The Vagabond (novel)
|Original title||La Vagabonde|
Published in English
The Vagabond (French: La Vagabonde) is a 1910 novel by the French writer Colette. It tells the story of a woman, Renée Néré, who after a divorce becomes a dancer in music halls. It was inspired by Colette's own experiences.
Summary and Review
The Vagabond, written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, is a story of romance set in turn-of-the-century Paris and several provincial towns. The novel was published in France in 1911. The Vagabond is recognized as one of Colette’s best-known pre-war work, her post-war works being better known. The novel definitely sits high on history’s literary shelf. Using such elements as style, technique, theme, an uncomplicated theme and supernumerary characters, Colette dramatizes the life of her Parisian heroine, thus creating a masterpiece of literary history.
Divorced after eight years of her husband’s faithlessness and cruelty, Renée Néré has been struggling to support herself as a music-hall performer for the past three years. The first part of the three parts of the book opens as she waits in her dressing room until it is time for her to perform. She checks her make-up in the mirror that she hates to face, then goes off to perform, no longer and anxious, but confident and controlled.
In this first section of the novel, Renée’s life as an artist is delineated: her work as a dancer, her casual relations with her fellow performers, the small apartment that she shares with her maid, Blandine, and her dog Fossette, and her introduction to Maxime Dufferein-Chautel. Maxime presents himself at her dressing-room door one evening, and Renée dismisses him as an awkward intruder, charming and respectful as he seems to be. She more formally meets him again after a private engagement arranged by his brother. Night after night, Renée’s admirer watches her from the front row and patiently waits for her.
With her old friend Hamond acting as a go-between, Renée and Maxime slowly and slightly become more friendly. Maxime visits her; she acknowledges that she has an admirer, but nothing more. Eventually, their acquaintance deepens, but not into intimacy, despite Maxime’s pleas.
This continues until Renée signs a contract for a six-week tour with Brague, her mentor, and his pupil. Now she must decide between Maxime and her career, as she recognizes that she cannot allow him to accompany her and is not yet ready to give up the wandering life, which somehow suits her. She then lies, promising to give herself to Maxime, but not until the tour is over. Renée leaves Paris, full of both hope and regret.
The concluding third of the novel recounts Renée’s travels from one place to another. This part of the story is told primarily in the form of letters to Maxime, sprinkled with accounts of performances, and thoughts about her relationship with him. The book ends with her final letter to him and the thoughts that she directs toward him as she leaves the letter are unfinished.
The Vagabond was the first novel that Colette wrote without the actual or claimed collaboration of her first husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, commonly known as Willy. Already a noted and admired writer at the time of its publication, Colette with this novel was acknowledged by French readers as one of the most prominent and talented writers of her time. The book is unquestionably autobiographical in many ways-the facts of the heroine’s life, the character of her first husband, and the qualities of the heroine herself.
Colette creates a world that has the authenticity of experience and the impact of shared emotions and ideas in The Vagabond. Joan Hinde Stewart, renowned critic, states, “The Vagabond…reads as a remarkably just and debonair study of a female consciousness waking to the possibility of independence-a feminist novel to shame, in its subtlety, the feminists”. The language of the book is richly sensuous, full of physical and natural images and both sensitive and straightforward. The descriptions of the characters intensely give the reader a familiarity with each of the characters so that he or she may grasp more easily the content of each of the character’s qualities. The voice of the author is as distinctive and distinguished as was the woman who wrote the novel. Although it is not one of Colette’s most popular or best-known works, it deserves a wide and attentive audience . Because the novel was translated, the genuine diction and sentence structure may have been somewhat confused. Although Colette’s diction and sentence structure was not, her style was truly authentic. Her style has been praised as “precise, evocative and” of course “sensual”. The novel is marked by “sensitive descriptions of nature, sexual frankness, and a flair of the theater” . The cliché, “theatre was meant to be viewed, not read” is overridden by the way Colette uses her personal knowledge of and experience in the theatre to enhance the plot of the novel. By combining elements of theatrical writing, narrative voice, and natural story-writing talent, Colette is refulgent in her unmatched style, developed by no other author.
In that the narrator is the major protagonist, she is unmistakably reliable. With a combined first and third point of view, there is a tremendous effect on the structure of the novel. The intruding narrative devices of letters and internal narratives provide for an authentic literary technique that sets the novel apart from average turn-of-the-century romance novels. The presentation of personality in each of the characters is divine in that each of them possesses strong but varied qualities. Tough, brave, sensitive, and straightforward, Renée is the center of the novel, and all other characters help to reveal her persona to the reader. In that the plot of the novel is one that many readers can become familiar with, the emotional devices affect the reader’s basic understanding of its true meaning.
All of the characters are really superfluous, except for the central figure, the “vagabond,” Renée. The epithet that gives the book its title personifies its theme: Only by wandering in pursuit of the achievement of her talents, by treasuring her solitude and privacy, by keeping relationships casual and temporary, can a woman attain the independence she seeks. The factors that balance against this achievement are not as important as the nature of the woman herself, who possesses the determination and self-knowledge that enable her to work toward her goal despite its pain and cost. The novel clearly indicates that the effort is worth the battle and that any other outcome would render the woman’s life meaningless and servile.
In combining her precise style, authentic technique, unparalleled structure, and pellucid theme, Colette created a turn-of-the-century masterpiece. Her ability to write is demonstrated in this work in that she has used such key elements to provide for a truly developed yet entirely understandable work of fiction. The significance of her heroine’s life is not expressed as a universal truth about the lives of all women, but Colette does appear to suggest that women do well to examine closely their morals and motivations, and those of men as well. It is important to recognize the theme and all of its components and sidelights so that the novel may be fully grasped and read for its true meaning, rather than its external interpretation.
Frances Keene called The Vagabond an "enchanting, sincere and beautifully constructed novel" in a 1955 review for The New York Times. Keene complimented the book's English translation, but wrote: "It is a pity that its title has had to be transliterated. What 'La Vagabonde' means, of course, is 'The Wanderer,' as Renee Nere points out when considering second marriage: 'I shall have everything ... and I shall lean over the edge of a white terrace smothered with the roses of my gardens and shall see the lords of the earth, the wanderers, pass by!'" Keene ended the review: "Colette has the natural sober tone, the importance attached to feelings, the graceful brevity which Maurois once said 'define one of the forms of the French novel.' But above all her occasional hoarse cry of loss voices the complex anguish of our time."
In 2011, James Hopkin wrote about The Vagabond for The Guardian: "Has the novel dated in the course of a century? Not at all. There's enough energy and inventiveness here to blow away any dusty hints of antiquarian charm. And for years I've been telling people that no one writes about relationships as perceptively as Colette."
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