Monday, December 10, 2007

Review of Claudine in School, by Colette

I read Claudine in School, written at the turn of the century, as another period piece for the (probably dead now) Diplomacy game. (My tenth-rate Colette micro-pastiche can be found here.) I'd like to tell you a better story of how it fit into the spirit of the times, but I'm unfortunately history-impaired. I can say that it's a breath of fresh and libidinous air compared to all those turgid and repressed Victorian novels that it followed. It's not just that the times moved on, Colette is also irrepressibly French, and unlike the Russians publishing about this time, I'd never be tempted to mistake her writing for anything American, not from 1900. Popular from the start, the French came to regard the Claudine novels as national treasures.

The most obvious thing to mention about Claudine in School is that it's sensual. I don't mean to tell you that it's some kind of depraved sinful boudoir romp, quite the opposite. We meet Claudine the truant, coming in scratched and refreshed from the woods, revivified from a natural existence. She doesn't spend the first five paragraphs observing the forest, but living it, immersing herself in the scents and the textures and tastes of leaves and moss, scarfed berries, birdsong. Her time in the school, which is (of course) most of the novel, is much the same. At one point, the girls bring a snowball into the class, and take turns joyously chomping on it. Everywhere there is a loving taste of something, a feel, a scent, or a sound. Claudine's attracted to the petty dramas circling the classroom, and even though they range from the trivial to the criminal, she revels in them without shame. She loves exerting herself on the playground, and manipulating the romantic attention of her peers and superiors (male and female). Claudine languors through her classes, gifted at writing and extemporization, succeeds effortlessly, and sticks around for the amusement. She's liberated, she disrespects the system, she thinks, and it's nearly impossible for the reader not to be fascinated by her too.

Claudine's sensuality is pre-sexual, but only just barely. If this story were told from another point of view, the young girl would be a temptress, a seductress, and totally corrupt. Indeed, people fall into ruin all around her. (I could imagine Dickens telling this story actually--he'd have a field day with the lecherous administrator Dutrerte, and, if they weren't women, with the uncomfortable triangle of the teacher, assistant, and gifted student. He'd play up the dirty foibles of the power figures with many thousands more words. The kid's innocence would perhaps be less true.) Claudine is certainly indiscriminate in her attractions, and it would be incorrect to call her nice. She's got a protege that she treats abominably, teasing her with alternate rejection and affection.

I try to imagine what separates Claudine in School from the innumerable examples of scandalous teen crap that's published in modern America (you know, other than the quality of the writing), and I think the Victorians have left there mark in too many places even today, and the Sweet Valley High (or whatever) version of this would usually offer a Lesson, and some sense of consequences, awareness, and growth. You could describe Claudine as benevolently amoral, and she succeeds at life (at school anyway) being what she is, without having to be taught the fact. It's an innocence that's shown in every chapter, every sentence of the book.

Like the other books in this pairing (Chekhov and Bacon), Claudine moves about with little in the way of plot. The stagings are a series of evocative vignettes, with a notable absence of character growth or philosophical asides. Claudine gets through a year of school, her affections come and go, and power and romance shifts above and around her. She takes her exam with little tolerance or attention for the formality of it, and looks forward to the next phase of her life. The conflicts don't involve her own self much, but provide instead a vehicle for her light, mocking opinion, and enjoynment of the human experience. It's infectious.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found your post because I was doing my own review of Claudine at School.

Just wanted to say that I loved your Dickens analogy, (although I hesitate at marring Colette with Dickens)