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The end of innocence

February 9, 2012 18 comments

Le blé en herbe by Colette. 1923 English title: The Ripening Seed.

This month, our selection for our Book Club Les Copines d’Abord was Le blé en herbe by Colette, a brilliant novella picturing the delicate time between childhood and adulthood. Colette doesn’t mention adolescence, I’m not sure that word was commonly used at the time.

Early 1920s. Philippe and Vinca spend all their summers in Brittany with their parents, who are used to renting the same house together every summer. Phil and Vinca have known each other since childhood. They are close friends, sharing their activities. But this year, things have changed as they are leaving childhood behind and starting the difficult path of adulthood.

Mais le plus beau matin rajeunissait jusqu’à ces enfants égarés et qui se tournaient parfois, plaintivement, vers la porte invisible par où ils étaient sortis de l’enfance. But the brightest morning made these distraught children look younger. Sometimes, they turned back plaintively towards the invisible door through which they had come out of childhood.

The tender feelings between them are shifting from a carefree camaraderie into love. So they think. They grope around, hesitate to name their growing feeling, knowing deep inside it is changing. Each of them experiences the turmoil of adolescence, questions about identity, love, sex, the future.

Philippe envisions school, diplomas, work. He knows Vinca mentally prepares to get married and be a housewife. He tries to act as a man. She has womanly curves but still behaves like a tomboy, fishing crabs and shrimps, walking by the sea, throwing stones in the ocean. This summer, their sensuality awakens. They try to understand what happens, do their best to cope with it. They become self-conscious, walls build up between them. Philippe realizes he doesn’t know her as much as he thought. She loves him unconditionally but seems more mature than him sometimes. She has to face his weaknesses. They misunderstand each other, quarrel sometimes. The external element who will unbalance their casualness and force them to face their feeling will be Mme Dalleray, a 30 years old woman who meets Philippe and seduces him.

Philippe and Vinca call their parents les Ombres, the Shadows. They are so caught up in their little drama, their internal tempest that they behave on automatic pilot when they are among their families. They have this silent understanding between them, their own unspoken language. They are oblivious to their parents and they perceive them as distant puppets moving around them, Shadows gesticulating in the background. I can relate to that. I remember that feeling and I still do that sometimes, partially withdraw from my environment when something bothers me. Teenagers sometimes seem selfish but their energy is turned inward trying to understand the hurricane of questions and feelings they discover. (Please remind me of that in a few years when my children are teenagers.)

In Le blé en herbe, it is August, the summer is ending, so is Philippe and Vinca’s childhood. The descriptions of the landscape go along with the change in their attitude towards one another. Colette is an excellent writer, giving a vivid picture of the scenery, the wilderness and the sense of an ending.

L’odeur de l’automne, depuis quelques jours, se glissait, le matin, jusqu’à la mer.De l’aube à l’heure où la terre, échauffée, permet que le souffle frais de la mer repousse l’arôme, moins dense, des sillons ouverts, du blé battu, des engrais fumants, ces matins d’août sentaient l’automne. Since a few days, the scent of autumn drifted to the sea in the morning. From dawn to the hour when the warm earth allows the fresh breath from the sea to push aside the less dense aroma of the open furrows, of the beaten wheat, of the steaming manure, these August mornings smelled like autumn.

Colette perfectly unfolds their tormented relationship and remarkably describes the impact of sensuality on what they think is a couple. The characters aren’t what you could expect. Philippe is more hesitant and troubled than Vinca. Does it matter that this novel was written by a woman? I think it does. Colette had a free lifestyle and it resonates in her work. I feel that no male writer managed to describe the fragility of an adolescent boy the way Colette did. At least not before the 1970s and men’s acceptance of their soft side. Here the characters aren’t what you expect. Philippe cries, overwhelmed by emotions. Vinca is more practical, able to repress her feelings and act rationally. In a way, she’s stronger than him.

I am sorry I couldn’t find an online version of The Ripening Seed, I had to translate the quotes and it wasn’t easy. Colette is gifted, subtle, managing to mirror Phil and Vinca’s feelings into the lanscape. It’s a faithful portrait of adolescence, the end of innocence, the end of certainties and the mistaken impression nobody ever experienced what we feel. Danielle reviewed it too (spoilers there) but the quote by a professional translator will give you a better idea of Colette’s talent.

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