Translated by Andrew Brown
Claudine’s House was book 5 of my 20 books of summer. Published in 1922, it form part of my side project to read books from 1922 throughout 2022. Historically, 1922 was a momentous year. I recently read Nick Rennison’s 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent year, published this year, which gives a brilliant overview: this is the year the USSR was formed, the Ottoman Empire fell, the post-Spanish flu pandemic ‘roaring ’20s’ got under way and, in publishing, ‘peak modernism’ was reached. Books published in 1922 include both Ulysses (which I keep eyeing warily) and the Waste Land. And this engaging sort-of memoir by Colette.
Lots of people have pointed to the book’s charm, as it evokes Colette’s childhood summers in a French country house, replete with puppies and kittens and hair fastened with ribbons. Through a series of short vignettes, life with her fluttering mother Sidonie, her one-legged army captain father and her three eccentric siblings is vividly conjured up.
There is nothing of world events in the book, though amid the charm there is some sadness. Sidonie is devastated by her estrangement from Colette’s emotionally intense older sister following her marriage (Colette’s family were unable to honour their financial commitments under the marriage contract), and that cast a long shadow over the book for me. Especially when I learnt from Wikipedia that the sister committed suicide at the age of 48.
The most enjoyable bits, for me, focus on the animal life:
“Nonoche the tortoiseshell had given birth to kittens two days previously, and Bijou, her daughter, the following night … Filled with happiness, I sorted out these nursing mothers and their well-licked nurslings, fragrant with hay and fresh milk and well-tended fur, and I discovered that Bijou, four times a mother in three years, bringing to her teats a chaplet of newborns, was herself sucking, with the clumsy noise of her over-large tongue and the purring of a chimney fire, the milk of old Nonoche lying inertly there, taking her ease with one paw over her eyes.”
I can read French, but read this in English through deeply ingrained laziness. I have to say though that the cover of my secondhand Hesperus Modern Voices edition from 2006 is rubbish: it shows a girl with a face of abject misery gazing out balefully from a step, and screams misery memoir rather than bucolic bliss.