Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, 1873 – 1954) was born in Burgundy, France, where she grew up in the rural setting of the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye where her father, Jules-Joseph Colette, retired from the French army after having been injured in battle, and having lost a leg, and her namesake mother, Eugénie Sidonie “Sido” Colette had settled. Sido was undoubtedly the greatest influence on Colette’s life, with her love of animals and gardening, and her down-to-earth common sense also seems to have been passed along to her daughter. To her mother can be traced much of her writing and her love of the French countryside, its inhabitants, both human and otherwise, and her love of gardens.
At the age of twenty she married Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy, who treated her badly and sold her writing as his own – a series of novels called the Claudine series – which became immensely popular around the turn of the century. She left him a dozen or so years later and embarked on a music-hall career – a performance of Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge, which included a kiss between two women caused a riot and further performances of the play were forbidden. She was also famous for appearing nude, or nearly so, on the stage.
Thus began a series of lovers, both male and female, which established her notoriety for the rest of time. She produced over 50 novels, as well as other writings, and became a household name in France, much admired for her talent (her novel Gigi was made into films in 1948 and 1958) and, following her works for injured soldiers in the First World War was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1920. She was the only woman to be accorded a state funeral in France upon her death (the Catholic church refused her rites on the grounds of her divorce, although one suspects that her reputation had something to do with the decision as well). Colette is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
She is one of those writers that continually seems to be popping up in anthologies (where I first encountered her in gardening anthologies) and one suspects that she will continue to be read for centuries to come. In this post I have excerpted a few passages on gardening and plants from the book Colette – Earthly Paradise by Penguin Books – it is essentially an autobiographical collection of excerpts of her writings from throughout her career.
Photo & art reproductions are available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colette.
Read on then for an introduction to the seductive writing of Colette.
(Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette – 1873 – 1954)
They say now that flowers are altogether capable of sensation, that they have a nervous system and rudimentary eyes; there is even a part of the scientific world still groping towards the final discovery, their heart, the source and regulator of the translucent blood that irrigates the whole … And from the greatest advances in our knowledge must come, yet again, an even greater distress of mind. Uneasiness, scruples, the perpetual certainty henceforth that we shall be inflicting real death at every step, remorse as we see swooning and succumbing at our hands all that we press against our bosoms, against our mouths, all that we most cherish – is that what we must look forward to? By speeding them up, the movie screen can now reveal to us the drama hidden in the growth and flowering of plants. We know that their petals only attain full freedom at the price of what are apparently conscious efforts; just so does the still sticky lava struggle inside its final shell the instant before it blooms into a moth or glittering dragonfly.
Before our eyes, the sensitive mimosa, in order to deceive its aggressors, bends all the elbows of its little twigs, allows its leaves to droop down from their shoulders, and proffers no more than a wilting husk of itself. One by one, the secrets of the plants, their magical defences, are falling to us. The mechanisms of their traps are now laid bare, revealing their predatory instincts and their taste for murder. The shiny sides of one hairy calyx, rounded to form a lip, constitute a fatal trap. Another flower imprisons its insect victim behind two interlocking harrows of inflexible hairs … What! are the flowers cruel too? Are they too the slaves of a demanding sexuality? Do they too have savage and cruel caprices?
It is not impossible that witchcraft, that peasant magic we once thought so naive, that fund of information on how to cull simples, how to distil juices, how to gain knowledge from the flowers, may now recover its prestige. The motion picture, the enlargement possible on the movie screen will help in its recovery by showing us the gloxinia and the birthwort, like abysses full of ghosts, the cotyledons of the haricot bean, like a hinged trap, and the budding lily, a long crocodile’s mouth as it yawns open for the first time … Can that be you, gentle iris, that monster with the hair-covered tongue? And what maleficent grimace is this, twisting the mouth of the opening rose? Twenty devil’s horns ring the tops of the cornflower and the carnation. The climbing pea strikes like a python’s head, and the germination of a fistful of lentils gives motion to a writhing mass of hydras …
Such spectacles, which hold me spellbound in front of the screen, will one day compete, if my wishes are fulfilled, with the toy train smashing through its bridge and tumbling into the water below, or with the arctic cataclysm made to carry off, riding on the safest of its little icebergs, an overweening starlet. Human imagination does not reach far; only the vagaries of reality are uncheckable and limitless. Consider, as they are projected before your eyes, many times enlarged, the refracting planes of these delicate crystals, architectures of pure light, dizzying perspectives, geometric fantasies …
I am easily astonished when I see such secrets being torn from flowers blown up till they are monstrous and unrecognizable. But I also forget them easily when faced with the flower itself. Our clumsy human eyes, once freed from their too powerful aids, recover their traditional poetry. There is a sort of calendar religion that makes us feel attachment to a flower, even a sickly one, when it is the symbol of a season, or to its colour when it commemorates a saint, or to its scent if it brings back the pain of some dead happiness.
Almost an entire nation demands lilies of the valley in spring, much as it demands its daily bread. Were it not for its excessive fragrance, flouting all logic – and even, I am inclined to add, all decency – the lily of the valley is merely a tiny slip of a flower with little greeny white, round bells. It thrusts up through the dry leaves at that time of the year when the first warm rains are falling, heavy drops that unwind and pull down with them the simple arabesques escaping from the thrush’s beak, and the first notes bursting with luminous sphericity from the early nightingales … I am feeling my way cautiously, I am discovering an inexpressible communion between the milk droplets of the lily of the valley, the tears of the warm rain, and the crystalline bubble floating upwards from the toad …
The first stir of spring is such a solemn thing that the accession of the rose, coming after it, is celebrated with less fervour. Yet everything is permitted to the rose: splendour, conspiring scents, petals with flesh that tempts the nostrils, the lips, the teeth. But all has been said, everything has been born already in any year when once the rose has entered it; the first rose but heralds all the other roses that must follow. How assured, and how easy to love it is! Riper than fruit, more sensuous than cheek or breast. Every painter’s brush has painted it and will go on painting it. I have twenty portraits of it, like everyone else. Plump roses, cabbage roses, flat roses like the roses of Persia …
Here an anonymous water colourist has given it pleated petals like a dahlia; there, a once young girl has hollowed it into a little carmined navel. These little flower paintings go with me everywhere, all modest but each one highlighted by some arbitrary mysterious detail that attracts me in the same way as a word whose meaning is only half apparent. The rose abounds in them. It is not that I love it more than I did before but simply that I seek it out more. I am fascinated by its prodigious and inexhaustible gift for metamorphosis, always following the horticultural fashion of the day. In the gardens of my childhood it was most prized when it was huge, and unashamedly rose-pink. Carrying its head upright and stiff it listened without tiring to the long canticles of the month of Mary, and disdained to swoon away between its two burning bushes of candles. ‘Have you seen Madame Leger’s rose, up on the altar? As big as a lettuce, my dear, as big as a lettuce – Monsieur Leger measured it before it was brought to the church. Eight inches in diameter!’ Rose-pink roses, blue larkspur reddened by some mysterious process of oxidization, and you, black roses, concocted of pure fragrance, I loved you enough to watch you changing as I changed myself. Who still takes the trouble to extol the cabbage rose and its Second Empire crinoline? As for the larkspur, it reigns now, twenty times bigger than before, under the title of delphinium. The black rose you may still see in the province where it was born. Cheek to cheek, one pale, one purple and black like sin, a solitary woman and an inexhaustible flower intoxicated by each other’s nearness …
Twenty-five years ago, in the garden of a tree specialist in Besancon, chance brought me face to face with a rosebush that produced edible fruit. I was less struck by its rough, harsh leaves whispering in the wind and its red, dog-nose flower than by its smooth hips with their tiny pomegranate-like crests, tart to the tongue, and with a subtle, sweetish aftertaste. The old tree man died, and his rosebush with him. I talked about them both a hundred times, a hundred times I asked in vain: ‘Who can tell me where there is a single rosebush with edible hips still living?’ It grew larger in my memory, I depicted it with ardour and without hope, as one does a lover whom death has cut off in his prime. And then, the other day, in Versailles, walking through a laboriously dishevelled American garden, I realized that I was walking between two hedges of the rosebushes I had so long been seeking. But they bore no fruit. They had been packed tight together, trimmed, treated like box or yews … ‘They’re very good for hedging,’ was the brief comment of my host, a connoisseur of humble country gardens, and very, very rich. Then he led me towards his rose garden, and I was introduced to all the very latest novelties in this field: roses the colour of nasturtiums, with a scent of peaches; starved looking roses tinged with dirty mauve that smelled of crushed ants; orange roses that smelled of nothing at all; and finally a little horror of a rosebush with tiny yellowish flowers covered in hairs, badly set on their stalks, bushing out all over the place, and giving off an odour like a musk-filled menagerie, like a gymnasium frequented exclusively by young red-headed women, like artificial vanilla extract – which plant my flower lover proceeded to give the name of ‘rose’, and I did not have the courage to appeal, other than with my eyes, to those sovereign blooms, as white as snow, as dark as blood, apricot-coloured, pale on the outside, troubled in the depths of their heart, which universal homage has given the right to bear that name …
Rose, increasing your dimensions, shrinking once more, perverted, disguised, and docile in the capricious hands of man, you still have the power, despite all this, to draw out from us, to calm in us all that remains of lover’s old madness. Rose, it is right that you should be the final ember around which the circle of former lovers gathers in contemplation. If they are seized by the great shiver that comes with spring, and if they sigh, ‘I am trembling with the cold,’ you may be sure that more than one is listening within himself to the long confession of yesteryear: ‘I am trembling with morning, with March, with flight, with hope that has no face, with sprouting seeds, and with forgetfulness . . . I am trembling with hyacinths, with hawthorn flowers, with tears .. ‘
… I used to love to visit the flower shows …
I used to love to visit the flower shows that marked out the stages of the year so faithfully, along the Cours-la-Reine. The azaleas came first, then the irises and the hydrangeas, the orchids, and last of all the chrysanthemums. I can recall an extraordinary prodigality of irises, in May … Thousand upon thousand of irises, a mass of azure blue next to a mass of yellow, a velvety violet clump confronting another of pale, pale mauve, black irises the colour of spiders’ webs, white irises that were about to turn into a rainbow, irises as blue as a storm by night, and Japanese irises with great wide tongues. There were also the American irises with their gaudy finery, like magnificent strolling players. Thousand upon thousand of irises, busy being born and dying at exactly the correct time, never resting, ceaselessly mingling their odours with the fetid smell of a mysterious fertilizer …
However noisy our Paris of those days was, it did still have its unexpected moments of tranquillity. Along the Cours-la-Reine between one o’clock and half past one, when the last trucks had been parked outside their drivers’ eating places, those of us who loved flowers and silence could enjoy a strange truce, a solitude in which the flowers seemed to be recovering from the effects of human curiosity. That heat filtering through the canvas roof, that total absence of movement in the air, the sleepy weight of an atmosphere loaded down with scents and dampness, these are all gifts of which Paris is usually very sparing. The irises, massed in their thousands, seemed to be feverishly hatching the summer. The peace of the place was complete, but not the silence; it was disturbed by an insistent featherlight noise, more delicate than the nibbling in a silkworm farm, a noise as of silk being gently scratched … The noise of the chrysalis cracking open. The noise of an insect’s delicate legs, the noise of a dead leaf dancing. It was the irises loosening the dry membrane rolled down over the base of their calixes in the propitious and dappled light; the irises, in their thousands, opening.
The scraping sound of an existence and a need that are very real; the violent thrust of a bud; the jerks of a drained and wilting stalk as it fights its way upright after being returned to the liquid that gives its sustenance; the avidity of juicy stems such as those of the hyacinth, the tulip, or the narcissus; the fantastic growth of the mushroom thrusting its way upward and brandishing on its rounded head the leaf that watched it sprout – such are the spectacles and the harmonies for which I have acquired a respect that has grown with my curiosity. Does this mean that I have sentimental scruples, that I cannot bring myself to inflict the slightest suffering on the sensibilities of the vegetable world, that I recoil at slicing through a fibre, at snipping off a head, at cutting off a supply of sap? No. Greater love need not bring a greater pity.
There is not one of us who does not start when a rose, unfolding in a heated room, abandons one of its conch-curled petals and leaves it to float, reflected, on a polished marble top. The sound of its fall, very low, distinct, is like a syllable of silence, enough to stir a poet to creation. The peony drops its petals all at once, its whole corolla loosed in a crimson wheel about the bottom of the vase. But I have no taste for such spectacles of graceful death, or for its symbols. I would much rather hear about the triumphant sighs of irises in labour, about the arum unfolding its trumpet with a harsh grating sound, or the big scarlet poppy that forces open its green and slightly hairy sepals with a little ‘plock’, then makes haste to unfurl its red silk flower, impelled by the seed-bearing capsule below, with its silky head of blue stamens. The fuchsia is not silent either. Its reddish bud does not divide its four pointed shutters, does not curl them up into a pagoda roof without a slight smacking of their lips, after which it shakes out, whether white or pink or violet, its charming wrinkled skirts … Confronted with this, or with the moonflower, how can one prevent the image from rising of other births, the huge and imperceptible crash of the breaking chrysalis, the damp wing stretching, the first leg feeling its way out into an unknown world, the fairytale, faceted eye receiving the shock of its first image on this earth … The death agony of a corolla has the power to move me. But a flower making its debut in this world exalts me, as does the beginning of a butterfly’s brief longevity. What is the majesty of any ending beside these tottering beginnings, these disordered dawns?
Defence, attack, the struggle to endure and overcome: we in our climate do not see the worst combats, the attacks that the great cannibalistic flowers of the tropics make on one another, but here the gentle little butterwort folds its hairy leaf over the insect and devours it, the sump of the birth wort is filled with minute victims. If the appetites of a plant make it resemble an animal, then I do not like it any more than I like humanized animals. ‘You wouldn’t like me to give you a little monkey?’ someone once suggested to me. ‘No, thank you,’ I replied, ‘I would prefer an animal.’ I forbid my house to all fly-trapping flowers, with their hinged mandibles and their fatal secretions. How many crimes perpetrated by one kingdom upon another! And this spring, my beautiful pink-flowered chestnut tree, I expect I shall be obliged once more to free the bee stuck on the shiny surface of your gum-covered buds. At least you are beautiful. But what am I to think, to the great shame of the arum family, of a certain devil-in-the-pulpit I know? … Its phallic pistil spreads all around it a smell of rotting flesh, misleading and making drunk the clouds of insects it attracts. They hurl themselves into their intoxication, then decline into torpor, and one sees them in writhing masses, heaped at the bottom of its trumpet, fighting among themselves for all the flower can dispense, including death, and then, in immobility, forget all their antagonism. With horror I should like to know …
No, I would rather not know. Let the little black secret remain lying there in the depths of that flower-of-ill-repute. What advantage would there be in being able to define, name, or predict what my ignorance now permits me to think of as a miracle! Flowers are not explainable, nor is their influence over us. The leaves of a plant may be miracles of form and colour, but it is to its modest flower that we direct our curiosity all the same. I know a young boy in his teens who suddenly lost a great deal of his admiration for the bougainvillaea, that cape of orange, violet, and rose-pink flame that covers so many Algerian walls. ‘It’s ever since I found out that the flowers are just bracts … ” he said, without further explanation.
But yes, exactly. Only bracts. We wish to expand our veneration on nothing but the crater, which is the flower.
… If I had a garden …
… If I had a garden. But it just so happens that I don’t have a garden any more. There is nothing so terrible about not having a garden any more. The worrying thing would be if the future garden, whose reality is of no importance, were beyond my grasp. But it is not. A certain crackling noise the dry seeds make in their paper packet is enough to sow the very air around me with their flowers. The fennel’s seeds are black, shiny like a mass of fleas, and even if you keep them a long time they still give off a smell of apricots when they’re warmed, though they don’t pass the scent on to their flowers. I shall sow the fennel seeds after the dream, after all my plans and memories, in the shape of what I have possessed and what I now anticipate, have taken root, have taken their places in my tomorrow garden. The hepaticas, I know, will certainly be blue, since I am always irritated these days by the ones that are that winey pink. They will be blue, and there will be enough of them to make an edging all round the basket (‘all the baskets must be raised in the middle … ‘) that will display the dielytras hanging down in pennants, the weigelas, and the double deutzias. I shall have no pansies but those – with wide faces, beards, and moustaches – that look like Henry VIII; no saxifrages, unless on some fine summer evening, when I politely offer them a lighted match, they will reply to my gesture with their little, harmless explosion of gas …
An arbour? Naturally I shall have an arbour. I’m not down to my last arbour yet. I must have a trellis for my purple dragon-tongued cobaesas to perch on, and for my cane melons … Cane melons? why not a wickerwork marrow? Because the melon plant I am talking about hauls itself up the canes that are stuck up to support it, then runs between them like a green pea plant, marking every stage of its progress with little green and white melons that are very sweet and full of flavour. (See Mme Millet-Robinet on the subject.)
Then, if all those lovers of horticultural novelties have banished all the old prince’s feathers from their gardens, I shall certainly take a few of them in myself, even if it’s only so that I can call them by their old name: nun’s scourge. They will go well with another feathery plant, silver coloured this time, the pampas grass, a good solid flower, though slightly stupid, which spends the winter to the left and right of the fireplace in trumpet-shaped vases.
In summer, we shall turn up our noses at the pampas grass and stuff the vases with those suffocating white lilies, those lilies, more imperious than the orange blossom, more passionate than the tuberose, which climb up the staircase at midnight and come to find us in the very depths of our slumbers.
If it’s a Breton garden – how I love this ideal flower bed of mine with its sumptuous border of ‘ifs’ – then there will be the daphne, that flower so tiny and so timid, yet so immense too because of its fresh and noble fragrance, piercing and filling the Breton winter with its scent even in January. A bush of daphne in one of the showers that ride in with the tide from the west seems to have been watered with perfumes. If it is beside a lake, this garden of mine, I shall have, besides the load of shrubs that the late Old Gentleman always dragged about with him, some winter Japan allspice instead of the daphnes. The Japan allspice, which flowers in December, is about as bright and colourful as a small chip of cork. Its merit is unique and always reveals its whereabouts. Once, in the countryside outside Limoges where I did not know it was growing, I looked for it, stalked it, and found it, by following the traces of its fragrance through the icy air. Dull and greyish on its twig, but endowed with an immense power of attraction – when I think of the Japan allspice I think also of the nightingale. So I shall have some Japan allspice … Don’t I have it already?
I shall have many other plants too, rose windows of verbena, pipes of birthwort, powder puffs of thrift, crosses of St Helena’s cross, spikes of lupin, night-blooming bindweed, and marvel of Peru, nebulae of bent grass, and clouds of feathered pinks. Beggar’s staff to aid the last steps of my journey; asters to fill my nights with stars. Harebells, a thousand harebells to ring at dawn just as the cock starts crowing; a dahlia pleated like a Clouet ruff, a foxglove in case a needy fox should visit me, and a rocket. Not, as you might think, a rocket to send into the sky, but a rocket to edge my flower bed with. Yes, to edge my flower bed with! And for that I need lobelias too, for the blue of the lobelia has no rival either in the sky or in the sea. As for honeysuckle, I shall choose the most delicate, the one that is wan with the burden of its own scent. Finally, I must have a magnolia, a good layer, one that will be covered all over with white eggs when Easter comes; and wistaria that will let its long flowers drip off it one by one till it turns the terrace into a lake of mauve. And some lady’s slipper, enough to make shoes for everyone in the house. But no oleanders, if you please. They call the oleander the laurel rose, and I want only laurels and roses.
There is no guarantee that the flowers I have chosen would flatter the eye when assembled. Besides, there are others I can’t call to mind at the moment. But there’s no hurry. I shall dig them all into their storage trenches, some in my memory, the others in my imagination. There, thanks be to God, they can still find the humus, the slightly bitter water, the warmth and the gratitude which will perhaps keep them from dying.
This shows imagination; but one senses a deliberate attempt to appear original.
It has always remained in my memory, this note written with red ink in the margin of a French composition. I was eleven or twelve years old. In thirty lines I had stated that I could not agree with those who called the autumn a decline, and that I for my part, referred to it as a beginning. Doubtless my opinion on the matter, which has not changed, had been badly expressed, and what I wanted to say was that this vast autumn, so imperceptibly hatched, issuing from the long days of June, was something I perceived by subtle signs, and especially with the aid of the most animal of my senses, which is my sense of smell. But a young girl of twelve rarely has at her disposal a vocabulary worthy of expressing what she thinks and feels. As the price of not having chosen the dappled spring and its nests, I was given a rather low mark.
The rage to grow, the passion to flower begin to fade in nature at the end of June. The universal green has by then grown darker, the brows of the woods take on the colour of fields of eel grass in shallow seas. In the garden, the rose alone, governed more by man than by the season, together with certain great poppies and some aconites, continues the spring and lends its character to the summer. The elder flowers are turning into berries, and the mown fields are waiting for the second crop of hay.
All the scattered yellows that in April echoed the colours of the new-hatched chick have passed. Wild chicory, cornflower, and self-heal: those are the last blues of the season, drowned in the waves of fading wheat. But already the wild harebell, the knapwort, and the scabious are reminding us that the meadow saffron will soon be here, its pale night light sparked into a glow by the first cold nights. Depths of dark greenery, illusion of stability, incautious promise of duration! We gaze at these things and say: ‘Now this is really summer.’ But at that moment, as in a windless dawn there sometimes floats an imperceptible humidity, a circle of vapour betraying by its presence in a field the subterranean stream beneath, just so, predicted by a bird, by a wormy apple with a hectically illuminated skin, by a smell of burning twigs, of mushrooms and of half-dried mud, the autumn at that moment steals unseen through the impassive summer. Only for a moment. Then July becomes a torrid miser once again. The apple and the pear are as sour in the mouth as the green hazelnut. The hardened remains of one juicy fruit dangle from a few cherry trees; the strawberries, the redcurrants, and the blackcurrants have all melted into jam . . . When, oh when will the autumn come with its abundance? …
It is already here, as you would know if you could but translate those glittering drops transpiring from the underside of that leaf, fallen with no cause, or construe that diamond-studded zigzag the spider has hung along the box-hedge top. At both extremities of a day that still seems endless, both the dawn and the dusk are suffering from the same dry heat, the drought is upon us, and there are only the storms to hurl down their crushing dews. Meanwhile, the sorb apple grows red, all the birds have lost their fledgling twitter and a few oval coins are dropping from the acacia trees, then hovering uncertainly before falling lifeless to the ground. Two months ago, fluttering with wings tinted the same pale yellow as these falling leaves, we saw the brimstone butterfly … But the fate of the brimstone is already settled. Now, in its place, there is the wonderful peacock, its wings eyed with glinting blue planets, the suspicious tortoise-shell who can never be too warm, and the beautiful painted lady, for they all last until the first frosts come.
There still remains a long corridor of darkening greenery for us to travel through. High Summer, wishfully we call it. High and grave, fleecy, gentle when it is a near neighbour of the sea or lakes, yet even in France it has its awful regions, and there the wild animals grow thin beneath its weight. The hares, lying flat against the earth, pant in terror. And where is it to find moist clay to dress its wound, the woodcock with its broken leg?
As the water in them sank, August, autumn’s precursor, used to spread a thin film of tin over the ponds in my native regions. When a water snake, long and vigorous, its little nostrils level with the surface, crossed a pond and drew its triangular wake behind him, I hesitated, as a child, to swim there. So much hidden life was rising in circles, in glistening films and bubbles from the haunted mud below; so many springs were bubbling; so many tubular stems were vaguely waving … And yet the marsh frog, green on his green raft, as well as the brutal and doubtless nearsighted dragonfly still tempted me. Even a child cannot respond to everything. But its antennae quiver at the slightest signal, and best of all it always likes those things that are closed, misty, un-named, mysteriously impressive. It is to my childhood ponds, thickened by the summer, stirred up by the autumn, that I owe the love I was able to feel for a little Mediterranean marsh whose russet water was always rendered salty by the equinoctial gales. Meadows, moors, and undergrowth are all less life-filled than a marsh. From the swallow that scythes through the morning air to snap up the early mosquitoes, right on to the last slither of the marsh warbler down the stems of the rushes, what a world of joy! … Birds, yellowish rats and field mice, heavy-winged butterflies pressing down on the layer of overheated air that shimmers like a feverish mirage; the leaps of the big female toads who venture into the water only very briefly, because they don’t like the salt; the slow convolutions of a strange, black and white water snake; the first and none too assured flight of the first bat at last; and the miaowing of the sparrow owl that makes the cats so angry – what joy there is in the little marsh at Cannebiers! … There are no wasted hours there, as time flows indolently along the edges of the water, neither sweet nor yet entirely bitter, almost hidden from the eye, masquerading as a meadow of reeds with edible seeds, of sedge and yellow St-John’s-wort … From August onward, my marsh was covered with the mauve flowers of the wild thrift that does not wither. You must not be afraid, if you decide to go and pick wild thrift, either of the invisible water that gulps down your foot and holds it fast, or the plants’ inhabitants when they leap, fly, coil, and swim away in flight. The stems of the mock bamboos, recently cut back, gouge into the flesh with their obliquely sliced-off ends.
August, in the village where I lived in the North, was a long month suffered in silence. The children, torn away like myself from school, found the days slow. They spent their interminable leisure hours huddled up together in the shade of the houses, for they were tired of the shaved stubble fields and the silent woods. As the sun moved higher in the sky, so they pulled back their dusty legs farther and farther away from its heat. They played, we played, at scissors-and-stones, at guess-the-pebble, at knuckle-bones. They bit into the first peaches, still half green – I didn’t write ‘we bit’ because I always contented myself with the taste of the fruit when it was ripe and juicy. We watched the great candlesticks of the teasels slowly rising out on the sterile, untilled waste patches, their flowers, ringed with spiky weapons on every side, catching fire and bursting into purple flame just before the summer began to sink. The mulleins came out at that time too, entirely covered – hairy leaves and road-coloured flowers – with the grey dust of the dog days. Bloated with idleness, pining because we missed school and could not admit it, we counted the days as they passed, and lied to one another, saying: ‘Oh, goodness, how the days fly by!’
Nothing flies by in summer, unless it be the summer itself. An August storm would begin on the dry, flinty ground, raise itself on columns of white dust up into the sky, then fall again in a deluge whose first gusts grated between the teeth and sucked up whole flights of little frogs from the dried-up ponds, knocking them quite silly as they came down again with little plopping sounds. The storm would move away, and the great wake of vertical rain it left behind would last all night. In the morning, we could see that everything had changed and, what is more, that all the female cats were pregnant . . . September! September! It wasn’t there yet, but it was breathing its strong scent of delicate corruption everywhere, a second spring with a scent of plums, of smoke, of hazel husks. September soon! The children came to life once more in the rain, and the light pouring out from the ballooning West was blue, less generous, more swiftly gone. ‘But it’s evening!’ my mother would cry. ‘Time for the lamp already.’ To myself, I said: ‘Time for the lamp at last … ‘ Another week and the ripe peaches were falling, the red sage plants were stretching up their spikes of seed, and the acid opacity of the grapes was turning to translucent agate. . . Another two weeks and the two cats were giving birth, both on the same day, to their punctual broods of kittens, proof positive that this time September really had arrived.
The fire, the wine, the red and windy skies, the flesh of the various fruits, the heady dishes of game, the barrels, and so many pulpy globes all roll before it. Chestnuts in their spiky cases, squashy medlars, pink sorbs and tart-tasting sorb apples – the autumn drives before it a profusion of modest fruits. which one does not pick but which fall into one’s hands, which wait patiently at the foot of the tree until man deigns to collect them. For his eyes and mind are all on his second crops, and on his grape harvest.
Above the Loire, however, it must be admitted that the grape harvest is a somewhat grim matter for the peasant, poor creature of the soil, whose work becomes a constant punishment of hail, rain, numbing cold, and invisible attacks. Even the daylight in which it is carried out is cut short by the advancing season, and it is a task, constantly harried by October’s bitter moods, for which the farmer’s wife ties on her kerchief tightly and the farmer buttons up his woollen jacket. It is the South alone that experiences with its grape harvest the expression of a joy that springs partly from the climate, partly from the unbroken weather, and partly from the punctual and perfect ripeness of the grapes, sometimes so warmly caressed by the sun that they call their chattering militia in among the vines as early as late August. The entire department of Var – and its neighbours too, I believe – was forced to begin stripping its laden vines as early as the twenty-sixth of August a few years ago. Otherwise the long, purple bunches of fruit, already trailing heavily upon the ground, would have been scorched and spoiled. What sweetness and what warmth, what a bloom of blueness on that bulging fruit, what depths of violet in the skin of the oval grape they call the olivette! … The clairette is pinkish and round, the luxurious picardan weighs down its vine, the golden muscat and the little, very black pineau burst their skins if they are made to wait, and all their richness drains away. One year of wild abundance produced bunches of legendary dimensions. The little vine which is now no longer mine proudly displayed one bunch that year that was brandished aloft with cries of: ‘A champion, this one! Eight pounds if it’s an ounce!’
Down there, in the South, the women with their black hair go grape-gathering dressed in white. They cover their heads with great wide hats, pull their sleeves down over their wrists, and put on coquettish shows of fear: ‘Ahh, a tarantula! Holy mother, there’s a snake!’ There is coquetry too in the way the men ‘drop’ their coats and throw aside their shirts. When the men are beautiful and naked above the waist, then the women brim with laughter, and sing between the rows of vines. Delicate, high voices carried by the western wind from gulf to gulf . . . Drunk and defenceless, the wasps glue themselves to the sticky juices; the sun in September is as warm as the sun in August . . . Only privileged climates can paint such pictures and retain such pagan pleasures on their easeful shores. The old, hand-driven wine press still visits Saint-Tropez, still stops at every door, surrounded by swarms of children and golden flies. From its purple girths, from its wooden body dyed an indelible violet, there flows, thick with clots, the new wine to which anyone may hold up his glass … From that day on, in all the low, dark kitchens, the vin marquis is being made. Would you like it plain – new wine boiled down to one third its volume – or refined, spiced with aromatic herbs, filtered, then put in bottles? The second for Sundays, the first for weekdays – you can do no better than that …
After the grapes, down there in the South, there comes the ‘second fig’, which is all honey. Its pink-tinted heart resembles that of the strawberry we call June beauty. After the figs come the last hard peaches from the lower slopes. The hazelnuts and walnuts are already piled up on echoing wooden floors. And then there begins a sort of rustic idleness, a time of leisure throughout those parts, while the fig is shrivelling on its wicker bed, sweating a dry coat of sugar on its skin . . . If I could choose, I should take my vacations at the same time as Provence.
Then I should go home, climbing up France ‘from the bottom to the top’, as children say. Such a journey can never be accomplished without melancholy. But I have never been in the habit of loving things because they are the gayest, of preferring only what is proof against all bitterness. To leave the South of France in September is to tear oneself away from a festivity that still goes gently on when we have left, inviting the naked striplings, the women in holiday attire to go on dancing to the same old tunes behind us. Beyond Avignon, the summer grows yellow, the vine leaves are curling, and at the same time that the sky begins to descend, a strange dawn rises from the earth; France is gathering the pride of its four seasons, the sparing, limited, but great and glorious vintages, and its migrating birds.
Long, subtly shaded progress of the fall, stubborn determination to bear fruit … The perfected, strong, and fragrant time that has for so long been gathering the starlings, whistling like silk being scratched, or like a sibilant wind, above my head, that has for so long been stretching the great V of flying ducks across the sky, and the flights of cranes and wild geese, massing together, then whirled away from the congregating councils of the swallows … When these celestial movements are accompanied below by the opening of all the most ardent flowers there are, the flaming sage, the chrysanthemum with its romantic locks, the dahlias darker than even the black rose, and the scarlet cannas, how could I associate the ideas of sleep and abdication with them? Add to this the prodigality that grants us the possession of such freely offered gifts as the russet medlar, the mulberry, the mushroom, the three-sided beachnut, the four-horned water chestnut …
I am aware that there are many regions, including Paris, which have never heard of this latter, the cornuelle. Also, it is quite rare and won’t grow in just any pond. To gather it, you needed a flat-bottomed boat, a stern oar, an old pair of trousers, and a willingness to splash about in cold water. Failing these, it was always possible to buy some, as I used to do – a hundred and four cornuelles for four sous – after watching out for the arrival of Frisepoulet, a majestic old man of the woods whose white flax hair and beard provided an admirable foil to the black brilliance of his sorcerer’s eyes …
They tickle your thighs!
And prick your pocket!
He cried his wares in the street, he sold them, but he never addressed a word to the ordinary village folk or to the children by way of conversation. With Frisepoulet came the first chestnuts. After him there was nothing more to come but the blue sloes on the hedges, and as soon as the frost arrived to lay its thin sheets of glass over the water in the buckets by the pump, I would go out to gather these sloes, shrivelling on their bushes, so that my mother could use them to flavour her bottle of spirits with. Can so many little miracles still take place today, without the aid of Frisepoulet? I doubt whether the cheeses in the village where I was born can reach the same pitch of perfection in the irremediable absence of a little man whom I never heard referred to by any other name than ‘God above’, and who also repaired our umbrellas, sitting under a staircase …
‘Do go and fetch my umbrella. It must be all repaired by now. And tell that God above to reach you down a cheese … ‘
Stripped of these picturesque originals, what would our childhood memories become? If the man-with-the-rose, passing by in a fragrance of young shallots, of scallions and bay, if he was forever mute, it was because the rose he gripped eternally between his ageing teeth had closed his lips. For the man-with-the-rose alone, the Bengal rosebush would neither flag nor cease …
The style of things, the kind of things that we shall love in latter life are fixed in that moment when the child’s strong gaze selects and moulds the figures of fantasy that for it are going to last. I set my own up against backgrounds that will never fade, such as fir trees overwhelmed with snow, narcissi growing in a circle around a hidden spring, flaming geraniums, family meal tables and little family feasts arranged like a set piece of flowers, and an English teapot whose little hat was a bindweed flower. All around the table were the Chinese cups, the stemmed glasses for the Frontignan wine, and in the middle, the cake flavoured with rum. Autumn, autumn yet again, that burning cake, seasoned with honest rum. For the teas we ate in the warm summer garden, the meringues filled with fresh cream, and the raspberries, they were all lost in the excess of heat and light. But in autumn, Sido’s wide sleeves, fluttering above the table, shed on the tea things a faint, night-light glow. Her bare fore-arms were even more graceful than the neck of the slender pitcher in which the slices of fresh fruit floated in cooled white wine, enclosed in thick crystal entwined with filigree … Household objects at that time were still not entirely free of all the Gothick claptrap that cluttered up the mid-nineteenth century. But the impression they left on the memory was all the more striking for this, imbued as they were with a sort of frantic elegance, which resulted in excessively frail handles stuck on excessively bulging flanks, and emaciated backs on ponderous chairs … Where would it not lead me, the memory of Sido’s arm extended by a chocolate pot, and the chocolate pot itself with its pretensions, or the chair that had been imitated from a Louis XV style under Napoleon III? Nothing could have been purer than the style of Sido’s arm. But even if I wanted to, which I do not, I would be unable to separate it from those agreeable errors of taste we see scattered around people we know, which play a part in their conservation, in their ideal commemoration.
Her forty years scarcely weighed at all upon the principal character in my life, upon Sido, when she brought me into the world. But after my birth she put on weight, became plump without losing her looks, and was forced to give up wearing the dresses which had high-lighted her young and girlish figure. I did keep a blue dress of hers in fact, one she told me she had missed not being able to wear. It had a skirt of fine linen with a white embroidered garland around it, very full at the hemline, but with a waist band that measured scarcely more than twenty inches around.
It was because of me, therefore, that she advanced into her autumn as a woman and that she settled into it with such serenity. She even tried to wear the insignia displayed once upon a time by ageing ladies; that is, she wore a frilled cap for a time, and on Sundays a bonnet that tied under the chin. But then her children, independent but united, knowing no other ties than an obscure and hidden family tenderness, rose up against her. They saw her and were outraged, they laid their curse upon the frilly cap, they heaped invective upon the bonnet, its string, and its funereal violets. They thrust forward into the future – ‘the future’, said one of us, ‘is what doesn’t happen’ – this inadmissible and outward shape their mother had assumed, and set up inflexible limits beyond which Sido was not permitted to decline. Autumn, but no further! For them, she made it a point of honour that her October should often appear like August. Where the cursory glance of the stranger would have seen no more than a tiny ageing woman dressed like a peasant, her delicate feet shod in garden clogs, we her children reaped the spontaneous riches of her language, its sprinkling of fresh images, a voice whose wide-ranging tones ravished the ear, the gaiety of those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving, and the names allotted to us by a love that made us perhaps too harsh in judging other loves: ‘Minet-Cheri … My beaming sun … Beauty! … ‘ This last was not her name for me but for my eldest brother, for no autumn is ever quite pure of passion. To the heart of a woman chastely caressing her favourite creation, to her eyes as they proudly examined that perfect specimen, her son, I should not have blushed to confess what living aid it was that masked, gave brilliance to, and later prolonged, my own decline. But Sido left us too soon.
Even as I write, it is approaching once again, the season that a schoolgirl celebrated long ago because, precociously, she loved it. It comes back decked in gold, so as to inspire wisdom, or its opposite, so that the chestnut tree may flower a second time, so that the cat, which weaned its last litter in June, may feel the need for further adventures, so that the swallow may be misled and start another nest, so that a ripened woman may glow with sunlight and sigh: ‘I’m sure there’ll never be another winter … ‘
Under the Blue Lantern
… We should not be unreasonably perturbed …
We should not be unreasonably perturbed when our precious senses become dulled with age. I say ‘we’, but I am the text of my own sermon. My chief concern is lest I should mistake the true nature of a condition that has come upon me gradually. It can be given a name: it keeps me in a state of vigilance, of uncertainty, ready to accept whatever may fall to my lot. The prospect gives rise to little that is reassuring, but I have no choice.
More than once of late, turning my eyes from my book or my blue-tinted writing paper towards the superb quadrangle that I am privileged to view from my window, I have thought ‘The children in the garden are not nearly so noisy this year,’ and a moment later found myself finding fault with the doorbell, the telephone, and the whole orchestral gamut of the radio for becoming progressively fainter. As for the china lamp – not the blue lantern that burns by day and night, of course, but the pretty one with flowers and arabesques painted on it – I was forever scolding it unjustly: ‘What can this wretched thing have been eating to make it so heavy?’ Discoveries, ever more discoveries! Things always explain themselves in the long run. Instead, then, of landing on new islands of discovery, is my course set for the open sea where there is no sound other than that of the lonely heartbeat comparable to the pounding of the surf? Rest assured, nothing is decaying, it is I who am drifting … The open sea, but not the wilderness. The discovery that there is no wilderness! That in itself is enough to sustain me in triumphing over my afflictions.