Le Kepi – by Colette – Translated from the French by Antonia White

05 Jun
Legion Etrangere by Kasia_jat

Legion Etrangere by Kasia_jat (the men are wearing Kepis)

The kids today may think they’re breaking new ground with internet dating, but the concept of meeting someone you haven’t met before has been happening from at least when Colette was a young woman in 1898.

Before I start talking about this story, I’ll tell you first up that a kepi is a type of peaked cap often worn by the French army, so this story for those unfamiliar with French could be called alternatively, but most definitely unromantically as ‘the peaked cap.’

Colette inserts herself into the story as a young woman who makes friends with Marco, a woman in her forties, who has been abandoned by her husband and makes her living translating documents for 1 sou (1 penny) a line. A third friend of theirs, over for dinner one night, suggests for a joke that they reply to a lonely hearts type ad in the local newspaper. The three decide to write a letter and the writer of the best will win a big box of Gianduju Kohler – the nutty kind (the equivalent would be chocolate brownies, I think).

They duly write their letters and Marco’s is deemed the best, so continuing the joke, they send it. The next week, reading the lonely hearts column they see a new ad placed by the original man imploring the writer of the letter to write again. The three dismiss it as a joke, but several weeks later, Marco reveals she has been writing back and forwards with the man, who is a lieutenant in the army.

He is young, 25 to Marco’s 46. He comes to Paris and visits her. Meanwhile, Marco’s ex-husband, who has travelled to America, feels sorry for her and starts sending her cheques. It seems Marco’s general unhappiness and poverty allowed her to be superficially beautiful. As she starts becoming happy with her new romance, and with regular money coming in, she begins to put on weight, which makes her breasts sag and her age show. The romance ends when she puts on the Lieutenant’s kepi and strikes a raffish pose which only serves to show the ravages of age on her. The next things she knows, the lieutenant tells her he is going to be posted to Morocco (a lie); their relationship ends a few weeks later. Marco returns to her unhappiness.

Colette is an amazing writer, and once more a big thanks to Peta from for lending me the collection. Colette was about fifty years ahead of her time in the portrayl of non-stereotypical women’s relationships. In another of her stories I read, Bella Vista, she looks at the lesbian relationship between two women in their fifties who run a motel together.

Colette inserts herself as a major character in the stories, though always as an observer: the drama revolves around other people. I have heard that the Colette that appears in the stories is almost a fictional rendering of the author. True, there are autobiographical details, such as the presence of her husband at the time, Willy (Henry Gauthiers Villars) but the character of Colette is a construct, like the Bukowski that appears in Charles Bukowski’s stories.

Colette tends to avoid the political in her short stories and focuses on human relationships. She seems an excellent reader of people and has both an innate and scholarly interest in human nature. Great stuff.


Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Colette


2 responses to “Le Kepi – by Colette – Translated from the French by Antonia White

  1. Peta

    June 6, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Good one – thanks! I won’t request any more reviews at least until spring 🙂 I haven’t read her. She was meant to be a bitch; i think this should be appealing but for some reason it scares me off. Is there a story called something like ‘chambre d’hotel’? Brookner mentioned it recently.

    • Ashley

      June 6, 2011 at 8:48 pm

      Chambre d’hotel certainly exists, but it’s not in the current collection I’ve borrowed. I find it a bit hard to find work by Colette. I really like her work though, and I’m glad you requested me to read her, because I wouldn’t have picked up her work ordianarily.
      If Brookner describes Colette as a bitch, I won’t argue with her, but I didn’t particularly find that in the stories I read. There is a lot of empathy there for the characters Colette observes, I read stories though that she’d written in the later years of her life, (Le Kepi is remembering a character from her youth, but she was about 60 when the collection came out) maybe she’d mellowed a bit by then 🙂
      You’re fine to make a new request in the spring. I look forward to it.


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