The end of innocence

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. February 9, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Colette is one of the greatest writers I know, another one I’d like to read everything of. I haven’t read one single book or story I didn’t like. Her descriptions are very nuanced and sensual. On top of that she is a wonderful psychlogist.
    Translating her isn’t easy, her vocabulary is vast.
    I read Le blé en herbe and thought it captures first love better than any other novel I know. This being turned inwards, like you describe it.
    I can’t remember the details but your lovely review tells me, this is one to re-read.


    • February 9, 2012 at 2:01 pm

      It was a first for me and she’s clearly a writer to explore.
      You’re right her vocabulary is vast. I encountered several words I didn’t know.


  2. February 9, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Any novel set in Brittany is going to be appealing to me – I have had several holidays there and it is perhaps my ideal location – fantastic coast line and tons of French ambience (we Brits love all that don’t we).

    I have never read Collette but am conscious that this is a gap in my reading which needs to be filled. This could be a good place to start.

    You write “I feel that no male writer managed to describe the fragility of an adolescent boy the way Colette did”. You may well be right but I can think of others. One excellent example is LP Hartley’s The Go Between (although the boy is only 12)


    • February 10, 2012 at 12:59 am

      Then you’d like this one: it’s full of fine descriptions of the landscape.

      I should have said “I’ve never read any other writer who managed to describe the fragility of an adolescent boy the way Colette did”, that would have been more accurate. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have a look at it.


  3. February 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    This sounds like something I’d enjoy. There’s that people-on-holiday theme. It reminds me of the French film I just watched C’est La Vie for its Brittany setting and the idea of the parallel worlds of adults and children. No older woman seducing teens though. I have a collection of Colette stories I’ve never read.


    • February 10, 2012 at 1:04 am

      I think you’d like it, besides, it’s very short (100 pages)I wonder about the translation.


  4. February 9, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Guy, I reviewed Le chat last year and think you would like that very much. It’s about a relationship gone sour.


    • February 10, 2012 at 1:05 am

      I remember that review, I suggested Le Blé en herbe after reading your review of La chatte.


      • February 10, 2012 at 4:59 pm

        I remember that review too. I think I’ll have to dig out the book and see what’s in it. It’s this huge paperback.


  5. February 9, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Are there animals in this novel? I ask because Colette is so good describing animals. An odd little specialty.

    She’s good at other things, too! But the animals have always struck me.


    • February 10, 2012 at 1:06 am

      No, there aren’t any animal here except for the shrimps they fish.


  6. February 10, 2012 at 1:20 am

    After our book meeting.
    We all thought it’s an amazing book both for the style and the plot. Her description of teenage angst is marvellous.

    Philippe is more subtle, more hesitant than Vinca. He’s more intellectual, more keen to thinking and analyzing his feelings. He’s more disquieted by the future than Vinca. She’s more earthly, stronger. The truth is Philippe wonders about his future because he’s a boy. Being a male, he has a choice to make, he has possibilities. Vinca already knows her only future is marriage. She has no reason to worry about her future, it’s already written for her and she has accepted it.

    Two of us thought about Le diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh) when reading it. They were written at the same time and capture something similar in the atmosphere.

    Colette’s tale is timeless, Philippe and Vinca could go through the same difficulties nowadays. Only Mme Dalleray would be called the ugly name of cougar. (the one who invented that ugly concept should have biten their tongue instead of saying it aloud)


  7. February 10, 2012 at 10:36 am

    I’m a huge fan of Colette – she was half my PhD dissertation (the other half being Duras) and she survived that experience unscathed and remains an author I love to read. She was very prolific so there are bits and pieces of her writing that I have still to get to! I save them up for a rainy day.


    • February 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

      Which ones do you recommend? Your French is very good if you cam read her in the original.


  8. leigh
    August 24, 2016 at 3:59 am

    I read this for A level. I loved it. My favourite quote came at the end: une Pei de heurer une Pei de tristesse tres vite effacce par inoubable chagrin. Excuse the spelling!


    • August 25, 2016 at 12:36 pm

      It is a memorable book about adolescence, isn’t it? It’s not easy to read in French, btw, so congrats!


  1. July 21, 2012 at 11:47 pm
  2. December 27, 2012 at 12:18 am

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