Much of the literature of the first half of the 20th century seems to be obsessed with the question of what masculinity is, or how to reclaim it, in the face of burgeoning middle-class luxury and the de-romanticizing of war. Out of the pantheon of core English Lit titles, James Joyce's Molly Bloom may be a lone attempt at looking at the feminine side of the problem. In America, bored housewives finally found a kindred spirit later in the century with Betty Friedan. In France, however, the leisure class already had Colette.
Not to say that Colette focuses solely on whatever feminine culture was in those heady, between-war years. The Last of Cheri is very concerned with the question of French masculinity, portraying a young man brought up in the world of coquetry who is very out of place among his war-scarred peers.
L'Entrave pre-dates the Cheri novels by a few years and portrays a more typically masculine type as a counterpoint to our heroine Renee Nere. Renee is recovering from the end of an affair, portrayed in The Vagabond. She's inherited a bit of money and so doesn't have to work as an aging actress, retiring to a small building in Nice.
She's become shackled to a neighboring couple, an attention-hungry girl, he a brutish boy, both the type who like to fight violently before making love. Besides May and Jean there is sometimes the addition of Masseau, the opium-addicted older man who comes in and out of the story like a Greek Chorus. Or perhaps like Cassandra, hiding wisdom behind senility.
"This will last as long as you like, and no longer..."Upon fleeing this stifling life to Switzerland, she finds that Jean is pursuing her in the hopes of an affair. As a divorced, middle-aged woman, Renee sees this on the surface as a way to avoid loneliness, as long as the relationship doesn't reach a serious level. And so the conflict of the story arises from this acquiescence, as both sides fall into the master/mistress relationship.
"No, I don't agree with you."And for the author, it seems to be inevitable that neither side can fall into their roles comfortably, as long as the ideas of love or marriage are pushed away. Renee is never fully feminine as she tries to influence the seriousness of their relationship, keeping her hotel room as a caveat to independence. Jean, meanwhile, is never fully masculine as he doesn't control the affair, doesn't have a kept woman to come home to. The tense moments in between the time spent in bed come to a climax in an exchange wherein Renee fully admits to not supporting Jean's position, when as a woman (or as his woman) it is expected that she support him.
"You spend your time putting Jean opposite you. That's the attitude of coition, no more."This ends the affair, and seems to be the natural ending point of the novel. However, it then goes on for a bit while Renee can't force herself to let go and claim the independent hotel life she intellectually desires. She then ends up being lectured to by Masseau, who accuses her of desiring Jean selfishly, rather than as a woman should by not "wanting" at all.
"The hand of my master fell heavily on me."And so Renee ends up going back to Jean, and he takes his turn lecturing her about treating all men as her enemy, just because of her bad history and divorce. They become a couple again, but this time it is on his terms. The reader is left to meditate on their role reversal, on Jean's active maleness being anchored by Renee's new passivity.
Which makes this a curious read for someone living a hundred years later and across the ocean. There has always been a certain genre of "women's fiction" where obedience is seen as a natural virtue. Some may even see this as a progenitor of the current wave of post-Twilight pop fiction. Having worked in bookstores, I see it more squarely as a part of the Christian fiction tradition which churns out Amish romance novels and calls to make your marriage "fireproof." But Colette doesn't seem to be a part of conservative culture, even for her time.
And given that most of the book is beautifully written and full of psychological insights that come through even in translation, the last few chapters seem hasty and didactic. As a reader, I have to wonder if Colette felt that her novel wouldn't sell without a moral ending, or if she really did morally feel at this time that her character Renee had somehow become a bad example. It definitely hurt the novel for me, and I'm not sure I would recommend this beyond having a curiosity about Colette's earlier writing.
Unless you're down with the "bonnet rippers." To each their own, as they say...