Colette’s The Vagabond tells a story of backstage life in the music halls of turn of the century Paris. The narrator/heroine has left a failed marriage and career as a novelist to earn a living performing two shows a night as an actress in French pantomime.
The Vagabond works as a backstage novel and as a source of insight into the its author, Colette. Because the narrator’s biography shares so much with Colette’s, it’s nearly impossible not to succumb to the temptation of committing the biographical fallacy. Since their back stories match, it’s easy to conclude that the novel must be the story of Colette.
With this in mind, I found The Vagabond ultimately disappointing. Collete is known for dealing with issues of love and sexuality, especially female sexuality, with a frankness that Americans see as French. It’s a cliche in the U.S. to see the French, especially French artists like Colette, as more in-tune with an adult sensibility around sex than we are. I found Colette’s novel Cheri to be a good example of this adult sexuality even though the title character is a teenager. So I was surprised to find much of The Vagabond adolescent:
Love, if you can; no doubt this will be granted you, so that at the summit of your poor happiness you may again remember that nothing counts, in love, except the first love, and endure at every moment the punishment of remembering, and the horror of comparing.
I was 22 when my first love came to an end. At that time I would have agreed with Colette whole-heartedly. 25 years later, it’s tempting to roll my eyes a little in exasperation. Colette was 37 when she wrote The Vagabond. While the passage above is well written, I don’t buy it. The love that lasts is the love that counts. Spend a decade or more with the one you love and you’ll look back on that first love, remembering and comparing with no horror or punishment at all. Except maybe a moment or two spent wondering, “What was I thinking?”
While I had more problems with The Vagabond than the one outlined here, there is enough that’s good in the novel to make it a worthwhile read. The peek at theatrical life, Colette’s beautiful writing, the hints at autobiography all succeed in entertaining the reader. Those lucky enough to read it while in the throes of first love or in recovery from it will find a kindred spirit in Colette’s The Vagabond.
I feel like I just read this book, but this is a review from 2011 first published on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. I guess it says sometime positive about Colette that I feel like I just read her book a few months ago. If you’ve never read her, this is as good a place as any to start. I think she’s terrific.