Gigi And The Cat, by Colette
This book is a collection of two novellas, both of which give some idea of the sharp-eyed way that the author was able to look at the lives of characters in less than ideal circumstances. Both of these short novels or long short stories, depending on how you want to view them, possess a great ability to disturb the reader depending on how much thought is taken about them. Both strike me, at least, as a reader to be full of shrewd observations from an author who has a willingness to present behavior that is objectionable but also true to life in such a way that it forces the reader to examine what it is that is going on beneath the surface of characters who could easily be judged only for their surfaces. Without beating the reader over the head with her point, the author subtly paints disagreements that harden, contempt that cuts off honest communication, and provides enough detail to allow the reader to gain a greater sympathy for characters who might be judged as being half-wits or monsters, as well as enough detail to open characters that might expect to be respected and honored to criticism.
The first of these stories, taking up almost half of the roughly 150 pages of this short book is Gigi. The title character is a young woman of almost sixteen years of age who is being groomed by her female relatives (her mother, aunt, and grandmother are seen, no male relatives are in view) for life as a mistress to some sort of wealthy man who will attract social scorn but be able to achieve considerable wealth given her low and somewhat disreputable origins. Meanwhile, she has a flirtatious and friendly relationship with a considerably older sugar heir in his 30’s who has had a disastrously bad time in his efforts at finding a wife and who is under a lot of pressure to choose a woman wisely. Naturally, the two find themselves drawn together in ways that are awkward and uncomfortable for both parties and those around them. The Cat tells the story of a man whose relationship with his wife is threatened by his overdue fondness for his pet cat, and who is unprepared by his previous relationships with mistresses to deal with his wife’s jealousy and anger at her feline rival. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the atmosphere of tension and hostility has deeply tragic results.
How are we to judge these works? Neither of these situations is something that I would view as ridiculous or unreasonable, but they are both the sorts of domestic tragedies that women may find themselves involved in. The situation of the bachelor in Gigi, with a low tolerance for intrigue and drama in the part of a loved one, where he has an attractive young woman being thrown at him by her dishonorable relatives who do not value her innocence as much as her ability to snag a wealthy enough man and think her unambitious in her approach, is certainly something that strikes this reader at least as being extremely true to life. Likewise, it is very true to life that a man with eccentric tastes who finds a wife but who cannot view her as intimately and affectionately as he views his pet cat would find a lot of problems when that woman became intensely jealous as a result. The prose translation is of high quality, but considerable credit for the excellence of these works must belong to a writer who understood at least something of the darker nature of households and the relationships between parents and children and husbands and wives and sought to convey those dark truths in compelling literature.