The Other One by Colette

The Other OneDark Puss! I did it! I read a novel by Colette! I think I remember you, or someone, suggesting that this wasn’t the best one to start with – but The Other One was the novel on my shelf, so it was the one I read. And, better yet, I liked it!

The Other One had a couple of things stacked against it before I started. Firstly, I haven’t had the best of luck with French literature (this novel was published in 1929 as La Seconde and translated by Elizabeth Tait and Roger Senhouse, at least in my edition; I don’t know enough about translation to know if they are commonly associated with Colette. Confusingly, a previous novel was translated as The Other Woman.)  Secondly, it’s about a love triangle – and I find novels about the agonies of people committing adultery exceptionally tedious.

So, why did this one work for me? (Spoilers ahead.) Perhaps primarily because, for the most part, nobody is suffering any agonies at all. Indeed, I spent much of the novel thinking that this was an amicable arrangement for all parties – and I’m still not sure if that was me being duped by Colette, or missing some signals that Fanny wasn’t aware of her husband’s affair. Because when she does become aware, there are some very poignant, excellently handled scenes. More of that anon.

The novel concerns Farou, a theatre impresario who is of the unattractive the-genius-must-be-tolerated variety. Unattractive to the reader, that is, or at least this reader; women seem unable to resist him. The two women in question are far more appealing, nuanced characters. His wife Fanny is controlled, witty, and covers selfishness with charm. Her confidante and companion is Jane, who is Farou’s secretary and mistress, but who admires Fanny as vehemently as she admires Fanny’s husband.

So, yes, I’m still puzzling over whether or not we’re supposed to think that Fanny knows what’s going on. But there is a stark scene about two thirds of the way through this short novel where Fanny spies the two together in the bathroom, and after that her poise is shattered. All comes out, but it isn’t the flinging-plates-and-screaming of stereotype or soap opera. One of my favourites moment in The Other One came during the scene where Fanny lays her accusation before Jane:

The violent slamming of a door in the flat interrupted her. The pair of them, their hands on their hips, in a pose of acrimonious argument, listened to it.

“It’s not him,” Jane said at last. “If it were he, we’d have heard the outer door first.”

“It makes very little noise since the new draught-excluders were fixed,” were Fanny. “In any case, he never comes in here before dinner.”

This sort of domestic detail, at this crucial moment, was tensely funny – as well as revealing a great deal about the dynamic between these women, even in a situation like this. Colette has really built up complex portraits of these women, and the novel seems much more about their dynamic than it is about Farou (or about his son, who is also in love with Jane, in a subplot that lent a bit of depth but not much else).

Oh, and the writing is pretty lovely throughout. Here was another bit I highlighted (and by ‘highlighted’ I, of course, mean that I made a tiny note in pencil):

There they stayed till lamp-time, shoulder against shoulder, with few words passing, silently pointing to a bat, a star maybe, listening to the faint fresh breeze in the trees, imagining the reddening glow of the sunset they never saw unless they climbed the hill opposite.

I’ve heard from Colette aficionados that The Other One isn’t necessarily the best or most exciting place to start with Colette, but I was long overdue reading a book by her, and this one was on my shelf in Oxford. And if this one isn’t considered particularly special amongst her output, then I’m in for a treat – because I thought it was great! I can only imagine how much I’ll enjoy her writing when she has her sights on a topic that I find more interesting, given how successfully she convinced me with this one.