Colette: La Chatte – The Cat (1933)

I’m so pleased that I actually found a picture of the old 60s paperback of La Chatte that I bought second-hand a few years ago. These old Le Livre de Poche editions have such an incredible charm.

The book is available in English as Gigi and The Cat which is very misleading as Gigi is an independent story in its own right as much as The Cat and pairing them like this sounds as if that was the book’s title. I realised this when reading the review of the two books on Literary Relish’s blog.

Reading tastes change, at least mine do, but some authors will always remain favourites. One of those authors who is special to me and has always been is Colette. She is such an accomplished writer, a masterful stylist, a great storyteller and a psychologist of superior order. She can take a story that looks simple and nondescript and turn it into a complex piece of writing, revealing the numerous layers of motives and motivations behind actions. Her descriptions of people and settings are some of the best I have read. Her vocabulary is selected and she tried to find the exact and appropriate expression at any moment. Still there is no superfluous word or unnecessary adornment in her writing.

La Chatte is no exception. It has a subject to which I relate but it is far more than the story of a relationship between a man and his cat. It is a subtle analysis of love versus passion, of marriage versus celibacy, of childhood and growing up, of change and permanence. The story also captures the dynamics of disenchantment following the recognition that one’s object of desire is flawed.

The story is simple and can be told in a few words. Childhood friends Alain and Camille are going to be married. The lively and insensitive Camille is looking forward to her new life but Alain, who has to leave behind his beloved cat and the home of a happy childhood, is not as joyful as the bride. The relationship he has with the Chartreux cat Saha is very intense and emotional. They share rituals and habits and are deeply attached to each other. The cat doesn’t like Camille and the young woman thinks her future husband is slightly silly when it comes to the animal.

The newlyweds are meant to live at the old house with its splendid garden but at first they move to a friend’s apartment while Paul’s old rooms and the family home are being transformed into a bigger apartment for them.

Paul cannot adjust to his new life and sneaks off to his parents’ house frequently. Whenever he returns the cats looks thinner and thinner. She misses him and doesn’t eat anymore. Finally he takes her with him to his new home. To make things easier for the cat and his wife, Alain tries to teach her the cat’s ways but Camille couldn’t care less.

What unfolds is a story of jealousy and hatred between Camille and Saha. It is an uneven fight, shocking at times. Most of it happens behind Alain’s back but in the end, after something horrible has occurred, he notices what is going on. Camille’s reactions to the cat and the way she treats her opens an escape route for Alain and tells him a lot about his wife that he hadn’t seen before.

I really liked Alain who is a dreamer and so unprepared  for married life. He is an only child of very rich parents and the beautiful family home is stately and imposing and so is the old garden. One of Alain’s and the cat’s biggest joys is sitting quietly on a chair, watching birds, smelling the flowers and do nothing else but contemplate their surroundings.

One wonders what motivated Alain to get married in the first place. He was so content before, enjoying a life of leisure.  He shares everything with the cat apart from a sexual relationship which seems the only reason why he let Camille sweep him away into marriage. He realizes that he doesn’t need to be married to get what he needs. He can always have girl-friends.

The deep affection he and the cat have for each other is very touching. Colette loved cats but I think the cat could be replaced by a friend or a brother, a sister, anyone with whom one wouldn’t have a sexual relationship. I think Colette also shows that love in its purest form can come from many sources.

La Chatte is a novel full of beautiful descriptions and the tension that slowly builds up between the two rivals makes this a very engrossing read.

I read Colette’s novel as a contribution to Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris In July.