I really need to read more of Colette's work. I've read very little, but in every case there is more to the story than meets the eye. And what's impressive is that she manages to do in just a few pages what other writers sometimes can't do in an entire novel. This weekend's short story from Infinite Riches, "The Secret Woman", was originally published in 1971 in a collection called The Other Woman. I think surely Colette must have been both in real life and in her fiction subtly subversive (and for which I have the greatest respect).
In this story, a woman finds a certain liberation by showing herself in disguise. Thinking about the title and knowing the female character, I think it can have more than one meaning. She's secret for how she appears at the Opéra ball dressed as a Pierrot, but also maybe her real personality is disguised, or secret, too. Which is the real woman?
Telling his wife a "schoolboy lie", a doctor decides to feign being called out by a patient in order to get out of taking his wife to the ball, yet he himself goes alone in costume. He's never been before and his wife laughs and jokes that had she known, perhaps she would never have married him. He tells her she should go without him, but she gives a shudder of disgust at the idea of "all those hands".
So there the both of them are together but not, each independent of the other, but the husband hears a familiar voice and is astonished to think she has indeed come alone. Or maybe not so alone after all. Soon he would know the truth about her and whether she is here to meet a lover. But some pleasures are just for the brief moment. It isn't to meet a lover or any man, she is there, he decides. Maybe it is just a matter for the senses--a certain desire for sensory pleasures we allow ourselves, that have no other meaning but for the moment and for the physical.
I love this story.
" . . . he was sure that she was neither waiting nor looking for anyone, and that abandoning the lips she held beneath her own like an empty grape, she was going to leave again the next moment, wander about once more, collect some other passer-by, forget him, and simply enjoy, until she felt tired and went back home, the monstrous pleasure of being alone, free, honest in her crude, native state, of being the unknown woman, eternally solitary and shameless, restored to her irremediable solitude and immodest innocence by a little mask and a concealing costume."
Does the wife ever catch on that she has been spotted? Does it matter since the husband knows she's not there out of an act of disloyalty to him (yet an act of loyalty to her real self maybe).
Such a simple story and a simple act, yet it is all weighted with meaning. Colette is a master of short story writing. And she wonderful in her vivid descriptions,too.
"He had wandered along all the corridors of the Opéra, drunk the silvery dust of the dance floor, recognized bored friends and placed round his neck the indifferent arms of a very plump girl who was disguised as though humorously as a sylph."
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". . . [he] saw someone sitting astride the balustrade, wearing a long and impenetrable disguise, looking like Pierrot because of the smock with the vast sleeves, the loose trousers, the headband and the plaster-white color which covered the small area of skin visible below the fluffy lace the mask. The fluid fabric of the costume ans the cap, woven of dark purple and silver, shone like the conger eels that you fish for at night with iron hooks from boats lit by lamps burning resin."
* * *
"Irene walked in front of him, nonchalantly; he was astonished to find that she rolled her hips softly and dragged her feet a little as though she were wearing Turkish slippers."
Reading Colette is always a treat for the imagination and the senses.
Next weekend a story by a Nebraska author, Tillie Olsen.
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This week's (January 26 issue) New Yorker story is an interesting one. How fitting, and serendipitous that both are translations and both written in the 1960s/70s. "Inventions" by Isaac Bashevis Singer was published in Yiddish in 1965, had been translated a few years later into English but was never published until this week. It's unknown whether he simply decided not to allow publication or if it was rejected by magazines. The history of the story is fascinating, you can read about it here. The story itself is sort of a ghost story, but one involving the ghost of a former "comrade" who visits his colleague on the eve of a Communist conference that takes place in Warsaw in the 1930s. It's a curious story and one I think I need to go back and read again now that I have the backstory to it. A cautionary tale? Thinly veiled criticism?
I started reading a novel by Singer this past summer, but it got shuffled out of the reading pile. Must get to him this year!