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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1028-1039

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Memory and Fiction in the Novels of Catherine Colomb

Beryl Schlossman

Il y a deux parties différentes. Il y a les
fantoches d'un côté, et de l'autre côté, il y a
[l']ailleurs. Voilà, c'est comme cela que je
peux peut-être définir tous mes livres.

Catherine Colomb

Born in 1892, the French Swiss writer Catherine Colomb spent her first years at Saint-Prex on Lake Geneva near Lausanne. After her mother died in childbirth in 1897, Colomb was raised by her maternal grandmother. She went to school in Lausanne, and made extended stays in Weimar, Potsdam, and England. She received a B.A. in literature from the University of Lausanne in 1916, and worked on an unfinished doctoral thesis entitled "Béat-Louis de Muralt. Voyageur et fanatique." In 1921, she married the distinguished lawyer, Jean Reymond; they had two sons, Claude and Dominique. In Yverdon, she secretly began to write fiction and published a first novel, Pile ou face, in 1934. Her reputation is based on a trilogy of novels that followed it: Châteaux en enfance (1945), admired by Jean Paulhan, Les Esprits de la terre (1953), and Le Temps des anges (1962). She received the "Prix du livre vaudois" and the "Prix Rambert." Catherine Colomb died in 1965.

Catherine Colomb vividly represents in her work a world divided among the living and the dead. The combat zone of daily life among vineyards and fine houses is on the coast of Lake Geneva, not far from Lausanne, where some of the author's dead characters return to overshadow the living ones. With the lake, the vineyards, the mountains, [End Page 1028] and the sky as their witnesses, Colomb's characters break in and out of their own time frames.

From the future and the past as well as the present, time runs through Colomb's characters like a sword. Their struggles take them over the edge of life itself and into the other world, where fiction is shaped by the traces of time in memory. Tones of violence and lamentation accompany the evocation of time, and may have facilitated the categorization of Colomb's novels in biblical and medieval allegorical terms of a war between Good and Evil: allusions to pietism and sentiments expressed on behalf of innocent victims and children also seem to lean in this direction. When she divides her fictional universe into space, the dimension that belongs to the living, and time, a kingdom inhabited by the dead, the author again appears to underscore the didactic morality of Good versus Evil. 1 But this is not the case. The clearcut perspective of Good versus Evil is a projection or an illusion easily dispelled by almost any of Catherine Colomb's characters.

Although nostalgic images borrowed from daguerreotypes, moralizing proverbs, and biblical quotations provide a layout for a Christian worldview, the strange, uncanny violence of modern life in Colomb's writing overturns the stability of Christian conventions. Colomb's books are modernist novels, not memoirs laced with the reminiscences of a consistent and reliable narrator. The nostalgia that is personified as a smiling figure looking back toward the past, in Colomb's French translation of some German verses by "Gaudence de Seewis," must face the violent powers of destruction that threaten the entire created world of Colomb's novels, from the coast of Lake Geneva all the way to China, a country veiled in distance and abstraction, and from the waves of the lake to the bombings of World War I and their unforseen effects. 2 The comforting tone of nostalgia is swept away by moral ambivalence and the impact of history and memory.

In Colomb's fictional universe, nostalgia is overcome by allegorical images of fragmentation, erasure, and ruin. Figures of the dead return to underscore their own absence, ambiguous as the presence of angels in the lake. Imagination turns memory into a stage for invisible actors. In this world, the impression of an embroidered hand-towel remains as the only trace of...


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