The Vagabond

A vagabond, maybe, but one who is resigned to revolving on the same spot like my companions and brethren. It is true that departures sadden and exhilarate me, and whatever I pass through – new countries, skies pure or cloudy, seas under rain the colour of a grey pearl – something of myself catches on it and clings so passionately that I feel as though I were leaving behind me a thousand little phantoms in my image, rocked on the waves, cradled in the leaves, scattered among the clouds. But does not a last little phantom, more like me than any of the others, remain sitting in my chimney corner, lost in a dream and as good as gold as it bends over a book which it forgets to open?

Colette, The Vagabond

Every now and then, I read a book which seems to leave something of itself, a trace of light on everything around, that has a lasting impact. The kind of book I don’t want to finish and yet am compelled to keep on reading to the end, knowing that once it’s finished I will feel a little bit lost.

I was drawn to this novel partly for its title; it seems there is a force to this word, vagabond, for I feel it too. It is a word that also appears in Quartet by Jean Rhys, and I am interested in exploring it in all its connotations.

Call it obscurity, if you will: the obscurity of a room seen from without. I would rather call it dark, not obscure. Dark, but made beautiful by an unwearying sadness: silvery and twilit like the white owl, the silky mouse, the wings of the clothes moth.

The book is semi-autobiographical, and recreates aspects of Colette’s life on the stage. I am fascinated by her portrayal of the music hall, and the people she met there, and her bringing to life of the streets and locale of Montmartre and Paris. Mostly for her use of language, her words like a gift, with their warmth, grace, ease and clarity. With its poetic, vivid and direct style of writing, this is a voice which feels alive and never dated. Intoxicated, I am under its spell.

The novel was published in 1911, and I wondered also, for the purposes of my project if there might be a crossover with Jean Rhys. At this time, Rhys was touring England with the music hall, and they seem to share some themes: the experience of a woman alone, an interest in a wandering and transient sort of existence. It is certainly possible that Rhys read Colette’s book in its original French language perhaps when she was living in Paris and that she may have been an influence; perhaps I even detect the fragment of an echo in Good Morning Midnight.

Then I can close my eyes and dream that I am going away with him to an unknown country where I shall have no past and no name, and where I shall be born again with a new face and an untried heart.

The book documents a dilemma for its protagonist Renée, when she meets a new admirer. Having left a painful and destructive marriage and begun a new life on the stage, the thought of leaving behind her newfound independence is troubling. The stage represents independence, the ability to earn money for herself and live without constraint. She has given herself to a solitary life, and although she is under no illusions and sometimes feels alone, the shadow and memory of her former marriage, of the part of herself she gave away, is still very present and painful. She has closed her heart and mind, and she knows that to open them once more to love and dependence on another will come at a great cost. She is wary, haunted by the memory of the man she was married to, of his actions and words.

As she tours through a series of towns in southern France, she must wrestle with her dilemma and decide what to do. The movement, the displacing effects of travel and motion, raise questions about the new life she might choose, and what she will leave behind.

The day before yesterday we left before dawn and, as soon as we were in the train, I was just resuming my shattered sleep broken and begun again twenty times, when a breath of salt air smelling of fresh seaweed made me open my eyes again: the sea! Sète and sea! There is was again, running along beside the train, when I had quite forgotten it. The seven o’clock sun, still low on the horizon, had not yet penetrated it; the sea was refusing to let itself be possessed and, hardly awake, still kept its nocturnal colour of ink-blue crested with white.

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