Gigi by Colette ~ 1944. This edition: Penguin, circa 1958. Translated by Roger Senhouse, 1952. Paperback. Penguin #1313 – also contains The Cat, translated by Antonia White. Total pages: 157. Gigi ends on page 57.
My rating: 10/10.
Because it is Colette, of course! And perhaps one of the most readable and least dark of her works. It even has what one might classify as a happy ending – a rarity in most of the novels and short stories of this unflinching recorder of the blissful agonies of all sorts of love.
Well, blissful as climax of Gigi’s short saga may be, I have no great hopes for her long-term joy. But that is mere speculation; perhaps I will say more about that later.
Gigi exists only in the short pages of this novella and the brief moments of her acquaintance which we are given must be our only consideration here. The “what ifs”, though enticing to formulate, are pointless.
I so often tell myself that as I read Colette – “Just go with it – don’t speculate and don’t give advice!” Most of her characters are so obviously doomed, and so often by their own actions and refusals to let good sense overrule the physical desires and infatuations of the moment. Awful warnings, really, of the consequences of letting heart rule over head. And just as often, head over heart. No one is ever an out-and-out winner at the game of love in Colette’s complicated amorous world; there are always regrets.
Colette’s works read to me like delicate social satires. They are full of beautifully described vignettes and moments of time and thought and action (or inaction) noted by a deeply sensitive and sensuously aware observer. Frequently voyeuristic and occasionally deeply erotic, Colette’s works represent a certain stereotype of the “French novel”. There are always melancholy shadows lurking behind the most brightly depicted moments of teasing, banter, flirtation, and the inevitable love-making.
But enough of that train of thought.
Here we are with the deliciously portrayed schoolgirl Gilberte – Gigi – and her circumscribed world of women, all victims – no, that is not the correct term – let us say products – in some way or another of their own passions and planning (or lack thereof), and of course of the circumstances into which they were born, or in some cases thrust, and in other cases achieved by sheer force of will and personality.
Who here has not seen a stage or film version of this book? Anyone? Or am I wildly waving my hand all alone?
After catching glimpses over the years of Maurice Chevalier’s wink, wink, nudge, nudge ode to “leetle girls” (Quick, lock up your daughters!) I mentally swore off ever watching the immensely popular musical based on the story.
Though Audrey Hepburn was a lovely woman and a fine actress, she does not look at all to me, in the theatrical stills I’ve seen of her in the role of the 1954 Anita Loos Broadway play, like the Gigi described in the original novella. Colette herself apparently chose Miss Hepburn to play the part in the stage production after glimpsing the young dancer-actress walking through a hotel lobby, but her physical appearance, petite, gamine, dark-eyed and brunette, is just so opposite in comparison to the description of Gigi as a tall, rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed blonde.
Lesley Caron was cast in the Lerner and Loewe film, and she fits the physical description of Gigi much more closely.
Here are glimpses of the original Gigi from throughout the story:
… with the heron-like legs of a girl of fifteen … the perfect oval shape of her knee-caps … a slender calf and high-arched instep … ash-blonde ringlets … sleek ripples of finely kept hair which fell just below Gilbert’s shoulders … cockle-shells of fair hair … eyes of a lovely dark blue, the colour of glistening slate … tall … snub-nosed … pink cheek with a single freckle, curved lashes, a mouth unaware of its power, a heavy mass of ash-gold hair, and a neck as straight as a column, strong, hardly feminine, all of a piece, innocent of jewellery …
The year is 1899, the setting Paris. Young Gilberte lives with her mother and grandmother in a modest establishment in a quiet residential area of the city. Grandmother – Madame Alvarez – and Great-Aunt Alicia are the twin matriarchs overseeing the small family of four, and it is implied that the main source of their joint sustenance is the careful investments of the two sisters, who were successful courtesans of their time.
Madame Alvarez had taken the name of a Spanish lover now dead, and accordingly had acquired a creamy complexion, an ample bust, and hair lustrous with brillantine. She used too white a powder, her heavy cheeks had begun to draw down her lower eyelids a little, and so eventually she took to calling herself Inez. Her unchartered family pursued their fixed orbit around her. Her unmarried daughter Andrée, forsaken by Gilbert’s father, now preferred the sober life of a second-lead singer in a State-controlled theatre to the fitful opulence of a life of gallantry. Aunt Alicia – none of her admirers, it seemed, had even mentioned marriage – lived alone, on an income she pretended was modest. The family had a high opinion of Alicia’s judgement, and of her jewels.
Andrée is gently scorned by her mother and aunt, as having failed to uphold the family traditions; they continually make little digs about her discarded “chances” and lack of “ambition”, though it is also apparent that this is a very closely bonded family, showing a seamlessly glossy surface to the world, regardless of the minor frictions of domestic life and familial bickering.
Gigi herself leads a conventional enough life, attending school and coming home with a satchel of homework every afternoon, though she is discouraged from associating too closely with the other schoolgirls on a personal level; Madame Alvarez quite obviously feels that her household is at least a notch or two above the common folk who lead drearily “respectable” lives, though she bridles at the implication that her past career has not been exactly respectable in its turn. The wealth of her “sponsors” has obviously raised her occupation beyond reproach.
The two older women are watching Gilberte with keen eyes, and they are finding her a much better prospect to follow in the family footsteps than now-faded Andrée ever was. The grooming process has been continual, and has picked up intensity as Gigi approaches her sixteenth birthday. Gigi herself is aware of her elders’ history and rather meekly goes along with her “education”, though we soon see that she has a decidedly childish naivety about her own future, though she accepts the premise that it will be centered around the “pleasing” of men.
The only man currently in Gigi’s world is Gaston Lachaille, the exceedingly rich son of one of Madame Alvarez’s old lovers, who has been accustomed to visiting the household whenever he wishes a momentary retreat from his glittering life of yachts, gambling at Monte Carlo, and a succession of volatile mistresses.
He has just been jilted, amongst a blaze of publicity, by his latest amour, and he is more than grateful to settle in for a cup of chamomile tea and a game of cards with Gigi, who has grown up knowing Gaston on terms of the greatest familiarity; she calls him Uncle Gaston. At thirty-three he has as yet shown no signs of wishing to marry; when it becomes apparent that his attention has been suddenly piqued by Gigi’s budding womanhood, Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia put their heads together to discuss the possibilities – in veiled terms, of course – of Gigi perhaps becoming his next romantic experience. Under the most iron-clad of arrangements, of course – a girl must be careful of her future …
All morals aside – though now in middle age I am much more aware of the questionable motives of Gigi’s adult caregivers than I was when I first read Gigi as a teenager – only her mother appears to have qualms about seeing Gigi step into a courtesan’s high-heeled shoes – this is a delectable froth of a story, and a little classic of its type.
Shades of Colette’s Claudine in Paris, another schoolgirl-older man romance, though Gigi in this case stops short of the many complications Claudine encounters after her own virginal romance is consummated.
Gigi, one of Colette’s last works, was written in 1942, at the height of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Colette, bedridden with the excruciating arthritis which was to plague her until her death in 1954, and shaken by the arrest and internment of her third husband in a concentration camp, may understandably have been glad to return to an earlier and happier time when she created this last memorable gamine heroine.