The Tendrils of the Vine

Colette

First published (in French) 1908

The great cat lover about the time she wrote The Vagabond in a publicity portrait by Reutlinger. Photo – Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman

A good chunk of this summer was spent working my way through two biographies by Hermione Lee, one of Edith Wharton (see preceding posts), the other of Virginia Woolf (both eminently worth reading) and I am now settled into one of Colette by Judith Thurman (Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette) which is proving to be as entertaining and informative. We posted a few excerpts previously from Colette drawn from a Penguin anthology of her works (Colette – Earthly Paradise).

I seem to be drawn to fin de siècle women writers – I’m not sure why – although they do have, at least, tenuous links to gardening and to an era that interests me greatly and, of course, their writing prevails as reason enough to read them. It is Colette however who tends to get the blood flowing with her straight-forward yet poetic style. (It’s interesting, as I read somewhere, I believe in the Penguin anthology, that she was alert to poetic rhythm sneaking in to her prose and, once detected, excised, yet she reads not unlike poetry to me). I generally prefer non-fiction to fiction but Colette’s fictional writing often appears to be autobiographical; it is difficult to determine where the truth ends and the tale begins.

She and her husband/collaborator, Willy, outraged conservative French society at the turn of the century and her stage career drove the chattering classes to even higher levels of outrage and disgust but, by the end of her life, she was generally considered to be a national treasure and her reputation has, if anything, increased today. Willy, scoundrel that he was, comes across as a somewhat more sympathetic character in my reading  of Thurman’s biography (200 pages in) due in part to the era in which he lived and, in which, the attitudes that he shared with most, if not all, men at that time and to the suspicion that he did love Colette, in his way, and that she loved him.

Nonetheless, at the time that The Tendrils of the Vine was being finished Colette was in the process of divorcing Willy (another social outrage) and setting out on her own. The process, and her new-found theatrical career (not to mention her lesbian relationships), involved divorcing herself from polite society as well. It seems to me that Colette must have had an iron will as she yielded to no-one in her determination to be herself and to speak her mind as she saw fit regardless of the objections of French society in general and of critics, both theatrical and literary. It’s a wonderful thing for us that she was constructed in this way as her writing is an inspiration a century on, unchanged in its import (as unchanged as the chattering classes) and her example still stands as a testament to the notion that talent conquers all.

I came across mention of The Tendrils of the Vine in Judith Thurman’s biography and turned to my copy of The Collected Stories of Colette (edited by Robert Phelps) for an English translation of the title piece (the book, published in 1908 has never been translated into English); immediately below is a page from the biography that will serve to set the stage for Herma Briffault’s translation of this short fable. My paperback copy of The Collected Stories of Colette is coming unglued but should hold together enough to get me through it (it will be read soon) and will serve until I can come across another copy; it is likely to be a book well worth keeping on my shelves.

Update, 25/10/2012 – here’s a link to a New York Times review (outside their paywall) of Judith Thurman’s biography, Secrets of the Flesh, of Colette with additional links including one (Featured Author: Colette) to historical articles and reviews of Colette’s writing.

Scanned from:

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

Judith Thurman

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999

paperback, approx 6 X 9 ¼”, 570 pp plus index

In 1908, Colette published “The Mirror” and a selection of other short prose in Tendrils of the Vine. The famous title piece, written before her separation in 1905, describes a nightingale who awakens one spring morning to find that his feet have been trapped by the vine’s spiraling creepers. Believing he will die, he struggles to break free, and swears that he will never fall asleep again while the tendrils are climbing. “From that night on, he sang to stay awake . . . he varied his theme, embellished it, fell in love with his voice, became that mad singer, intoxicated and panting, to whom one listens with the unbearable desire to see him sing.” The writer identifies her fate with his.

The tone of Tendrils is as bittersweet as the taste of that freedom, and what makes it so is Colette’s sense of the unbreachable distance between the past – “the village I have left behind”- and the present. As a contemporary critic noted astutely, the narrator is “an emancipated woman writer, artist, and rebel … savagely and resolutely alone” but “unconsciously still fixated on her childhood.” And this is her allegory for the loss of self and the dawn of vigilance, for the discovery of her voice and her gifts, and for the conflict between the drive for autonomy and the yearning for submission that will inform her work for the next forty years.

The eroticism of the most candid and intimate Tendrils was meant to shock, as Colette cheerfully admitted to Willy, who read the manuscript for her and made some minor corrections. “Jour gris” is a feverish and melancholy reverie addressed to Missy, in which the narrator laments her lost intactness. “Nonoche” is a little paean to the siren call of male lust, for which the .. mother cat abandons her nursling. “Nuit blanche” celebrates Colette’s gratitude to her mistress for a love so containing and steady that it feels redemptive. The writing suffers in places from an exalted and somewhat adolescent solemnity, but to read the finest of these prose poems is to enter a pagan sanctum like the Villa dei Misteri – a temple of voluptuous devotions.

The Tendrils of the Vine (Les Vrilles de la Vigne)

Can be read online (in French) at http://uag.cyberlibris.com/book/45000688/?sitelang=en

Scanned from:

The Collected Stories of Colette

Edited by Robert Phelps

New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983

Paperback, approx 6 X 9”, 605 pp

In bygone times the nightingale did not sing at night. He had a sweet little thread of voice that he skillfully employed from morn to night with the coming of spring. He awoke with his comrades in the blue-gray dawn, and their flustered awakening startled the cockchafers sleeping on the underside of the lilac leaves.

He went to bed promptly at seven o’clock or half past seven, no matter where, often in the flowering grapevines that smelled of mignonette, and slept solidly until morning.

One night in the springtime he went to sleep while perched on a young vine shoot, his jabot fluffed up and his head bowed, as if afflicted with a graceful torticollis. While he slept, the vine’s gimlet feelers – those imperious and clinging tendrils whose sharp taste, like that of fresh sorrel, acts as a stimulant and slakes the thirst – began to grow so thickly during the night that the bird woke up to find himself bound fast, his feet hobbled in strong withes, his wings powerless …

He thought he would die, but by struggling he managed after a great effort to liberate himself, and throughout the spring he swore never to sleep again, not until the tendrils of the vine had stopped growing.

From the next night onward he sang, to keep himself awake:

As long as the vine shoots grow, grow, grow,

I will sleep no more!

As long as the vine shoots grow, grow, grow,

I will sleep no more!

He varied his theme, embellishing it with vocalizations, became infatuated with his voice, became that wildly passionate and palpitating songster that one listens to with the unbearable longing to see him sing.

I have seen a nightingale singing in the moonlight, a free nightingale that did not know he was being spied upon. He interrupts himself at times, his head inclined, as if listening within himself to the prolongation of a note that has died down … Then, swelling his throat, he takes up his song again with all his might, his head thrown back, the picture of amorous despair. He sings just to sing, he sings such lovely things that he does not know anymore what they were meant to say. But I, I can still hear, through the golden notes, the melancholy piping of a flute, the quivering and crystalline trills, the clear and vigorous cries, I can still hear the first innocent and frightened song of the nightingale caught in the tendrils of the vine:

As long as the vine shoots grow, grow, grow …

Imperious, clinging, the tendrils of a bitter vine shackled me in my springtime while I slept a happy sleep, without misgivings. But with a frightened lunge I broke all those twisted threads that were already imbedded in my flesh, and I fled … When the torpor of a new night of honey weighed on my eyelids, I feared the tendrils of the vine and I uttered a loud lament that revealed my voice to me.

All alone, after a wakeful night, I now observe the morose and voluptuous morning star rise before me … And to keep from falling again into a happy sleep, in the treacherous springtime when blossoms the gnarled vine, I listen to the sound of my voice. Sometimes I feverishly cry out what one customarily suppresses or whispers very low – then my voice dies down to a murmur, because I dare not go on …

I want to tell, tell, tell everything I know, all my thoughts, all my surmises, everything that enchants or hurts or astounds me; but always, toward the dawn of this resonant night, a wise cool hand is laid across my mouth, and my cry, which had been passionately raised, subsides into moderate verbiage, the loquacity of the child who talks aloud to reassure himself and allay his fears.

I no longer enjoy a happy sleep, but I no longer fear the tendrils of the vine …

[translated by Herma Briffault]

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