Colette's La Vagabonde (1910) tells the story of Renée Néré, an erstwhile successful novelist who embarks upon a career as a music hall performer in order to earn a living after divorcing her philandering and emotionally abusive husband. Her implicit vow to swear off love, primarily as a defense mechanism to prevent future suffering at the hands of a man, begins to fall by the wayside when a new suitor, Maxime Dufferein-Chautel, comes calling at her dressing room door after one of her performances. What drives the plot of this unique first-person narrative "[qui] tient à la fois du journal, de la chronique et du roman épistolaire" (Collado 86), is the conflict between Renée's competing desires - to give in to a physical relationship with a lover, on the one hand, or, on the other, to pursue self-fulfillment through meaningful creative work, safeguarding her hard-won independence in the process. The novel's very structure, with its alternating scenes in work and personal spaces, reflects this basic conflict. In the end, Renée rejects Max and all that he represents (wealth, patriarchy, traditional gender roles), her need for freedom and for self-expression eventually overriding that for intimacy.
Though it may seem a bit of a stretch to mention in the same breath a novelist known for her exploration of women's agency and the inimitable poet Charles Baudelaire, the fact of the matter is that Colette is also celebrated for her evocative poetic descriptions, especially when it comes to landscapes, plants, and animals (particularly cats, a source of inspiration for Baudelaire as well). Jean Onimus, for example, affirms that "[c]e qui frappe dans [sa] création textuelle c'est la richesse, l'abondance, la justesse des métaphores [. . .]" (273). Diana Holmes, likewise, refers to Colette's "playing with language as a system of sound and meaning" [End Page 39] (101) - which is of course what writing poetry is all about - and even suggests that the narrative aspects may take a back seat to the poetic: "[. . .] the pleasure of reading Colette lies less in the thrill of suspense and satisfaction provided by narrative, than in the contemplative, almost sensual delight of language itself" (100-01). It might be said, conversely, that there is something decidedly "novelistic" about Baudelaire's prose poems. Margery Evans cites comments in the poet's 1859 Salon that "imply that he saw the genre as being in some respects closer to the novel than to verse poetry" (xi); the goal of her own book is to demonstrate how the text "[. . .] sets itself up for comparison with the novel and with classic texts by the great moralists, calling into question the codes governing those genres, just as it calls into question the conventions of lyric poetry" (xii). That La Vagabonde and Le Spleen de Paris have in common this blurring of generic boundaries suggests that reading the two works together might reveal some fascinating resonances.1
In the final scene of La Vagabonde, Renée sneaks back to her apartment in the wee hours of the morning after being on tour for several weeks, intending to leave a lettre de rupture for Max - who assumes she will marry him upon her return - a letter which she has effectively been writing in her mind the entire time she has been away. It is the physical distance from the object of her desire, in addition to the freedom to write that travel affords her, which enable her to 'write herself away' from Max and back to her literary craft. Although Renée may be confident about her decision, she knows herself well enough to recognize that letting Max go will prove challenging: "Je m'échappe, mais je ne suis [End Page 40] pas quitte encore de toi," Renée concedes, "[v]agabonde, et libre, je souhaiterai parfois l'ombre de tes murs [. . .]. Ah! Tu seras longtemps une des soifs de ma route!" (248).
The word ombre seen here is something of a motif in the novel, used to portray either Max's appropriation of Renée's space or a sort of fragmentation of her own self. Early in their...