1900), Claudine in Paris (Claudine à Paris: 1901), Claudine Married (Claudine en ménage: 1902), and Claudine and Annie (Claudine s’en va: 1903). After her divorce she worked in the music halls of Paris for a living, but the continued to publish. Her most notable novel of that time probably is The Vagabond (La Vagabonde: 1910). Only after World War I the already well-known author became really famous. The most important among her works are Chéri (1920), My Mother’s House (La Maison de Claudine: 1922), Green Wheat (Le blé en herbe: 1923), The Other One (La Seconde: 1929), The Cat (La Chatte: 1933), and Gigi (Gigi et autres nouvelles: 1944). Cared for by her third husband, Colette died in Paris, France, in August 1954.
The scene of The Cat is Paris in the 1930s. Twenty-four-year-old Alain and nineteen-year-old Camille are soon getting married. The young man has a carefree life at his mother’s house surrounded by a spacious and well-kept garden. Saha, a Chartreux cat, is his loyal as well as tender companion ever since he bought her three years earlier. It has been love at first sight between him and the cat. Their established rituals are Alain’s daily joy, but he knows that everything is going to change. In fact first changes are already under way. With growing unease Alain watches the progress of the works on the marital apartment in the house. At last the wedding takes place and since their new home isn’t ready yet the newlywed couple temporarily moves into the studio of a friend located on the ninth floor of a new block of flats. Alain and Camille enjoy the pleasures of married life, but they also begin to see faults in each other. Already after the wedding night, Alain is taken aback by his wife walking about the room naked, while Camille is annoyed with his prudishness. As time goes by, Alain visits his mother and Saha ever more often. He finds Saha pining and losing weight because she refuses to eat. One day Alain can’t bear Saha’s quiet suffering any longer and takes her with him to the studio. By instinct Saha has always disliked Camille. In return, the young woman never cared for the cat and doesn’t understand at all why Alain is so devoted to her. Now the three of them are living together and Camille feels that Saha is getting more attention and affection from Alain than are her due. Moreover, after only three months of married life Alain is withdrawing from Camille. The young woman is jealous and Saha loves balancing recklessly on the balustrade of the small terrace… but cats have nine lives and malice doesn’t pay.
The unusual love triangle making up the story of The Cat is told from Alain’s point of view which reveals him as a boy rather than the fully-grown man that his age suggests. Alain clings to his routines and rituals just as much as Saha or any other cat does. Alain loves his life as it always used to be and he loves Saha. Therefore I believe that Saha represents Alain’s comfortable life under his mother’s roof in the middle of a fairy-tale garden, a life that seems neverchanging. Saha may also have served Colette as a mirror for Alain’s sensitive and freedom-loving nature. Camille, on the other hand, is a bold and energetic young woman who wants her husband to completely belong to her alone and to share her desires. Her energy and love overwhelm Alain. Probably Camille also stands for the unpredictable changes and challenges of future. To me Alain and Camille seem the classical opposite tempers: Alain is the sensitive introvert who needs to be alone now and again, while Camille is the active extravert who best relaxes in company and can’t bear solitude. The characters in the book are all made of flesh and blood, including Saha. The way Colette showed Alain’s deep love for his cat is no less than the work of a brilliant observer and a writer of genius. The novel’s language and style are elegant and precise which doesn’t actually make it easier for a non-native speaker of French like me to read the original text, but it certainly adds to the pleasure.
In my opinion The Cat by Colette is a marvellous piece of literature. It has been a pure delight to read this short novel and I feel very much like plunging into other works of this French author. In fact, I already did. The other day I finished the more famous novella Gigi (»»» read my notice on LaGraziana’s Kalliopeion) which is included in the only English edition of The Cat that I could find. Although I only reviewed the latter here, I warmly recommend both for reading.