7 December 2015

Nathalie Rheims: Place Colette (2015)

While I was looking for information last week on Nathalie Rheims's novel Place Colette I came across a hysterical review by Jean-Marc Proust on Slate.fr with an outrageous title urging the reader not to buy the 'atrocious' book. I read the article, immediately ordered the offending item, and highly recommend this well-written, intelligent novel.

For novel it is, although Rheims's distinction between 'autofiction' and 'roman-vrai' (which she insists this is) is lost on me. She says, though, that anyone is free to believe or disbelieve the events in the book: well, of course, although it does seem largely autobiographical. And the names are real, although the narrator isn't given one and the name of her lover Pierre is false, although she leaves a trail of clues that make it difficult to mistake him: born in 1929 (in Nice we learn towards the end), well-known actor and sociétaire of the Comédie-Française – none other than Jacques Toja, who died in 1996.

Nathalie Rheims comes from a bourgeois family – her father Maurice is a writer and an académicien – and they regularly go to their holiday home in Corsica and fraternise with such people as Michel Mohrt, Paul Morand, Félicien Marceau, Guy Schoeller, even Dalida. In Place Colette – which Rheims originally wanted to call 'Détournement de majeur' (something like 'Corruption of an Adult') – the narrator is twelve going on thirteen at the beginning and almost seventeen at the end.

We learn that from the age of nine the narrator spent three years in hospital covered in plaster until it was discovered what was actually wrong with her. During this time she has devoured such novelists as Balzac and dramatists such as Molière, Marivaux and Musset. And towards the end of her hospitalisation she began menstruating and so, as she has heard, became 'a woman', although at the time she has only a hazy idea of what this means.

This is, of course, the 1970s, and we are in full sexual revolution era: her parents more or less openly have other partners, her friend Isabelle (slightly older than her) is sexually experienced, her parents have a porn film business, and the narrator even watches some of an explicit film with Isabelle and her parents: the past is a different country. The narrator detests the boring, spotty adolescents at school or anywhere else and is only attracted to older men – above all Pierre, who is thirty years older than her and whom she is determined to have, to make him her lover.

Which she does, to a certain extent. But the fact that Pierre is in many ways restrained, does not have vaginal sex with her, will not even touch her between the legs when encouraged to, and the fact that the girl does all the running does not exonerate him in any way. But Pierre's actions are welcomed, at no time is he criticised by the narrator. At the end of the book she knows that she has jumped straight from childhood to adulthood and by-passed adolescence, but she feels no regrets whatsoever, and it is evident that the author feels none. The photo on the cover was taken at the time of the narrator's relationship with Pierre.

The book may raise a few troubling questions, although there are in fact very few sex scenes in it, and even those are not at all graphic. In fact the existence of Pierre gets shunted to the sidelines in the final one hundred pages, which are concerned with the blooming future career of the narrator in the acting profession. Place Colette is enthralling, a delight to read.

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