Duo / Le Toutounier, by Colette

Duo is what I would consider (like most of Colette’s work) a quintessentially French book (as quintessentially French as the films of Eric Rohmer): – it’s about the intimate relations of two people, disturbed by the intrusion of a third – and that is all. Duo is quite extreme in this respect, in that the third person never actually appears – he only exists off-stage – and the entire book is perceived through the minds of the two. Indeed, only two other characters even put in an appearance (unsurprisingly therefore, and seeing that it mostly consists of conversation, or silence, it was made into a successful play. Someone should make a film of it too – in the manner of Eric Rohmer – though, maybe they have). It all takes place in a house somewhere in the French countryside. The husband discovers his wife has had a short affair; as a consequence their relationship collapses; that is the entire action. But it is all very well and plausibly done:the psychological reactions – of course, you think, their relationship collapses, what else could be the outcome; – the only implausible bit, I felt, was the ending.

The introduction reminds me that Colette really is on the side of the woman in all her books – and it’s only now and then she remembers her male character too has a justifiable point of view and gives him a few lines of reasonable defence. For in reality it can’t be proved he ever did anything wrong (even though he’s a man, so he no doubt has by definition), and has only ever himself been wronged. Yet all the while I find myself siding with the women; not understanding why the man can’t be more understanding; until I too, like Colette, catch myself up and realise that maybe it is in some way her fault.

Le Toutounier is a kind of coda to Duo, in which our heroine, after the events of the first book, returns to the home of her childhood, where two of her sisters are living, both of whom are involved with married men. So we get more of the nature of relations between men and women; and it is even more clearly this time from the women’s point of view, since the men themselves barely appear – only one of them once, for a moment or two – otherwise again they are just off-stage, and yet at the same time, like in Duo, what is off-stage is the focal point of these women’s lives.

This novella didn’t seem to have the focus of Duo; the plot is just a sort of passage of life, a vision of a kind of existence, in which some inconclusive decisions are reached about the future, yet which was enjoyable enough – I liked the inter-relations of the sisters, and their reversion to a childhood camaraderie (and language). Yes, Colette is very good at people. (Well, women).

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