Gigi and The Cat, by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse and Antonia White respectively
I grew up with musicals. As a child, staying with my maternal grandmother, I used to love watching them with her. Dazzling choreography, great songs, and all in glorious Technicolor. Singin’ in the Rain remains my favourite film.
I saw Gigi back then, the 1958 musical with Leslie Caron in the lead role, but I don’t think I understood much of what was going on. Quite recently I saw it again, and absolutely loved it. It’s a joy of a film, with some great songs (I Remember It Well being a particular standout) and set pieces. It also has a tremendous cast, including of course Maurice Chevalier (whose Thank Heaven for Little Girls remains the dodgiest song I’ve ever heard in a musical, even as a child it seemed a bit questionable to me, though at least the singer does wait for them to grow up).
Colette’s original novella, here translated by Roger Senhouse, is just as much a joy as the film was. Perhaps more so, because it can afford a cynicism that Hollywood largely had to expunge and because Colette’s observations are so utterly delicious.
Gigi is a pretty young Parisienne, still in essence a child. Her mother is a moderately unsuccessful actress who has passed responsibility for Gigi’s upbringing largely to her own mother, with whom they both live. Gigi’s grandmother has plans for the girl, and to that end is having her trained by her own sister, Aunt Alicia.
What is Gigi being trained in? Well, that’s what I missed as a child watching the film. Gigi’s aunt is a grand courtesan, her grandmother was a courtesan too, though not so grand. Gigi, the illegitimate daughter of an actress, has very few career paths open to her and the one she’s being prepared for whether she knows it or not is the life of a serial mistress.
What follows is a wonderful clash of youth and idealism on the one hand, and age and guile on the other. Gigi’s innocence and sheer spirit has captured the friendship of the most eligible young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille, but now she’s starting to leave childhood the possibility arises that she could be something more to him than just a friend. Gigi doesn’t understand that yet, but her grandmother and great-aunt most certainly do. If only Gigi showed the slightest aptitude for their training…
Don’t ever wear artistic jewellery; it wrecks a woman’s reputation.” ‘What is an artistic jewel?’ ‘It all depends. A mermaid in gold, with eyes of chrysoprase. An Egyptian scarab. A large engraved amethyst. A not very heavy bracelet said to have been chased by a master-hand. A lyre or star, mounted as a brooch. A studded tortoise. In a word, all of them frightful. Never wear baroque pearls, not even as hat-pins. Beware above all things, of family jewels!’ ‘But Grandmamma has a beautiful cameo, set as a medallion.’ ‘There are no beautiful cameos,’ said Aunt Alicia with a toss of the head.
This is novella as macaroon, a perfectly crafted little delicacy, beautiful to look at and delightful to bite into (why yes, I do love macaroons, why do you ask?). Gigi’s lessons are full of acerbic little asides (“The telephone is of real use only to important businessmen, or to women who have something to hide.”) and pretty much every page had me laughing.
The three great stumbling-blocks in a girl’s education, she says, are homard à l’Américaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus. Shoddy table manners, she says, have broken up many a happy home.
Colette here manages to be both cynical and romantic, to have her gateau and to eat it. I could quote it endlessly, and can easily imagine rereading it. It’s just huge fun.
All of which makes it a bit of a shame that I didn’t like the other novella in the Vintage Classics edition I read at all. The Cat is actually an earlier work by Colette (1933, whereas Gigi is 1945). It’s the story of a young man who has a frankly unhealthy relationship with his pet cat and the rivalry that develops between that cat and his new bride.
I grew up with cats, and have loved them all my life. This should then be the novella for me. Unfortunately though I’ve never met a cat that behaved remotely like the cat Saha does in this story - too human to ever be convincingly cat. Then again, I’ve never met humans who behaved much like the humans do in this story either.
Alain, Saha’s owner, is an unwordly sort who is marrying more from duty than love. Here he coldly considers his new bride:
Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little too fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi-driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly, as children and adolescents do; that she was capable of deceiving her parents so as to get out after dinner and meet him at a night-club. There they danced together, but they drank only orange-juice because Alain disliked alcohol. Before their official engagement, she had yielded her discreetly-wiped lips to him both by daylight and in the dark. She had also yielded her impersonal breasts, always imprisoned in a lace brassière, and her very lovely legs in the flawless stockings she bought in secret; stockings ‘like Mistinguett’s, you know. Mind my stockings, Alain!’ Her stockings and her legs were the best things about her. ‘She’s pretty,’ Alain thought dispassionately, ‘because not one of her features is ugly, because she’s an out-and-out brunette. Those lustrous eyes perfectly match that sleek, glossy, frequently-washed hair that’s the colour of a new piano.’ He was also perfectly aware that she could be as violent and capricious as a mountain stream.
It’s a long quote, but an interesting one. This is his bride to be, but note the complete lack of passion. Here, by contrast, Alain considers his cat:
As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure. ‘Seven more days, Saha,’ he sighed. In seven days and seven nights he would begin a new life in new surroundings with an amorous and untamed young woman. He stroked the cat’s fur, warm and cool at the same time and smelling of clipped box, thuya and lush grass. She was purring full-throatedly and, in the darkness, she gave him a cat’s kiss, laying her damp nose for a second under Alain’s nose between his nostrils and his lip. A swift, immaterial kiss which she rarely accorded him. ‘Ah! Saha. Our nights . . .’
Leaving aside the anthropomorphising there, we’re in distinctly creepy territory. That’s not a problem per se, though it wasn’t clear to me whether I was supposed to find Alain quite as profoundly distasteful as I did, the issue is that this is a character driven tale without a single character one cares about.
It’s about the lowest form of book criticism to say a book is bad because it has no likeable or sympathetic characters, and that’s close to where I’m getting here so I need to be a little careful. I read noir though, and it never bothers me there that frequently everyone in the story is utterly repellent.
The issue here is that Alain is so fixated on his cat he moves beyond the credible. He becomes almost an image of mental illness, but that’s not what this story is. His bride, efficient, modern, is put in the incredible situation of competing for her husband’s affections with his cat but since I didn’t believe in the husband or the cat the whole setup just became rather artificial.
As I grew distant from the story it jarred more and more. At one point, Saha becomes concerned that she’s upset Alain and so scoops “up a rusk from the table and held it between her paws like a squirrel.” Cats lack both the empathy and the grip to do anything like that. If I’d been enjoying the story I’d have read that passage generously, but I wasn’t and instead it became just another unconvincing detail.
For me then The Cat became a hugely contrived tale featuring a conflict that I didn’t believe in between characters who didn’t persuade me. It’s neat, and I don’t say that remotely as a compliment. Gigi is a vastly more accomplished tale. I’ll return to Gigi, but I doubt very much I’ll ever return to The Cat.
I should add, by way of postscript, that as I write this I’m actually surprisingly tired, my own cat having shown a distinct lack of empathy last night and having woken me repeatedly as she wanted to curl in and was annoyed I wasn’t responding. I love cats, but putting the feelings of others ahead of their own isn’t one of their core strengths as a species.