1933 – the cat ~ colette

The problem with reading a book every week? The more I read, the more I need to read. Every week, the list of books I want to buy only grows longer.

Sometimes, it seems as if I’m going nowhere; as if all I’m doing is mapping the disgusting depths of my own ignorance. But when I think about everything I’ve read over the past eleven months, I know I’m learning. Everyone has to begin their education somewhere.

Yes, eleven months. I can’t believe that the Book to the Future project is only one month away from its first birthday! This can mean only one thing…

…Caaaaaake! If there’s one thing I love even more than reading, it’s CAKE.

I can’t help but wonder…when am I going to find time to read all the books I’ve added to my reading list over the past eleven months?  I’m guessing most will have to wait until I’ve finished the Book to the Future project…

That’s…one-and-a-bit years away now. Good thing I’m patient…

This week, I met another author I’ve fallen in love with. Yes, another one. Sigh. As if I don’t have enough reading to do already.

Oh well. There are worse things I could spend my life doing…

This week’s review whisks us away to France, for yet another story of twisted romance. Because you know I can’t resist an awkward love story…

 

The Cat

by Colette

Published in 1933


Most men would consider Alain a lucky guy. Two young, beautiful females have fallen in love with him.

The thing is, one of these females is a cat. And Alain is not your average guy.

The Cat is the story of a love triangle that’s even more bizarre than most. As the novella opens, Alain is about to be married to Camille – a gorgeous young thing way out of his league. With one week remaining before the ceremony, the sexual attraction between Camille and Alain is red hot. She’s wild and willing, while Alain is vaguely bemused.

Secretly, the very thought of her – this loud, crude modern woman, living in his mother’s house, encroaching on his perfect existence fills Alain with a vague terror, as do the renovations that his betrothed has insisted on before they can move in.

And then, there’s Saha, Alain’s beloved purebred Russian Blue. The two share an unusually close bond…

“‘Ah! There you are, Saha! I was looking for you. Why didn’t you appear at table tonight?’

‘Me – rrou – wa,’ answered the cat, ‘me – rrou – wa.’

‘What, me – rrou – wa? And why me – rrou – wa? Do you really mean it?’

‘Me – rrou – wa,’ insisted the cat, ‘me – rrou – wa.’

He stroked her, tenderly groping his way down the long spine that was softer than a hare’s fur. Then he felt under his hand the small, cold nostrils dilated by her violent putting. ‘She’s my cat. My very own cat.'” (p. 4)

Alain wakes up the morning after his wedding to a most unusual sight – his wife, standing in their room, completely naked. Two thoughts run through his mind – shouldn’t his wife be wearing clothes? And when can he sneak away to his mother’s house to see Saha?

As the weeks pass, Alain and Camille’s new marriage becomes more and more frayed around the edges. Despite the fact that they’re not even of the same species, Camille and Saha share many similarities: both are calculating, jealous and determined to have their way. But only one will win Alain’s strange little heart. May the best woman win.

At just on one hundred pages, The Cat is really only a novella. My one criticism of The Cat – which isn’t really a criticism at all – is that it’s not long enough. I didn’t want it to end. Colette’s writing crackles with witty, elegant joy. From the very first sentence, The Cat had me enthralled. Alain is no ordinary character, and no ordinary writer could have brought him to life so perfectly.

There’s something about Alain that reminds me of quite possibly the most recognisable character in French literature – Camus’ Meursault, from The Outsider, published in 1942; nine years after The Cat. Like Meursault, Alain goes about the motions of life. Alain becomes engaged to a beautiful woman, he renovates his mother’s home – he does all the things other people do because he feels as if he should. But, unlike Meursault, Alain does have feelings. They’re just not the kind of feelings most people have. He’s deeply attached to the past, his house, his childhood, his room, his mother. His cat…

Of course, Camus had no sense of humour whatsoever. The Outsider is by no means a funny novel. The Cat, however, is sparklingly witty. Much of the novel’s humour comes from Alain’s complete indifference toward Camille. In the first few pages, for instance, she goes to great lengths to get him to notice her, pushing out her breasts and throwing him over-the-top flirtatious glances. Alain, however, is far too busy admiring her shadow.

As if this perfectly-crafted character isn’t enough, there’s also a whole level of lush, lovely symbolism that gives this novel a whole new dimension. Alain and Camille’s three-walled bedroom is the perfect metaphor for their wonky, three-sided relationship. Colette also explores the gap between instincts and desires; how human society forces us to suppress our animal nature. While Alain watches Saha stalk her prey in the garden of his mother’s house, he watches with a fascination that borders on arousal. Whereas in the confines of the awkward Paris flat where the married couple (and Saha) live, there’s no such connection to the wild. Nature is a distant memory:

“At last, in the fireless kitchen (…) the automatic, whistling coffee-pot and the electric teapot clashed against each other…”

Such an effective image. We’re told in the very first pages that Camille is the epitome of the modern girl. This modern, passionless, automatic world is her natural habitat. But Alain isn’t modern in any way. His one wish is to retreat back to the past, to his mother and his cat. Where everything is familiar and safe and just the way he likes it.

That’s not to say that there’s no passion between the two. Like any pair of newlyweds, they can’t even argue with each other without running to the bedroom. Of course, Alain always feels disgusted with himself afterwards.

It’s such a strange, complicated relationship. But it makes for a truly fascinating novel.

You’ll love The Cat, It’s playful, flirtatious – and so very, very French.

~~

Official Book to the Future rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should you read it?

Definitely. The Cat is straightforward, beautifully written and reads like a lesson in how to write short fiction. What it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in sheer style. Go on – read it. There’s nothing to lose.

In a word:

Gorgeous.

Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

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