Mitsou by Colette

A funny thing happens when you hide a lieutenant, or indeed two, in your wardrobe. Mitsou is a performer in a Paris revue during the Great War, and the novella that bears her name opens backstage between acts, with the old stage manager trying to keep the young performers out of too much mischief and the show ticking along. One of the performers, Mitsou’s friend Petite Chose (“Little Thing”), has invited two attractive lieutenants — one in blue and one in khaki — backstage with her, but is worried about getting caught. So she persuades Mitsou to let them hide in her wardrobe. The two lieutenants barely escape the manager’s attention when Mitsou’s boyfriend, an elegant older man, appears and sees them in dashing uniforms plus Mitsou rather deshabille. Mitsou shoos them out just as Petite Chose is returning, and there’s a great comedic scene as the elegant man veers between jealousy and exasperation, while Petite Chose waxes enthusiastic about almost everything male.

Mitsou by Colette

Petite Chose, from the corridor: Are you there, Mitsou?
Mitsou, opening the door, sternly: Yes, you come in here!
PC, out of breath: You sent them away? At least I still caught them, they just went downstairs.
M: First apologize to my boyfriend! He’s just had quite a shock! Just imagine: he comes in and finds two soldiers in my wardrobe…
PC, in her usual flattering manner, snuggling up closely to the elegant man: Really? I’m so sorry! You can’t be mad at me — and you can’t be mad at Mitsou either. They were just so charming! Did you see them, Monsieur? Especially the blue one. He has eyes..
Elegant Man, jealous: What kind of eyes?
PC, passionately: Fiery eyes! And then his mouth! Don’t you think so, Monsieur? Mitsou, did you see his mouth? And his nostrils? Cute little nostrils that quaver when he takes a deep breath … Anyway, if you think about it, the one in khaki is just as cute. He has a wonderful complexion. Did you notice that Monsieur?
EM, drily: I must admit that I did not give them as much attention as you have.
PC, enthusiastically: Oh! I don’t miss something like that so easily! Monsieur, Monsieur, you will miss the ballet of the frantic Kabylles!
EM: I have already seen it.
PC, entirely a lady of the world: So you will remain with us. What a party!
EM: No, because I have to get back to my guests, two flour exporters, I left them back in the foyer.
PC: Two flour exporters? Oh! Send them to me! Are they good looking?
EM: The one is my uncle, the other his brother-in-law.
PC [as if she had just swallowed something bitter]: You can’t have everything.
(pp. 16–17, my translation of the German, which was translated from the French by Alexandra Auer)

The novella is written partly in the style of a play, as the quotation above shows, interspersed with short descriptions and asides. Two days after the misadventure backstage, Mitsou receives a package of small presents and a letter from the blue lieutenant. From there, Colette adds to the literary mix the letters that pass back and forth between Mitsou and the blue lieutenant. The letters show Mitsou reflecting on life and her position, alternately enticing the blue lieutenant and reminding him of their separate worlds. The chance meeting appears to be developing into something more, but do the young people even know themselves well enough to say?

Colette shows chance becoming dalliance, flirting with something more. When the lieutenant gets a brief leave to return to Paris, they arrange to meet with the elegant older man being none the wiser, and the two of them wrestle with their feelings, their roles, and each other. In between, Colette shows more of the theater and social world that Mitsou inhabits, a world in which some appearances are still being kept up, but Mitsou herself has no idea what to do with some of them. She has decorated her apartment idiosyncratically, not to say cluelessly. She earns enough to support a maid who cooks for her as well, though she claims to be a person of modest means. Petite Chose is more the bohemian, and Colette portrays her affectionately, without any moral judgment of a character who enjoys men and has had a great many of them.

Mitsou has a light touch, and many hilarious moments, both tributes to Colette’s skill at conjuring a whole scene with just a few words. Her own life was quite something; she married young to a well-known author who was more than 10 years her senior. Her first four novels — Claudine at School and three sequels — were published under his pen name. She separated from him, but he held the copyrights, so she turned to work on the stage, and then journalism. Her novel The Vagabond, which was a commercial breakthrough under her own name, drew heavily on this period of her life. Like Mitsou, it begins in a backstage dressing room, but it is a pre-WWI novel, so there are no lieutenants to hide. Through the 1920s and 1930s, acclaim for Colette grew. On the personal side, she had affairs with women and a second marriage that ended in part due to affairs of both parties. She stayed with her third husband, 16 years her junior, until her death in 1954. She was the first woman of letters to be given a state funeral; she is interred in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

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  1. […] Three more sets of books have caught my attention. The first of these is the second batch of great novels of the twentieth century. I bought a bunch of these as they came out — the cover price was well under €10 apiece, so it was a good book in hardback with good design at a bargain price. The second 50 contain a lot more names that are unknown to me, so reading them will be a voyage of discovery. The list of authors is still nowhere near gender parity, but it does have at least three times as many women as the first one. Asia and Africa are no longer completely missing. Science fiction gets in with A Clockwork Orange, and maybe some of the other books I don’t recognize, though mundane remains the overwhelming mode of fiction on this list. I read three of the works pre-Frumious, and to date three more since (though I have not yet written about Mitsou — now I have). […]

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