My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Last year, the movie Colette came out. I was entranced by the trailer— seeing as it is a feminist period piece about a controversial French LGBTQ+ writer during the turn of the 20th century— and saw it soon after it came out. I ended up rather enjoying the film, and while it may not have entirely been “spectacular cinema”, it inspired me to pick up the whole collection of the Claudine books, conveniently compiled in an omnibus, that I found at my local used bookstore for a bargain price. Claudine at School is the first of the four-part series.
A bildungsroman and semi-autobiographical, this book focuses on the eponymous Claudine; we get insight on her life through an intimate journal. Her greatest joy is attending school; her personality is marked by a cunning that gets joy out of teasing and harassing her classmates, notably Anais, to whom she repeatedly refers as “lanky”, “gawky”, and a “great slut”. Claudine is also very flirtatious; when the new headmistress, Miss Sergent and her assistant, Miss Lanthenay, arrive, she takes a strong liking to the latter, which draws the jealousy of the former. It’s a love triangle that brought great scandal to Colette for its homoerotic nature.
Truthfully, this book has little plot— it is mostly just a playful look into the lives of the schoolgirls, with some drama thrown in—but that didn’t stop me from finding it enjoyable. I simply love Claudine’s character, bitchy as she may be; her tricks and machinations amused me endlessly and her wit abounds.
Oh, what unwholesome imagination, what depraved brain incubates those revolting [arithmetic] problems with which they torture us? I detest them! And the workmen who band together to complicate the amount of work of which they are capable, who divide themselves into two squads, one of which uses one-third more strength than the other, while the other, by way of compensation, works two hours longer! And the number of needles a seamstress uses in twenty-five years when she uses needles at 50 centimes a packet for eleven years, and needles at 75 centimes for the rest of the time but if the ones at 75 centimes are … etc., etc.… And the locomotives that diabolically complicate their speeds, their times of departure, and the state of health of their drivers! Odious suppositions, improbable hypotheses that have made me refractory to arithmetic for the rest of my life!
(— pg. 25)
Colette’s knack for imagery is seamless; I loved reading the delicate paragraphs about Montigny’s verdant landscapes or Claudine’s meandering musings. And sometimes among the sly parentheticals and vivid descriptions you get these sudden, poetic quotes that provide a stark contrast against the casual humor…
“I have lived ten years of wild rovings, of conquests and discoveries, in those woods; the day when I have to leave them my heart will be very heavy.“ (— pg. 3)
Overall, I thought this to be a wonderfully entertaining romp through the clever, unconventional mind of a schoolgirl (and author). Of course, there are bits that detract from my praise, like the slow pace at certain points and the lack of true plot, but these were easily overlooked. Claudine at School is great for lighthearted reading, and I am excited to see where the rest of her adventures take her in the following novels!