June 2013

Lightsey Darst


Claudine in an Airport Bookstore

I know only one airport with a used bookstore in it.

In that bookstore, among countless mysteries, romances, and thrillers, I find Colette's Claudine in Paris. What is it doing here? How has it come here? Buying it, I look for a sign from the bookstore's proprietress, a pudgy woman with princessy red hair, half-up, burnished, aflow. She makes none. I might as well have bought the latest Sue Grafton. She's a little short with me, perhaps disapproving, but I think that's her habitual grudge with the world that doesn't recognize her.


I'm moving again. I throw out my journals. I have no interest in them, though I like to read other women's journals, raking through them for just such errant sentences as I spy here. More accurately, I have no interest in her, that overliterary girl taking stabs at her emotional state and usually missing. I wasn't in love then, but I was then -- why did I lie? And I never really thought that -- how could I say it? Though maybe I'm mistaken now. The continual record might be more true. If so, it's a kind of truth I don't care about, like the journal of travels my grandmother used to keep, noting always and only highways, mileage, what she ate, and the price of everything. It's a dumpster's truth, and that's where it belongs.


I read Claudine in Paris in three days. (That's fast for me. I keep books piled on the back of my loveseat until they fall off.) Colette's Claudine books, her first books, are page-turners; one reads them in a shameless stripping, or at least I do, leaping forward to find out what the young heroine will gain or lose, even as I know that plot is never the point with Colette.

The plot is especially not the point in Claudine in Paris, which ends with the seventeen-year-old heroine on the verge of marriage, rapturously in love with an older man not half her equal. Colette famously wrote the Claudine series when her husband Willy locked her in her room, and the novels were first published under his name. Did she write this false and stupid ending to please him -- this ending that echoes her own marriage? If she did then she may as well have written it to needle him, because the romance is so thin, Claudine's romantic interest in this old rake so manufactured, that it pales beside her passion for her cat.

Or her passion for her little girlfriend from the first Claudine book, Luce, who turns up in Paris as the mistress of a rich man, showing off her spoils:

"Claudine, I've got silk stockings!"

She had, indeed, silk stockings. They were silk, as I could verify, right up to the thighs. I remembered her legs very well, the little marvels.

Still, she casts off Luce (leaving her unbuttoned and leaning over the banister of the rich man's stairs) and goes to her dull Renaud, calling him "a father, a friend, a master, a lover." Little Claudine, beware: any man who seems like a father will not make much of a lover.


It's been a long time since I read a book that ends with a virgin packed off into marriage. I once read many books that end this way, of course. I used to be a great reader of Austen; I've read everything she's written, including the harsh, anarchic juvenilia. The marriage plot -- Austen worked it, but she also (though people often don't notice this) changed it: her novels feature heroines driven not by fate or passion but by their rational self-interest. They have time to laugh, as Fanny Burney's driven young ladies do not (the laughter goes on around them); they play for high stakes with cool hands. In one of Austen's most thrilling scenes (usually reproduced word for word in film adaptations), Elizabeth Bennett asserts her independence against an overweening noblewoman: "I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."

To say this would be wonderful. But first one would have to be sure about what would constitute one's happiness. For a woman of Austen's time and class, this was obvious: rational self-interest culminated in marriage. Anything beyond or beside was perilous.

For Colette and for us, though, self-interest leads into, through, and then past the first erotic encounter. A woman begins with a divorce. No? Consider: the heroine's story always opens with a dramatic rupture that leaves her naked to the world -- be that the death of her mother or an unsupervised trip to Bath. Today's heroine, or Colette's adult heroine, must make her own gap into which to step. And so I find myself, like all my friends, constantly abandoning in order to clear the stage for its real drama.


Moving is an apt moment to discard middlebrow novels in which people realize things. Deliver me from the plague of realization, particularly realization about love. Into the bag with these books and their posh covers of skinny women's bared backs, skinny women swimming, ciphers for that colorless orgasm, epiphany.

My copy of Claudine in Paris is a shoddy paperback, the orange binding chipped and fading. My copy of Claudine at School is worse, packaged as a romance: "She knows a woman's heart and mind, body and soul..." it teases, above a cover image that recalls a vintage Summer's Breeze ad. Both are old Antonia White translations that make Claudine sound like an English schoolboy. I will not get rid of either. I love a crumbling paperback, particularly one with a naughty look.

If I haven't started my story yet, at least I've figured out what to get rid of and what to keep.

I'll tell you a story. A woman loves a man. He's not available and neither is she. She buys a book that reminds her of him; she writes "thinking of you" inside the back cover. Come the deluge, she sells the book to a used bookstore. Perhaps she thinks he may find it there. Browsing in the store as the clerks go through her books, she finds a copy of Barthes's Pleasure of the Text, which is inscribed with the name of a person she knows. It's not him. She buys the book.

That's the whole story. Don't like it? It's all I have at the moment; I packed the rest.