This month’s item off my 2016 Reading Challenge list is a book translated to your native language. I selected Gigi, by Colette, which was originally written in French. I read the version translated by Roger Senhouse. The story is set in 1899, during the height of the glamour of the Belle Époque.
Gigi is a novella about a young girl (fifteen and a half, to be exact, as girls of that age always are when it comes to how grown up they are) named Gilberte. Gigi, as she is affectionately called by her family, lives with her mother and grandmother, and is quite close with her great aunt, as well. All three of these women are what we might refer to as fascinating. Her mother is a second-lead singer, and very focused on her career. Since she isn’t home much, Gigi is mostly raised by her grandmother, Madame Alvarez, with frequent visits to her Aunt Alicia. Both of the ladies were never married, of their choice, since they preferred to spend their youth amid the glittering world of jewels and wealthy lovers. Indeed, they are grooming Gigi to be a courtesan as well. It sounds scandalous now, to think of a fifteen (and a half) year old being trained as a courtesan, but seems to be a product of the time period. The Belle Époque is full of beautiful and tempestuous courtesans who found fortune and fame through enticing stage performances and the arms of their wealthy patrons.
Aunt Alicia, being the elder of the two sisters, takes on some of the most fun parts of Gigi’s education, like teaching her all about how to wear jewels and which types are the best. While I suspect I’ll never have cause to use this advice in real life, I now know that the best emeralds reflect a fire of blue light, and that one should never wear ‘artistic jewelry’ like mermaid brooches. According to Aunt Alicia, it’s also a bad idea to wear ‘second rate jewels.’ One should wait for a good one. ‘Rather than wearing a wretched hundred guinea diamond, wear a half-crown ring.’ I’ve got that one covered anyway!
Gigi is also close with Gaston, a family friend who is well-off and cultured, spending his days doing exciting rich people things like going to the races and driving motorcars (remember, it’s 1899) and drinking champagne. With his era appropriate mustache and apparently attractive (especially in a bathing costume) physique, he’s considered quite the eligible bachelor and is often photographed. He also has a complicated romantic history, with a string of ex-mistresses. At thirty-three, he has never been married. Gigi affectionately refers to him as ‘Tonton’, and because of their age difference, sometimes also teases him by calling him her uncle. Gaston, in his turn, spoils Gigi with gifts like licorice and music cases and gold pencil-cases. Since Gigi, in spite of her young age, also knows how to drive a car, they have lots in common. She also drinks coffee, champagne, and smokes Egyptian cigarettes, so I think, in spite of living with her guardians, she is considered an adult.
As one might expect, with their similar tastes, as well as Gigi’s beautiful ash blond hair and pale skin, Gaston falls in love with her. He approaches Aunt Alicia and Madame Alvarez to secure Gigi as his mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Gigi refuses.
I have to interject here, I wasn’t really surprised, but the rest of the characters were. Colette is a good writer, but there weren’t enough scenes with Gigi and Gaston together in the story for me to root for them, maybe because it’s a novella and not that long. Also, I couldn’t forget that he was over twice her age and she jokingly called him her Uncle Tonton. It’s just not a romantic name.
Anyway, because Gaston’s mistresses always end up in the newspapers and inevitably surrounded with drama, Gigi doesn’t want any of that. She wants a quiet life, and invites Gaston to visit her even more than before, but not as her lover. This will not do, since he’s in love with her. Rather than winning her over at once, as Gaston may have hoped, this confession enrages Gigi. (She’s quite sassy, I like her). She says that it’s worse that Gaston would love her and still expect her to be ogled by the press and speculated about, and probably cast aside just like the others. She sends him away.
As some time passes, which they spend apart, both Gigi and Gaston are miserable without each other. Under the pretext of forgetting his straw hat at their house – an excuse they all mock, because he’s obviously too rich to care about a straw hat and would just buy another – Gaston finally stops by. Gigi tells him she’d rather be miserable with him than without him, evidently deciding to be his mistress. In turn, he decides she was right that he owed her better if he truly loved her, and asks for permission, as proper, from Madame Alvarez to marry her. The story ends rather abruptly there, leaving the reader to hope that their marriage will fare better than his previous romances. I want to root for them. It’s a light-hearted story, so it’s easy to imagine a happy ending, at least.
Gigi is intentionally a light-hearted story. Though set in 1899, Colette wrote it in 1944, during the height of World War II. During such bleak times, it must have been a consolation to briefly escape back to a setting of peace and luxury. In fact, Gigi might be one of the most vivid descriptions of the glamour of the Belle Époque I’ve encountered, with its descriptions of fashions and foods and entertainments of the time. Colette paints a colourful portrait of Gigi’s life, to the degree that the reader even knows her best friend is Lydia Poret, though she doesn’t make an actual appearance in the story. It felt a little slow to start, but once I got into it, I enjoyed the story thoroughly and recommend finding a fittingly decadent snack to pair it with. (Mine was coffee and some dark chocolate. You know, typical writer food).
If you’re leaning back in your chair and thinking to yourself, “Wow, this post seemed really specific in a lot of strange ways,” you’re right. I mentioned in my last post that there would be a quiz on Gigi, and there is! However, you’ll find that all the answers are in this post. If you pay close attention, you can score 100% without having read the novella. Now I’m just hoping there’s someone out there who actually needed to study Gigi and finds this useful.
I’ve made a bit of an error in the Reading Challenge list; I left a classic novel and one that’s over a hundred years old for close to last, and those are a bit the same, really. I’m not sure which I’ll be doing next – suggestions welcome!
2016 Reading Challenge List:
– A National Book Award winner– complete, Fifteen Dogs
– One of Shakespeare’s plays– complete, Hamlet
– A mystery – complete, And Then There Were None
– A graphic novel – complete, Bayou
– Book in a genre you usually avoid – complete, The Wild Seasons series
– Book about or set within a culture you’re unfamiliar with – complete, The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon (duology)
– Book you haven’t read since high school – complete, Anne of Green Gables
– At least three poems – complete, Tennyson, Rossetti, and Shakespeare
– A book translated to your native language – complete, Gigi
– Non-fiction about a subject you’ve been curious about
– A book that’s at least 100 years older than you
– A classic novel