A day or two after posting the preceding excerpt of Colette’s writing (The Tendrils of the Vine) I came across, and purchased, a hardcover copy of Short Novels of Colette (The Dial Press, New York, 1951) in a thrift store; it will go onto the shelf to await its turn but, before setting it there, I had a quick look at the introduction, by Glenway Wescott, which seemed to be interesting, and resolved to read it once I’ve finished Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh. While quickly researching Wescott’s introduction I came across it, in its entirety, at archive.org (download it here) as chapter 4 of Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (1962) and I’ve posted it here with the first section of the chapter before the jump and the balance after. I’ve only read a bit of it and didn’t get much from the editing that I had to do on archive.org’s text file but it seems intact and is properly formatted and italicized and I’ll have to read it myself from the post.
I’ll follow up next with a post of chapter 5, A Call on Colette and Goudeket, which is an account of a (cold) social call that Wescott paid on Colette in 1952 which would have been about two years before she passed away.
Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (1962)
Glenway Wescott, 1901 – 1987
Chapter Four – An Introduction to Colette
Upon publication of Mitsou, her love story of World War I, Colette received a letter from Proust. “I wept a little this evening, which I have not done for a long while.”
Mitsou concludes with a passionate communication from a little musical comedy star to her lieutenant in the trenches; and this impressed Proust especially, but he quibbled: “It is so beautiful, it even verges on prettiness here and there, and amid so much admirable simplicity and depth, perhaps there is a trace of preciosity.” He could not quite believe in the sudden elevation and refinement of Mitsou’s style, educated only by love. And how characteristic of the very neurotic great man! The chapter of the lovers’ dining in a restaurant reminded him dolefully of an engagement to dine with Colette which he had been compelled to break, it unfortunately having coincided with one of his illnesses.
Upon publication of Chéri she received a letter from Gide. He expected her to be surprised to hear from him; and perhaps she was. While Proust was a great complimenter, Gide was known to be somewhat chary of endorsements. He had read the tragical tale of the youngster in love with the aging courtesan at one sitting, breathlessly, he said. “Not one weakness, not one redundancy, nothing commonplace!” Why in the world, he wondered, had none of the critics compared her young hero or villain with Benjamin Constant’s “insupportable” Adolphe? “It’s the same subject in reverse, almost.”
On the whole, this was higher praise than Proust’s, and deservedly higher; for in the three intervening years Colette had extended and intensified her art. Gide quibbled also, or rather he suggested that with his natural uneasiness and malicious humor, if he took a little more trouble, in all probability he would find something quibble-worthy. “I’d like to reread it but I’m afraid to. What if it were to disappoint me, upon second reading? Oh, quick, let me mail this letter before I consign it to the wastebasket!”
It is pleasant and, I think, appropriate to begin with a glance at these two little documents of literary history. For, when Proust and Gide were dead and gone, it seemed to me — and to a good many other readers in France and in foreign parts — that Colette was the greatest living fiction writer.
I know that in critical prose, as a rule, the effect of the superlative “greatest” is just emotional. It is not really susceptible of analysis, at least not of proof. Even the comparative “greater” is unhandy in any limited number of pages, as it calls for some examination of those who may be thought comparable. Greater than Mauriac? Greater than Martin du Gard, Jules Romains, Montherlant, Sartre? Yes, I say, though I have not had the zeal to read or reread that entire bookshelf for the present purpose. Let me not pretend to be able to prove anything. Let me just peaceably point to those of Colette’s merits, here and there in her work, which I regard as components of greatness; going upon the assumption that in the essentials, as to general literary standards, the reader will agree with me. Easy does it!
I may state that, beginning about a decade ago, I have familiarized myself with Colette’s work in its entirety. My nearest and dearest friend, with characteristic munificence, made me a present of the collected edition, fifteen volumes, seven thousand pages, two million words, in that handsome format which finally crowns the French literary life: laid paper with margins, red ink as well as black; and had it handsomely bound for me in Holland. That spring I read everything that I had missed in ordinary editions in the past, and reread all the masterworks that I had loved so dearly for many years. I go on rereading every so often; and thus I know whereof I speak. I have it all fairly fresh in my mind.
I wish that I could illustrate this essay. From childhood and girl- hood on to the day of her death, Colette photographed entrancingly. The first written description of her that I ever read was an entry in Jules Renard’s Journal, November, 1894: her appearance at the first night of Maeterlinck’s translation of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, bright-eyed, laughing, “with a braid of hair long enough to let the bucket down a well with”; Melisande-like.
Rebecca West has described her in her middle age, out for a walk with her bulldog, a rich silk scarf looped through its collar in lieu of a leash. That most gifted and intrepid reporter’s principal impression was of animal energy and fierceness; to such a degree, she declared, that it almost frightened her.
I first met Colette in 1935, when she and Maurice Goudeket, her third husband, came to New York on the maiden voyage of the Normandie. Her American publisher invited me to a cocktail party in her honor. She was not expected to speak English, and as I had lived in France long enough to speak French fluently if not correctly, it was thought that I could facilitate the sociability. It thrilled me to meet her.
I remember her strong hands — serious writing is a manual labor! — and her fine feet in sandals, perhaps larger than most, rather like the feet of Greek goddesses. I remember her slightly frizzly hair fetched forward almost to her eyebrows, because (as she has told her readers) she has a square boyish or mannish forehead. I remember her delicate nostrils and her painted thin lips.
The conversation that I had been invited to engage in was not really very witty or deep. She extolled the great maiden ocean liner; how safe it seemed, how imperturbable upon the waves! She gave it as her opinion that there was nothing at all surprising about skyscrapers; man having been all through the ages a mountain climber, a tower builder. I then expressed my pleasure in the little conversation I had had with Goudeket, a distinguished and interesting man.
“He is a very good friend,” she said, and she emphasized friend a little. As I recalled certain bitter pages about her first marriage — the bitterest were still to come — I supposed that the designation of “husband” seemed unromantic to her.
Now I will furnish a sort of biography in rough outline and resume. I wish that, instead, her autobiographies — the half dozen little volumes that, taken together, are perhaps her most important work: La Maison de Claudine, Sido, Le Pur et l’Impur, Mes Apprentissages, L’Etoile Vesper, Le Fanal Bleu — were all available in English. What I shall do is flutter in and out of that noble repository and treasure-trove, picking out bright bits, like a magpie. Though she has many reticences, grandeurs of style, and sometimes little riddles, she seems not to have left much for other narrators of her life to do, except to simplify and vulgarize.
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was born on January 28, 1873, in a village in Burgundy, Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. Her father, Jules Joseph Colette, was a pensioned-off soldier who had fought in North Africa, in the Crimea, and in the wars of Italian liberation, and lost a leg at the second battle of Marignan. Her mother, Adele Eugenie Sidonie Landoy, born in Paris, was a young widow when the ex-Zouave loved and wooed and won her. It was a good marriage. She was an octoroon. Blessed France! where it may seem to handicap one in a career of serious authorship to have commenced with a series of slightly raffish best sellers, or to have divorced and gone on the stage, as Colette did; but where race prejudices are few and mild. Never have I heard any mention of that sixteenth part of Negro blood in the famous authoress’s veins; only her own statement.
Mme. Jules Joseph Colette — Sido, if we may presume to use that abridged name which, her daughter has said, “sparkles amid all my memories” — was a woman of real force of character and unusual mind, with a gift of expression from which, doubtless, for the most part, her daughter’s genius derived. As a young girl Colette must have felt overwhelmed by her. The first independent action of Colette’s life, marriage, rash and premature, was in specific rebellion against the better parental judgment. Thereafter Sido must have sensed the wrongness of impinging too closely upon her daughter’s difficult life; she stood upon a certain ceremony, kept her distance.
La Naissance du Jour (Break of Day) (1928), the novel of the renunciation of love in which Colette portrayed herself under her own name, and as approximately the age that she had reached in reality at the time of writing it, testifies to the fact that the thought of her mother was still a challenge to her, sixteen years after her death. On page after page she studies herself in the mirror of her inheritance, measures herself against Sido’s stature; and true bereavement echoes all through it, slow and impassioned, like the ground bass of a passacaglia or a chaconne.
She began her filial tribute long before that. The best of the little chapters of La Maison de Claudine (1922), which is an account of the home from which the author of the Claudine novels came — not otherwise connected with the best-selling series — are portrait sketches of the dear progenetrix. Sido (1929) is a more formal portrait, but still entranced and entrancing. Even after thirty-four years, in L’Etoile Vesper (The Evening Star) (1946), there are sudden touching souvenirs: a fragment of a blue dress of Sido’s, a miniature of Sido’s mother — to whom Sido’s father, the quadroon, was notoriously unfaithful — one of Sido’s recollections of another of her children, and a severe motherly criticism, of neglected and disorderly cupboards. And in this text, as elsewhere, whenever assailed by fear or bitterness or any other serious trouble, she evokes the great strong spirit, and despite her own age, threescore and ten — threescore and nine, to be exact — clings almost like a child. The filial devotion, half of it posthumous, was the mightiest strand in her entire being.
The next most important strand was coarse and incongruous, and seemingly weak; nevertheless, it held her a long time. At twenty she married the noted journalist and hack writer, Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy. She was then, as he remarked some years later of her heroine, Claudine, as pure and unsophisticated as “any little Tahitian before the missionaries got there.” He was, to characterize him in his own manner, the opposite of a missionary. He was a bad, clever, corpulent, somewhat crazy man. He was only about fifteen years older than she, but already the worse for wear, physically as well as spiritually. “Worse than mature,” Colette said.
“The day after that wedding night I found that a distance of a thousand miles, abyss and discovery and irremediable metamorphosis, separated me from the day before.” What a painful sentence! What a beautiful sentence! All of her portrait of Willy from memory years later is perfection. “The shadow of Priapus, flattered by the moonlight or lamplight on the wall” — then, little by little, the traits of the mere middle-aged man coming out from behind that image of newly espoused male — “a look in his bluish eyes impossible to decipher; a terrible trick of shedding tears; that strange lightness which the obese often have; and the hardness of a featherbed filled with small stones.” He was nervous, disgraceful, and shameless, foxy and comical and cruel. He was thought to resemble King Edward VII; but in spite of his carefully dyed, extra-thick handlebar mustaches, his wife noted also something of Queen Victoria.
The term “hack writer,” as applied to Willy, needs a little explaining. He was, as you might say, a wholesaler of popular reading matter: music criticism and drama criticism; and in book form as well as journalism, revelations of his own everyday life and night life in the somewhat side-splitting way, sometimes verging on the libidinous, with verbal pyrotechnics, especially puns; and all sorts of light fiction, something for almost every type of reader; and once in a while, dramatizations. Hacking indeed; but he himself did scarcely any of the writing! Doubtless he had what is called a psychic block to start with, but he made it work. He employed writers, several at a time, for his different types of production. “Willy have talent,” said Jules Renard. He was not lazy. He helped his helpers. Sometimes he seemed to want to fool them, pretending that the work of one of them was his work, and getting another to revise it, and so on. He may or may not have given them a fair share of the income from all this; they never understood his finances. Some of them had literary careers on their own in later years: Messrs. Vuillermoz, Curnonsky, Marcel Boulestin.
Young Mme. Colette Willy’s literary career began with her telling little tales of Saint-Sauveur; tales of childhood, girlhood, and school-girlhood. One day Willy suggested her trying to get some of these memories down on paper. She tried, the result disappointed him, and he discouraged her. But one day when he happened to need money he picked up her manuscript again and thought better of it. Could she not work on it a little more? he asked her. It needed only a detail of psychology here and there, a specification of emotion. Why not develop her little heroine’s crushes on her girl friends just a little further?
Immature female writers, as Colette remarked years later, are not notable for their moderation; nor old female writers either: “Furthermore, nothing is so emboldening as a mask.” Before long Willy’s reminiscing young wife was his favorite ghost writer. He paid her too; well enough, it seemed to her at the time, enabling her to send little presents to Sido, woolen stockings, bars of bitter chocolate. He would lock her in her room for four-hour stretches while she inked up a certain number of pages with her heaven-sent and profitable phrases, sentences, paragraphs.
In her recollection of all this Colette has expressed mixed emotions, doubtless impossible to unmix: pathos, furious resentment, and toughness toward herself — Willy locked the door, but, she had to admit, there was nothing to hinder her from throwing herself out the window — and in spite of all, a certain appreciation of the way destiny worked to her advantage in it, amor fati. For thus in servitude, page by page, volume by volume, she became a professional writer. Regular as clockwork: Claudine at School (1900), Claudine in Paris (1901), Claudine Married (1902), Claudine and Annie (1903); and then a new series, Minne, and Les Egarements de Minne. Willy took all the credit and signed them all.
Claudine, all four Claudines, had a fantastic success. Shall I attempt to say what it was like, with American equivalents, for fun? Rather like a combination of Tarkington’s Seventeen and Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Also there was the factor of personal notoriety. Suppose Anita Loos had been married to, let us say, Alexander Woollcott, and he had posed as the author of it, and given the public to understand that it was the true story of her life! Also in due course it was dramatized and acted by a favorite actress, Polaire, who was, as you might say, a cross between Mae West and Shirley Temple. The name “Claudine” was bestowed upon a perfume, indeed two perfumes in competition, and upon a form of round starched schoolgirlish collar, and upon a brand of cigarettes and a flavor of ice cream. It makes one think of the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, with a variation: young Mme. Willy not only brought the broomstick to life, she was the broomstick.
No wonder she has shown a divided mind about the merits and demerits of those early volumes. As a rule her references have been rather shamefaced, disdainful; and critical commentators on her work have followed suit, even I. But in truth almost any writer who had not gone on to write something very much better would be quite sufficiently proud to have written the Claudines. To be sure, here and there they put us in mind of that once popular periodical, La Vie Parisienne. They are a little foolish but not at all false. They are wonderfully recreational, with all the assortment of approaches to romance, and with small talk, sparkling every instant.
A part of Colette’s talent appears in them all right: her warmth of heart, brilliance of the senses, command of language; only none of her genius. She surely appreciates them as well as they deserve, for all her little promulgations of sackcloth and ashes. She fought hard to get the rights away from Willy; for a while both names appeared on the title pages, then hers alone; and she devoted two and a half volumes of the proud definitive edition to them.
While she was writing, writing, writing, for Willy, intimate relations between them went from bad to worse. Halfway through the miserable marriage, or perhaps three quarters of the way, she suddenly felt unable to stand it; collapsed in her own mind about it. She began to believe that perhaps Willy was not simply wicked but insane; a furtive kind of insanity, venting itself in little sadisms and in whims and frauds of one kind and another. She tried to pity him but she found herself unable to pity him. Presently she realized that the reason she was unable to pity him was that she had begun to be afraid of him. She wrote of this with somber moderation, with a sort of good nature, which gives one gooseflesh. “Healthy young people do not easily open their minds to fear, not altogether, not constantly. The worst tormentors have their hours of clemency and gaiety. Perhaps even a mouse finds time, between one wound and the next, to appreciate the softness of the cat’s paw.” And on another page there is an allusion to something that happened finally, that she resolved never to tell; worse than anything that she had told!
Whereupon she retreated to the country, to a little property in the Franche-Comté called Monts-Boucons. Willy gave it to her, but afterward seized it back. She told him that going away would enable her to get on faster with her work, his work; but there appears not to have been any vagueness in her own mind about it; it was for the specific purpose of suffering. It was what in our American life is so common or, I should say, what we have so common a term for (the French have none): nervous breakdown. It was the turning point of her life; anguish, the first phase of independence!
In her account of this, years later, I note one of those components of literary greatness which I have undertaken to indicate when I came to them; a sort of contradictoriness in the working of her mind; manifoldness. When reticence would seem to have closed down on her, because she is ashamed to tell the whole story, and no wonder; when her thought has failed, no knowing any longer what to think; when she feels obliged in all honesty and modesty to specify that she cannot really specify anything — then! then more than ever, compensatorily, her power of expression of emotion reaches its peak, by means of images and verbal music.
There in retreat in the Franche-Comté countryside, having on her mind day and night her problem of oversophisticated, broken-down psychopathological metropolitan home life, suddenly she discovered, not the meaning, not the moral, but the metaphor, in simple nature around her; in the painfulness of nature. Metaphor singular? No, metaphors plural! all over the place; but all saying the same thing. — A superb serpent pecked to death by hens. Dark painful wasps slumberous in the ground like a tiny buried bunch of grapes. Her cat undeterrably murderous without even any excuse of hunger, and the bird on its nest optimistic but obstinate as the cat approached. Her old horse so badly mistreated by its previous owner that, when she went riding, it had to be bandaged as well as saddled . .
By means of these observations she expressed the dread and disgust to which her married life had turned, more than by any outspokenness or outcry. And none of it really could be said to be, for the creature concerned, error or bad luck or injustice; in each case it was according to the given nature. Oh, likewise in her own case as the wife of Willy! She was justified in forgiving herself for her weaknesses of the past. On the other hand, she could not be expected to repress in herself indefinitely a certain dire strength of which she was beginning to feel the stirrings. Both things were in her nature, in her attitude and reaction to the rest of nature and to others’ human nature: awful compliance for a while, but power of rebellion after a while, even power of hatred.
But never, for her, indifference or obliviousness! This is what I call the contradiction: the creative mind embellishing what it hates; winding around what it is escaping from; rendering everything, as it goes along, in so far as can be, unforgettable. For example, that reptile and the barnyard fowl and those predatory insects and that beat-up horse; Colette kept them stored in her head for about thirty years, along with the more general concepts of early sorrow, early philosophy. As she has expressed it in the way of aphorism: “By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings. But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet.”
Nervous breakdown had done her good, as it often does, or so it seems: something in the way of a liberating effect. In some way suffering outweighed her natural conservatism. As she expressed it in later years almost cynically, she had monogamous blood in her veins by inheritance, the effect of which was a certain enfeeblement in the ways of the world. There by herself in Monts-Boucons, bloodletting! What year was that? Perhaps 1904. Now and again the chronology of her memoirs disappears in the poetry. She did not actually, entirely, leave Willy until 1906. Why the delay, when she had seen all and foreseen all, and as they say, found herself?
In more than one text Colette has declared, and no doubt sincerely thought, that it was mainly on her mother’s account. From the very first day of her marriage and metropolitan life she had painstakingly prevaricated in every letter back to the provincial town. Perhaps Sido read between the lines, but she replied only to what her daughter chose to tell. Little by little Colette felt bound by her own spiderweb. Given what our sociologists call vertical social mobility, it is a frequent crisis in the lives of gifted young persons who have ventured to the city in search of fortune, to no avail, and then have to consider giving up and going back home: prodigal sons or daughters not even remorseful, nobodies with not even a cent or a sou. The prospect of burdening Sido in the financial way troubled Colette especially. Must she not have been inhibited by another point of pride also? In Sido’s instant perception of the miserableness of Willy, and prediction of the martyrdom of being married to him, had she not felt some possessiveness, bossiness? It is a matter of observations that daughters often very nearly perish rather than admit that mother knew best.
But at the close of a life and career so felicitous and successful, let us not glibly say that at this or that point things were misconceived or mismanaged. Nowadays one is apt to make too much of the spell cast by parents, and the fixation of first marriage, and everything of that sort. Especially in the lives of literary persons, planners by their temperament and training, the feelings of ability and ambition may be of more decisive effect. What caused her to set her bizarre young heart on the odd older man from Paris in the first place, if it was not the fact that he was a literary man? And after she came to hate him with her whole heart, probably it was the muse which kept her there beside him a while longer, faithful to vocation rather than to the marriage vow; only seemingly shilly-shallying, while accumulating the materials for a great piece of literature decades later.
Willy was her job as well as her husband and her subject matter. She remembered to tell us how — doubtless sensing her restlessness, the gradual unfolding of her wings for flight, also the sharpening and tensing of her beak and claw — he opportunely raised her wages. The Minnes were more remunerative than the Claudines. It does seem to me that if I had been the author of those six volumes at the rate of one a year I should have felt quite confident of being able to support myself by writing — also my mother in the provinces, forsooth, if called upon — even without an accustomed consort, slave-driver, agent, and front man. But Colette did not feel confident. She was like someone learning to swim, someone who has learned, who can swim, but still depends on water wings. And the fact is that, when at last she got up her courage and left Willy, and continued writing — an excellent volume in 1907, another in 1908 — there was not a living in it. It must be admitted that she did not, perhaps could not, certainly never wished to, write any longer in the previous half-humorous best-selling style, Willy’s style. She went on the stage instead.