Subjective Autobiography: The Vagabond

(by Colette, translated by Enld MoLeod; Farrar, Straus & Young; 223 pp., $3.00)

The novels of Colette are not only subjective but largely autobiographical. Each crisis of her life, almost as in a diary, may be marked throughout her work. Such an intense fascination with oneself often descends in literature to a sort of raving sentimentality in which one's own life becomes the criterion to judge significance of material. Thus an ink stain on a grade school composition receives equal treatment with the publication of a first book, leaving both author and reader floundering in a great amount of weepy nonsense. Colette's reserve in this respect, and her sifting of minutiae, gives her work a universal pathos which is far from the suffocating meandering of an egomaniac.

Originally published in Paris in 1910, The Vagabond is the most recent of the English translations of Colette's novels. It is principally her analysis of the years after she divorced her first husband, the consequent disillusionment with physical love, and her immersion in stage life as a mime. As far as I can judge, the translation is a good one. The studied incompleteness of her style, which ends not in a statement but a suggestion, has been preserved, as in: "The broadest of broad jokes doesn't scare me, but I don't like talking of love. If I had lost a beloved child, it seems to me that I should never again be able to pronounce its name."

The incurable loneliness and anguished uncertainty of an individual torn between the violent ecstasies of love and devotion to work retain a humble simplicity. Introspection leads only as far as instinct will allow it. For example, after Rence Nere (Colette) finds that she is in love again, she writes, "I tremble too much lest I should see rising, through the veil of the rain, a country garden, green and black, silvered by the rising moon which passes the shadow of a young girl dreamily winding her long plait around her wrist, like a caressing snake."

Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Vagabond is the intentional shabbiness of its symbols: for love, Colette uses the dull-witted, cloddish Maxime; and for work and art, the rushing, irregular life of a cafe dancer. Renee faces no final decision, because in Colette's world there is none. Her characters drift on the sea of their instincts, and each decisive action shifts only a little the burden of their unfulfilled lives. In the end, Renee writes to Maxime: "Seek far from me that youth, that fresh, unspoilt beauty, that faith in the future and yourself, in a word, the love that you deserve, the love that once upon a time I could have given you, Don't seek me out. I have just enough strength to flee from you. If you were to walk in here, before me, while I am writing to you . . . but you will not walk in."