Childhood reading

I am about half way through Colette’s book My Mother’s House and Sido and am enjoying it very much. It’s made up of short vignettes, usually about 4 or 5 pages long, each telling a story or developing a theme about Colette’s childhood, her house, her mother or siblings, her friends. They are beautifully written, at least they are in my translation, meditative and thoughtful and atmospheric.

One of the most interesting chapters so far is the one where she describes her childhood reading. Colette captures the magic that books can acquire when one is young and the way one remembers this magic:

After all these years, I have only to shut my eyes to see once more those walls faced with books. In those days I could find them in the dark. I never took a lamp when I went at night to choose one, it was enough to feel my way, as though on the keyboard of a piano, along the shelves. Lost, stolen or strayed, I could catalogue them today. Almost everyone of them had been there before my birth.

This reminds me of the shelf of “classics” my father had, on a wall of bookshelves in my parents’ bedroom. Here is where I found the great Victorian novelists and the great 19th-century Russian novelists, where I picked up books such as War and Peace that were beyond my reach at the time but struggled through them anyway, and surely learned a lot about reading in the process. I think my first experiences of reading things beyond “children’s” or “young adult” books came from what I found on this shelf.

And it was, appropriately enough, high up on the shelves, above the stacks of science fiction and fantasy my father reads, as though my father were making a statement about their relative worth by placing them there, even though he found, and finds, great enjoyment in reading the fantasy books. He remains devoted to his 19th-century novels as his “serious” reading. There is something almost archetypal about raiding our parents’ bedrooms or private libraries for reading – about venturing into an adult world where we don’t truly belong but are preparing to enter. I know there are a lot of novels that describe how the young characters learn things – both useful and frightening – about the adult world in this way. I’m reminded of Charlotte Lennox’s book The Female Quixote where the main character Arabella reads romances from her dead mother’s library and discovers a very complicated legacy. We need our parents to help us make sense of our reading, and yet, when they don’t, interesting things happen.

Colette writes about this kind of reading too. Her father did not want her to read Zola and locked his books away, and Colette rebels. She asks her mother to give her the “safe” Zola novels but even this isn’t satisfactory:

She gave me La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret, Le Docteur Pascal, and Germinal, but I, wounded at the mistrust that locked away from me a corner of that house where all doors were open, where cats came and went by night and the cellar and larder were mysteriously depleted, was determined to have the others. I got them. Although she may be ashamed of it later, a girl of fourteen has no difficulty, and no credit, in deceiving two trustful parents. I went out into the garden with my first pilfered book. Like several others by Zola it contained a rather insipid story of heredity, in which an amiable and healthy woman gives up her beloved cousin to a sickly friend, and all of it might well have been written by Ohnet, God knows, had the puny wife not known the joy of bringing a child into the world. She produced it suddenly, with a blunt, crude wealth of details, an anatomical analysis, a dwelling on the colour, odour, contortions and cries, wherein I recognized nothing of my quiet country-bred experience. I felt credulous, terrified, threatened in my dawning femininity. The matings of browsing cattle, of tom cats covering their females like jungle beasts, the simple, almost austere precision of the farmers’ wives discussing their virgin heifer or their daughter in labour, I summoned them all to my rescue.

And this brings us to one of the other big themes of the book: her feelings about her femininity. But that’s a post for later.

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