Following on from the preceding post, here’s an account (from his book Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism which can be downloaded here) of a visit paid by Glenway Wescott to Colette’s apartment in the Palais-Royal in Paris a few years before she passed away.
Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (1962)
Glenway Wescott, 1901 – 1987
Chapter Five – A Call on Colette and Goudeket
When I went abroad in 1952 and called on my old and dear friend Cocteau, who was Colette’s neighbor in the Palais-Royal, he told me that it had been one of her most dolorous weeks; her arthritis clamping down tight and chiseling away at her. In spite of which, he thought, surely she would receive me, especially if he telephoned and asked her to. For various reasons, I scarcely wanted his powers of persuasion so exercised in my behalf.
Later in the week I found Anita Loos, the dramatizer of Gigi, dining at Florial’s, out beside the fountain under the honey locusts, and she confirmed the bad news of the arthritis; nevertheless, she encouraged me. “Don’t write,” was her advice. “M. Goudeket, the guardian husband, will think it his duty to ward you off. Just take a chance, ring the doorbell. At least you will see him, or you will see Pauline, the perfect servant. They’re both worth seeing.”
But I could not imagine myself standing all unannounced on their doorstep, nor think of any suitable initial utterance to the doorkeeper. Then I recalled the fact that when my young friend Patrick O’Higgins wanted to get in and take photographs of her, he armed himself with roses. With neither his infectious half-Irish gaiety nor his half-French manners, perhaps I could afford an even more imposing bouquet, to compensate. I sought out the major florist near the Palais-Royal, and asked if they knew which size and shape and shade and redolence of rose Mme. Colette favored. They knew exactly: I forget its name; it had a stout but not inflexible stem, and petals wine-red on the inside, brownish on the outside.
In the doorway the perfect servant gave me a good look and concluded that she had never laid eyes on me before. I held the roses up a little; I thrust them forward. It brought to my mind an encounter once upon a time with a fine police dog when, thank heaven, I had in hand a good thick slice of bread for the purpose of conciliation. I made polite statements about my not really expecting Mme. Colette to see me but, on the other hand, not wanting her to hear from M. Cocteau or Mlle. Loos or anyone of my sojourn in Paris and departure without having paid my respects. Pauline evidently regarded this as all hypocrisy but appreciated the style of it. She took the roses, forbade me to depart without being seen by M. Goudeket, ordered me to sit down and be patient, and went away very neatly.
The Palais-Royal is a quiet building. I could hear a heavy chair being pushed back somewhere; I could hear footsteps along a corridor, certainly not Pauline’s footsteps, heavier and not so neat. Facing me was a double door composed of panes of glass backed by permanent light-colored curtains, which made everything there in the hallway rather bright but nothing really visible.
“What is it, Pauline? Who is it, Pauline? But no, but no, not that vase, not for roses. Oh, they’re magnificent, aren’t they? So long-legged and in such quantity! Leave them here on my bed, for the moment.”
Though the farthest thing in the world from a young voice, it had a sound of unabated femininity, and it could never have been livelier at any age. It was slightly hoarse, but with the healthy hoarseness of certain birds; nothing sore-throated about it.
“Who brought them, Pauline? What young man? The one of the other day, the Swiss one? But, my poor dear Pauline, if he’s gray-haired, what makes you think he’s young? If only you’d remember names, so much simpler.”
Thus she sputtered or, to be more exact, warbled, and I gathered that Pauline withdrew from the room in mid-sentence; the hoarse and sweet phrases murmured to a close. Presently I heard a manly mumble of M. Goudeket, meant for me not to be able to understand; and presently there he was with me in the hallway, welcoming, at least half welcoming.
He declared that he remembered me, which, remarkable man that he is, may have been the case. “As for Colette,” he added, in a sort of aside, “I am afraid she is not in good enough health to see you.”
Using his arm like a great wand or baton he motioned me into a room which appeared to be his room, where there was a display of bibliophily and an important desk.
In France I always observe a great difference between politesse and just politeness. Politesse is stronger and can be made quite uncomfortable for one or both of the participants. M . Goudeket seated himself at the desk, assigned me a chair vis-à-vis, and questioned me for half or three quarters of an hour until he became convinced that I truly, unselfishly, loved Colette’s work and would continually do my best to further a general love of it in vast and remunerative America.
I told him what I thought: a number of the most interesting titles for export to this country had not yet been translated (still have not) — especially her reminiscences, which ought to be combined in one fat volume, suitable for a large-circulation book club. I went on to say, in a less businesslike manner, that I could not think of any autobiography by a woman to compare with this work of hers. Most women, throughout literary history, have been rather secretive, therefore objective. Not even Mme. de Sévigné is in Colette’s class for width and depth of revelation, for fond instructiveness, and for poetical quality. This comparison, though perhaps hackneyed, seemed to gratify M. Goudeket.
Then I mentioned Colette’s particular gift of brief wise commentary, epigram, and aphorism. As a rule this is not one of the abilities of the fair sex. Logan Pearsall Smith’s famous Treasury of English Aphorisms included, if I remembered rightly, only two authoresses. This information made M . Goudeket smile.
As soon as cordiality prevailed between us, our conversation flagged. Despairing by that time of seeing the beloved authoress, I looked at my watch and alluded to the fact that I had another engagement, beginning to be pressing.
This apparently astonished M. Goudeket. “But I thought you wished to pay your respects to Colette,” he protested. “Surely you can spare just a few more minutes! Speaking for Colette, alas, I am afraid she will be deeply disappointed if you don’t.”
He said this with rare aplomb, disregarding what he had said upon my arrival, exactly as though, at some point in our interview, he had been able to slip out of the room and reconsult her about me, or as though she had communicated to him by telepathy.
“Colette has changed her mind about seeing you,” he said. “She is feeling in rather better health today than usual. Come, we will knock on her door.” He knocked good and hard and then ushered me in. He addressed her as “dear friend” and he called me “M. Quess-cotte.”
Let me not flatter myself that the great writer had been primping for me all that half or three quarters of an hour; but certainly I have never seen a woman of any age so impeccable and immaculate and (so to speak) gleaming. Let me not try to describe her: her paleness of enamel and her gemlike eyes and her topknot of spun glass, and so forth. There was evidence of pain in her face but not the least suggestion of illness. What came uppermost in my mind at the sight of her was just rejoicing. Oh, oh, I said to myself, she is not going to die for a long while! Or, if she does, it will have to be sudden death somehow, burning death, freezing death, or thunderbolt of some kind. The status quo certainly is life, from head to foot.
She arched her neck back away from me and turned her head somewhat circularly, though in only a segment of circle. She worked her eyes, staring for a split second, then narrowing them, then staring again, so that all their degrees of brightness showed. She gave me her hand, strong with lifelong penmanship as well as gardening and the care of pets.
“Please sit on my bed,” she said. “Yes, there at the foot, where I can look straight at you. Arthritic as I am, it wearies me — or perhaps I should say it bores me — to turn my head too often.”
Oh, the French euphemism, which is stoicism in a way! Evidently it was not a matter of weariness or boredom but of excruciation. A moment later, in my enjoyment and excitement of being there, I made a clumsy move sideways, so that the weight of my elbow rested on the little mound of her feet under the coverlet. She winced but did not scowl. I apologized miserably, which she put a stop to by pulling the coverlet up above her ankles, in a dear humorous exhibitionism.
“Do you see? I have excellent feet. Do you remember? I have always worn sandals, indifferent to severe criticism, braving inclement weather; and now I have my reward for it, do you not agree?”
Yes, I did remember, I did agree. She exercised the strong and silken arches for me and twinkled the straight, red-lacquered toes.
On the whole, I must admit, our dialogue or trialogue was not very remarkable. I had been warned of her deafness; indeed the beautiful first page of Le Fanal Bleu is a warning. Now, as I try to recall things that she said, I find that they were not very well focused on the cues that her husband and I gave her; she only half heard us. She devoted all possible cleverness to mitigating and disguising the vacuum between us, and therefore did not shine in other ways, as she might have done in solo performance.
Naturally her husband knew best how to pitch his voice for her ear, or perhaps she could somewhat read his lips. “M. Ouess-cotte thinks your autobiographies will have the greatest success in America,” he said.
“Oh, has he read them? Oh, the Americans are greater readers than the poor French, aren’t they, monsieur?”
“M. Ouess-cotte is perhaps exceptional,” her husband murmured sagaciously.
“Have you read Le Pur et l’Impur?” she asked. “I happened to read it myself the other day and I took pride in it. I believe it to be my best book. It is the book in which I make my personal contribution to the general repository of knowledge of the various forms of sensuality, do you remember?”
I remembered so well that I recognized this last sentence as a quotation from it, almost word for word: “Le trésor de la connaissance des sens . . ” It is a work of gospel truth to my way of thinking, and has greatly guided me in my own life and love life.
When we fell silent M. Goudeket gave us a helping hand, a helping sentence. “M. Ouess-cotte suggests that I ought to make a selection of your thoughts in aphoristic form which I should find here and there throughout your work; something like the Pensées of Pascal or of Joubert.”
“But no, certainly not, my poor friend! You know perfectly well, I am no thinker, I have no pensées. I feel almost a timidity and almost a horror of all that. As a matter of fact, thanks be to God, perhaps the most praiseworthy thing about me is that I have known how to write like a woman, without anything moralistic or theoretical, without promulgating.”
And she expressed this bit of negative femininism in an emphatic manner, with her sweet voice hardened, sharpened. “I am a genuinely womanly writer,” she insisted. “I am the person in the world the least apt to moralize or philosophize.”
I felt challenged by this seeming humility. I, as you might say, took the floor and discoursed with eloquence for two or three or perhaps five minutes. I can recall everything I said, but, for some strange reason, I seem to hear it in English, not in French. Is it possible that in my opinionatedness I slipped into my native tongue without noticing? I seem to see Mme. Colette’s face turning mask-like, as though she had suddenly grown much deafer; and M. Goudeket, than whom nobody could be less stupid, looked a little stupefied.
It amounted to my giving her the lie direct. Whether she liked it or not, I declared, she was a thinker, she did philosophize. In volume after volume she has enabled us to trace exactly the stages of her development of mind, her reasoning in its several categories and connections. The gist of it may perhaps be called pantheistic; a cult of nature which is no mere matter of softly yielding to it, which infers a nay as well as a yea, and which includes, yes, indeed, with outstretched arms, all or almost all human nature. Of the utmost importance to her is, quite simply, belief in love; the particular passion in due course giving way to general loving-kindness, amor giving way to caritas, amour leading to amor fati. A part of it is just spectatorship and dramatic sense, with no admiration of evil, indeed not; only an appreciation of the part that evil may play in fate, as among other things it occasions virtue, and a willingness to yield to it in the end, when worse comes to worst, when it takes the form of death.
Suddenly hearing myself talking so grandiosely, and mixing my languages, my few words of Italian along with my French and/or American, of course I stopped; and then it was time to bid the great woman and her good husband au revoir. They very kindly urged me to return to Paris before long, and she undertook to rise from her bed when that time came and to lunch with me at the restaurant just down the street, the Véfour, where she had a corner table marked with her name on a brass plate.
I departed with a lump in my throat, with a very natural dread of old mortality. But then I reminded myself of the printed form of immortality, a sure thing in Colette’s case. I stopped at a bookstore and bought Le Pur et l’Impur, though I have two copies of it in New Jersey, one very cheap, for rough-and-ready reading, and one well bound, for the sentiment and the symbol. I immediately cut the pages of this third copy, not wanting anyone to observe it uncut in my hand and to shame me by the supposition that I had not yet read it. I walked through the Tuileries and up along the Seine hugging it (so to speak) to my bosom.