In November 2022 my book group read Colette’s novella, La Chatte, translated (by Antonia White) as The Cat (quotations and page numbers are from the Vintage paperback re-issue, London 2001). This 1933 publication is a rather torrid tale of 24-year-old mummy’s boy Alain, scion of a rather ritzy but declining family of silk merchants, marrying Camille, the somewhat lower class 19-year-old daughter of the owners of a mangle-making empire. The complication is that Alain is actually in love with his female cat, Saha, whom (spoiler alert!) Camille accidentally-on-purpose knocks off the parapet of the top-floor marital apartment when Alain is out. The cat survives and, in a weak bit of the plot, Camille is rumbled by some sweaty paw-prints (that would surely have evaporated given the heat of the day by the time Alain sees them). Alain takes himself and Saha back to his mother’s and Camille is happy because she gets the car, preferring machines to creatures.
First things first: the title of this book should be Pussy. This is important because, as the book group discovered, only by continuously referring to it in that way is the constant sexual, and slightly naughty-comic, undertone brought out in English. The French for a female cat has pretty much the same resonance as the English word ‘Pussy’ insofar as both are used for the human female genitals (I don’t think the French also has the possibility of implying an unmanly man, but I await correction on that point, as that would also fit here). So, the book presents two different kinds of pussy: on the one hand the sexual availability of Camille as wife (and she is described in very sensual terms and as positively enjoying quite a lot of sex after their marriage); and, on the other, a real female cat. Alain wants both, but when forced to choose, he eschews the adult sexual option (and its airy penthouse couple’s flat, sans garden) and plumps for the childishness of his cat (in his parental home, set in lush grounds). All his interactions with the car are sensual and pleasurable: in ‘their bedroom’ (p.69):
‘As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel and uneasy pleasure’ (p.70).
By contrast, sex with his wife causes misogyny and murderous rage:
‘He mastered her as he might have put a hand on her mouth to stop her from screaming or as he might have murdered her’ (p.111).
His preference for a pre-sexual childishness (or, if you want like Freud to assume there is no pre-sexual, the sublimated sexuality of the Oedipal) is underlined by various other barely disguised features, and in particular by the fact he eventually takes himself and the cat back to his mother’s house (as if he reverts to being a child) with its womb-like space of the dark, moist, fecund, garden in which his preferred pussy thrives.
Various dichotomies pervade the novel to characterize the two pussies. Saha is pure nature, loving the garden, hunting, the earth. Despite occasionally enjoying animal-like description and nudity, Camille is very much on the side of mechanism and artifice, loving the Roadster, driving fast, and the eyrie-like ‘wedge’ flat that is her marital home. There is a class underpinning here with the Aparats (Alain’s family) coming from the pre-war milieu of people who can afford a garden house in central Paris, something which the couple note will not be possible much longer. It’s hard not to see the mangle business of the Malmerts (Camille’s family) and representing a literally mechanized modern squeeze on the very fabric of society represented by the rich silks that the Aparats make.
When we have these dichotomies, however, particularly that between nature and art in which humans sit very messily, it is usually the case that music can provide an additional layer of complexity and/or commentary. And so it is here. Although music is not a major presence in the novel, certain key sounds pervade the book and there is a central passage in which music—notably the acousmatic sounds of jazz and the present performance by Camille’s singing voice—has a prominent role in the narrative (pp.134-140). This is the section after Alain has found the injured pussy and brought her back up to his wife’s flat, tended to her and dismissed the servant. This scene intervenes between Alain’s rescue of the cat and his suspicion (based on the evidence of sweaty paw prints, implausibly still visible on the hot stone of the parapet, showing the cat’s fear, and the pussy’s vocal reaction to Camille) that pussy was pushed and the conversation in which Alain extracts that confession (p.140).
Standing by the open bay window (p.134) Alain feels a tremor in himself which is ‘like the tremolo of an orchestra, muffled and foreboding’ (pp.134-5). The couple watch fireworks at a gala in the amusement park at the Folie-Saint-James and hear something that they first think are guitars but Camille identifies as mandolins, as she sings along and asks Alain to listen. ‘Her voice cracked on the highest note and she coughed to excuse her failure’ (p.135). This astonishes Alain who has been struck by her voice ‘big and open as her eyes’ which is now like that of a ‘little girl. Hoarse, too’ (p.135).
Camille’s voice has been remarked on early in the text as shouty, being praised in a backhanded compliment by the servants in Alain’s house: ‘What a fine voice she has. When she’s speaking loud, the neighbours can hear every word’ (p.94). For it to break in this way is telling, but what is it telling. First it is telling her lack of confidence as she knows she has nearly killed his pussy (she is, in fact, the one with the really murderous rage from sex, despite his being articulated). And second it tells us what sort of human ‘animal’ she is. There are several things to notice about the music she hears. First, it is dance music, and thus designed to animate bodies; second, it is acousmatically presented (they can hear but not see it); third, it is deadened by the wind into a ‘vague shrill buzzing’ (p.136), so is indistinct. Eventually Camille identifies the tune as Love in the Night, refers to it as ‘jazz’ and hums it ‘in a high shaky almost inaudible voice, as if she had just been crying. This new voice of hers acutely increased Alain’s disquiet’. Alain tells her to ‘Go on singing’, and she asks ‘Singing what?’ to which he replies ‘Love in the Night or anything else. It doesn’t matter what’. She hesitates and then refuses, saying ‘Let me listen to the jazz…even from here you can hear it’s simply marvellous’ (p.136).
What remains interesting in this novella is where we are meant to place our sympathies, given the presentation of Camille and Alain. Alain is a pathetic, childish mummy’s boy in love with his pussy; Camille is aloud-mouthed lover of cars and nakedness who attempts to kill Alain’s pussy while singing under her breath, pacing to the rhythm of her song, ‘but her voice failed her’ (p.128). Again, Camille’s song is indistinct, vocally faulty, and good only for bodily movement.
The presentation of both is neither neat nor formulaic, but singing presents a different Camille, stripped of her loud adult female voice, reduced to a tiny-voiced girl, indistinct, hoarse, and shaky. The cracking on the high note contrasted with the sonic penetration of both the artificial instrumental music of the mandolin dance music (the ‘jazz’) and the clear voices of animals such as the pussy’s warning cry that only Alain understands (pp.67-68) or the four notes of the blackbird’s whistle ‘that rang through the whole garden’ (p.145) when Alain returns. Most other noises are loud, distinct, and communicate something, even the mechanical ‘music’ of ‘distant trams’ (p.146) or the ‘metallic clangs, those sounds as of a boat grinding at anchor, those muffled bursts of music, which echo the discordant life of a new block of flats’ (p.129). Camille’s sonic failure as a singer (in contrast to her loudness as a speaker) deprives her specifically of any musicality, a feature arguably prefigured when she thinks Alain is going to liken her appearance to that of the singer Marie Dubas (p.110) but he instead says she is like the weeping heroines on the cover of romantic songs by Loïsa Puget (a composer who the translator wrongly assumes is a man!). She is not like a professional singer, but like a weeping illustration for some sheet music. Her attempts at musical sounds undermine her.