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.
I feel a little embarrassment about the theatrical interlude in Colette’s life; which let me deal with summarily. I have not gossiped with any old friends of hers, or questioned my Parisian friends of that generation for the outward aspect and general public impression of her life on stage and backstage, or researched concerning her in the drama criticism and gossip columns of newspapers or news weeklies which perhaps exist in French libraries, yellowed but not yet moldered away.
Even in her lifetime, surely, Colette would not have minded my doing so. As a rule when literary folk manifest a dread of gossip, horror of investigation, like the ostrich in the adage, one reason is an exasperated proprietary sense. They want to do their own telling in their own way with due applause and profit. Colette told all about her career on stage quite soon: two theatrical novels, three if we count Mitsou, and a volume of sketches, as well as various passages in her autobiographical works.
But, having read all that, I find myself in a quandary which (I think) may derive from ambiguity or at least uncertainty in her feeling. So much of it seems to me funny, but apparently to her it all bore connotations of resentment, misfortune, sorrow. Even when the theme is the picturesqueness of something, or eccentricity of someone, when obviously she means to make it as entertaining as possible, it is in a minor key or upon a sharp or harsh note. The theatrical way of life is lonely, and it was especially so in old-fashioned vaudeville or music hall, with brief engagements in a hundred towns. Perhaps in young womanhood loneliness, lonesomeness, loneness, is as hard to bear as unhappy marriage. Perhaps, with a vocation as absolute as Colette’s for literature, working at anything else seems an outrage.
And literary persons especially mind the impermanences of the interpretative arts, musical performance as well as acting and dancing. In Antibes on the French Riviera there is, or used to be, a little Roman tombstone bearing the inscription: SEPTENTRION AET XII SALTAVIT ET PLACUIT. Have I remembered the Latin as it should be? — Someone named North, or perhaps someone from the North, aged twelve, danced and gave pleasure. In Paris in the Musée Guimet there is, or used to be, a little Egyptian mummy; within its angular tight leathery arms appear some dried bits of something else: it is a dancing girl clasping upon her bosom her last bouquet. Which is said to have inspired Anatole France’s Thais, Massenet’s Thais, and indirectly, Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Such are the personifications of the theatre, vanishing out of men’s minds in no time, unless memorialized in writing or one of the other fine arts.
Colette’s stage career began more or less by chance, in semi-public, upon occasions of that elaborated, almost laborious sociability which is peculiarly Parisian: masked balls, soirées littéraire, amateur theatricals. She has given us an account of a great afternoon in the garden of a noted and lovely young American woman, sapphire-eyed Miss Nathalie Barney, when she, Colette, and another lovely young American woman, red-haired Miss Eva Palmer, costumed as, respectively, Daphnis and Chloe, performed a playlet by Pierre Louÿs. That same afternoon there also entered, upon a white horse, costumed as patient Griselda, that young Dutch or perhaps Asiatic woman, Mata Hari, whom the Germans later employed as a spy and whom the French detected and executed. Come to think of it, I do not believe that Colette’s old friends have gossiped about her much; not in my time, not interestingly. As acknowledged elsewhere, years later I had the honor of acquaintance with the red-haired Chloe just mentioned when she was Mrs. Sikelianos, and expounded the dualism of Greek religion to me; but never a word about that gala garden party.
Presently Colette got beyond the fashionable and sophisticated orbit and took for her partner a good capable man named Georges Wague, who made a professional of her. For several seasons they appeared in various pantomimes, ballets, and sketches, most of the time on tour around the provincial cities. One of their numbers was first entitled “Dream of Egypt,” which a certain police commissioner, goodness knows why, obliged them to change to “Oriental Reverie.” Their greatest success was entitled “Flesh,” and it ran for an entire year. Then there was “The Bird of Night,” in which Colette wore rags and tatters, rather Sicilian-looking, with a third performer named Christine Kerf, and they all three went about glowering at something.
The iconography, especially the photographic archives, seems more evocative than the literary or journalistic record. Somewhere in a scrapbook I have pasted a reproduction in rotogravure of an early news photograph in which Colette is making an entry, perhaps on stage, perhaps at a ball, with a panache of what appears to be real peacock tail, borne upon the shoulders of four young strength-and-health men in jockstraps. In recent years, in magazines and in popular little monographs, there have appeared a number of such shots, a little less comical and a little more poetical with the passage of time: one as a black cat, in woolly tights with inked-on whiskers; another in repose, propped up on a taxidermized head, showing to advantage those fine feet which, a quarter of a century later, impressed me. A certain art study reminds us who was the most famous, most influential dancer in the world in those days: Isadora Duncan. In at least one action photograph we are able to glimpse something of Colette’s talent; a tension and a kind of blissfulness in the holding of her head and the outflinging of her arms.
The upbringing and formation of a writer as such: that is the significance of everything I have had to tell thus far. Even follies working out better than one could have calculated; even mere drudgeries serving a dual purpose, future subject matter as well as present livelihood nothing to be regretted unless the fatigue is too great or the lifetime too short! For, as a rule, the development of talent into mastery, or even genius, is not a matter of studying to write or training to write, but of exercising as greatly as possible the entire being, senses, nerves, excitements, emotions, thoughts; only two or three habits of mind making the difference, leading on specifically to literature: the recollective faculty, conversational power, including the power of making others talk, and of course studiousness of the classics of literature and the other arts.
As we look back on Colette’s life, indefatigable beyond anyone’s, and not short, certainly we see that her odd, hazardous, almost scandalous young womanhood, even the years of hack writing, even the intense unhappiness, even the years of hack acting and dancing, all of it just as it happened was almost ideal for the future writer’s purpose.
Now please look with me at some of the result and the outcome, the writing itself; particularly the works of fiction. I will point to things and underline things, with a good bit of quotation and paraphrase, with commendation to my heart’s content and very little adverse criticism. The two novels of the theatre, La Vagabonde (1910) and its sequel, L’Entrave (1913) made a reputation for Colette, quite distinct from the success and notoriety of the Claudines. Renée Néré, the protagonist of both, is also in some measure self-portraiture, analytical, spiritual, and not without self-consciousness. Perhaps Colette felt that this somber presentation would counteract the foolish, girlish mask she had put on for Willy.
The curiosity about the life of Thespians evidently is international and ever-recurrent, but as a rule has not inspired novelists very profoundly. Colette, for her part, played down all the glamour of show business, reduced it to realism, almost dispelled it. Theatre is merely Renée Néré’s livelihood, while she rejoices in, then suffers from, love relationships. I think the appeal of these two novels must have been not particularly to the stage-struck but to career women in general. Those were the early days of feminism, with a little host of women even in France seeking to wean themselves from domestic unhappiness by means of various labors out in the world, with very little written by way of guidebook for them, to say nothing of consolation.
It was Chéri (1920) which made Colette famous. Though she did not get around to writing The Last of Chéri until six years later, they really constitute one and the same work. It requires an unusual ability to hold a theme in mind for so long a time, ripening it, resolving it, perhaps depending for some of its elements on one’s further experience as well as developing artistry.
Colette’s first pairing off of novels, Minne followed by Les Egarements de Minne, was just upon order from Willy; and as soon as they became her property she combined them rather imperfectly in one volume, L’Ingénue Libertine (1909). But perhaps this effort of reconstruction inspired her serious interest in binary form. The connection between La Vagabonde and L’Entrave is more than just the further developments in the life of Renée Néré. Over and above the explicit continuity there are recurrences of emotion, like echoes in the transepts of a large building, back and forth.
In Chéri and The Last of Chéri the double construction is handled much more decisively and strongly. There is an entire shifting of key and change of tempo from one to the other, and a somewhat different proposition in morals and psychology; yet the reader feels that all this was a part of the writer’s knowledge and plan in the first place. A sweeping and agitated, sensual, humorous love story ending in farewell, then a concentrated and solemnly instructive account of psychopathology, they are structurally perfect together, with an effect of not simply chiming echoes but of polyphonic music; with clear perspectives both in the passage of time and in the way the mind of each protagonist focuses on the characters of the other protagonists, and all according to human nature and fatality from start to finish.
Said Laurence Sterne, of all men of genius perhaps the least masterly, “I begin with writing the first sentence, trusting to Almighty God for the second.” Have you observed and compared the odd beginnings of the various great novels? It is pleasant to do so, and it often illumines the deep-laid aesthetic and particular personality of the novelist in question. Both of Sterne’s own first sentences are famous. There is a thrilling solemnity about the four and a half syllables of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael”; and the rest of the paragraph meandering along, “the watery part of the world” and so forth. The dozen words of Anna Karenina, thoughtful, universal, and yet simple, give an instant impression of narrative genius: “All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In due course there was struck the new note of American literary art; in Hemingway’s first book, for instance, “Everybody was drunk . . .”
Now turn to the opening page of Chéri, the voice of the spoiled youngster addressing his aging mistress, an absurd outcry: “Léa! Let me have your pearls!” Do you see? it is rather like theatre, sudden, in order to prevail over the incredulity and metropolitan nervousness of the audience; and poetical in the way of the stage, with more paradox than sentiment.
It is not unlike the fine opening scene of Der Rosenkavalier , first thing in the morning, with the dramatic soprano in or on her grandiose eighteenth-century bed, and the mezzo-soprano uttering the clarion notes of the pledge of everlasting devotion which in fact only lasts out that act. I wish that in the course of one of my conversations with Colette I had thought to ask her whether she had seen the music drama of Strauss and Hofmannsthal (1911) before writing Chéri (1920). She had always been appreciative of music, and indeed in Willy’s day helped with his music criticism and went along to Bayreuth.
No matter. The theme of an oldish woman in love with a very young man or a boy, and vice versa, is an old and fairly familiar theme; natural, insoluble, therefore persistent — except perhaps in the United States. We seem to take our matriarchy straight, in the proper context of family relationship, and more often analytically than for the expression of heartache or heartbreak.
“Léa, Léa, you’re not listening to me!” the heartbreaking French youngster continues. “Let me have your string of pearls, Léa! It’s as becoming to me as it is to you. Are you afraid of my stealing it?” And there, swiftly and simply, you have the three or four moral factors upon which the entire sad story turns: Chéri’s childishness; and his exceeding good looks and corresponding self-admiration; and that constant concern with cash value, which was practically all the education he had been given, prior to this love affair; and his resigning himself to having a bad reputation, not so much cynicism as defeatism.
Mauriac, a strictly Roman Catholic writer, having written a biography of Racine, situating the glorious dramatic poet in relation to baroque theology as well as classical theatre, emphasizing his profoundly troubled Christianity, inscribed a copy of it somewhat surprisingly: “To Colette, nearer than she thinks to this periwigged man.”
If we give this a second thought, even in the opera-like or operetta-like first part of Chéri we find something of Mauriac’s meaning: the suggestion that mere human nature, natural human happiness, is hopeless, that there is original sin, et seq. None of Colette’s unhappy mortals, whether like puppets jerked to their death by pride and error or just drawn to it by time in the ordinary way, seems to have the least sense of the eternal life, or any feeling of having to choose between salvation and perdition. But often their undeluded, unreconciled attitude as to the condition of humankind here below is quite Catholic. In the mentality of Chéri, in his plight of psyche if not within his will power, is a readiness for religion.
Interviewed by someone, in Les Nouvelles Litteraires if I remember correctly, Colette stated the subject of this pair of novels in plain terms without a hint of religion or even of philosophy, as follows. — When a woman of a certain age enters into a relationship with a much younger man, she risks less than he. His character is still in a formative stage, and therefore the more likely to be spoiled by their love, deformed by the failure of it. After they have parted he may be haunted by her, held back by her, forever.
This of course is what reminded Gide of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe. I am tempted to quote from the famous commentary which Constant added by way of preface to the third edition: as to those degrees of passionateness which a young man may think he can arouse in his mistress without feeling them himself; which nevertheless little by little take root in him also, and injure him terribly in the uprooting. It would require very lengthy quotation and perhaps new translation.
Chériis younger than Adolphe. Léa is older than Ellénore. Shall I tell you the plot? It is simple: the life and love and death of one Frédéric Peloux. Chéri is his pet name, as we should say darling or dearie — the French word is not quite so belittling, as it means, literally, cherished one. The protagonists of the older generation are all courtesans, or so near as makes no matter; and all rather superannuated and retired. The cleverest and least pleasant of them, Charlotte Peloux, Chéri’s mother, has contrived, or at least facilitated, his attachment to her old friend, Léa, born Léonie Vallon, known as Baroness de Lonval. Léa was in her forties; in all walks of life women were expected to retire early then. Chéri was nineteen. It suited Mme. Peloux to have him kept out of mischief, and schooled and exercised for his future marriage, and at someone else’s expense the while.
It worked like a charm. It continued for six years, quite peaceably and dignifiedly, in good understanding and good health and powerful enjoyment of sex. You may look down at it, as a kind of mutuality of the commonplace and the materialistic — bourgeoisie gone wrong — yet in its way it was love. At any given moment it must have seemed to everyone that Chéri was playing the inferior part. He always took that wrongly suggestive tone; his requirement of the pearls, for example. Oh, probably his love never attained any particular height or powerfulness, except in intercourse. On the other hand, it never really diminished or altered, until the day of his death. Only his young body detached itself from Léa’s old body, and only when ordered to do so.
How remarkably we are made to see and feel that, although she has begun to age quite rapidly, Léa is still physically, sexually attractive: blue-eyed and rosily blonde, with long legs, and that very flat back which you may also observe in Renaissance sculpture, with dimpled buttocks and somewhat exceptionally elevated breasts, long-lasting.
Colette lets her do most of the emphasizing on age herself. With one eye always on the mirror — as a normal and necessary part of the discipline of courtesanship — evidently, a good while before her intimacy with Chéri started, she had learned always to think of herself as gradually growing older. That was what the passage of time, every day, every hour, every minute, meant to her. She had accustomed herself to the prospect of finding herself, one fine day, really old, disgracefully and decisively old; and she had resolved to call a halt to love life and sex life before that happened. Thus, in her sorrow when it came time to lose Chéri, time to let him go, time to help him go, there was a factor of submissiveness to fate; long-prepared, philosophical.
The gerontophilic devotion — the feeling of a young person for someone definitely not young — is a very genuine, earnest, and passionate devotion. Who has not experienced it or observed it? Only as a rule it is not to be depended on; it is short-lived, subject to sudden coldness and indeed sexual incapability; it is a fire in straw. It was not exactly like that in Chéri’s case. The elder person, beloved in that way, very naturally skeptical to begin with, nevertheless as a rule is almost certain to get enthralled little by little. But if you have any common sense, good education, or worldly wisdom, you will keep your skepticism in mind even after it has ceased to have any currency in your heart. For you must be prepared to yield your young person to some other young person or persons one fine day, upon a moment’s notice. Was this not what happened between Léa and Chéri, when young Edmée came on the scene? Not exactly.
For we feel quite certain that Chéri would never have decided upon, nor lifted a hand to procure for himself, that pulchritudinous well-schooled impeccable creature; not in a thousand years. It was all managed by the matriarch, Mme. Peloux, more managerial than anyone, and more mercenary. Edmée was the daughter of the courtesan noted among them for having put away the most respectable amount of money. It was a case of gerontocracy’s having prevailed over gerontophily. And in the essentials Léa functioned as one of the gerontocracy. She co-operated in the transfer of her darling back home, back under his mother’s control, and into that holy state of matrimony which, as the French conceive and practice it, certainly is a mother’s province.
Miserable young man! his emotions are pathetic and profound, as we see terribly by the outcome. His heart is in the right place but he has scarcely any head. Whether in happiness or unhappiness, he has not even observed exactly what his emotions were, until too late; until someone else has decided things. To all intents and purposes he is inarticulate. His talk — his explanation of the beauty and singularity of his eyelids, for example — is a kind of play-acting, like that of infants at a certain age; sound rather than sense. In more ways than one he is a kind of infant. In the very first instance, his passage from his mother’s malicious and avaricious salon to Léa’s bed and board — oh, blissful bed and sumptuous board! — was but a bewitchment. Now back again, as it were the dream of an infant not yet born, from one part of the womb to another.
The comedy of the aging courtesans is as well developed, and perhaps as important, as Chéri’s misery. And in their scenes together the malicious, almost joyous tone and brisk pace of the first volume continue into the second: satirical vivace even amid the funeral march. Once in a while we laugh at them, but more often with them, in appreciation of the fun they make of one another. It is not all unkindness. In this class of womanhood one has to be careful of old friends, in view of the difficulty of replacing them. Their main objective in their youth and in their prime having been to please men, now it is rather to find various ways of conciliating other women; talking amusingly is one way. Sense of humor keeps up their courage, and serves another mutual purpose also: helps them pretend that those compulsions which constitute their morality — competitiveness, avarice, cruelty — are not really heavy upon them; that a part of their evil is not evil at all, but only a convention, affection and clowning.
Léa is the least amusing, but partly in consequence of that keeps our sympathy from beginning to end. Note especially her first encounter with Mme. Peloux after the marriage of Chéri and Edmée. Upon previous readings I seem to have missed this passage; now it delights me. After absenting herself in the South of France for a season, by way of discipline and therapy, Léa has returned to town with her heartbreak not remedied, but anesthetized, scarred over. She has reached that decision so long meditated: farewell to men, once and for all, and at once. Naturally she has been feeling dull and nervous, listless and slack.
Then, without warning, she is called upon by Chéri’s mother, Edmée’s mother-in-law; triumphant and infernally inquisitive, and, yes, at the same time sincerely friendly. For an hour Léa sits and gazes at that all too familiar face and form, the short and tight and tirelessly bestirring body, the large inhumane eyes and the glib lips; sits and listens to that lifelong chatter, petty but savage, detail after detail of the skillful, almost mechanical futility of her existence, the organized heartlessness. All of this, Léa reflects, with self- commiseration for a moment, is being visited upon her as a test of her strength of character.
And the next moment, exultantly, she realizes that in fact her character is strong enough. In the time to come as in the time gone by, she will be able to strike back. She knows, or can soon figure out, what well-turned phrase will hurt, what practiced and well-timed smile will worry. And upon the instant she feels less discouraged about herself. From her dreaming of love, and nightmare of the end of love, and sloth of sorrow, now animadversion and contempt and resentment have waked her up. She feels her heavy-heartedness, her sense of having nothing to live for, lifting and dispelling. What she will have to live for is simply self-defense. Her terrible old friend, old enemy, will keep her on her mark. In the strain of losing Chéri, and in the spirit of general renunciation, she has been living at a somewhat higher level and greater tension than was good for her. Mme. Peloux has brought her down to earth. She is grateful.
Here in a small way we have a philosophic mystery: the vision of evil as giving opportunity for an exercise of virtuousness of a sort. I realize that my comment upon this is longer than Colette’s telling. In incident as in aphorism, along with the stimulation of our senses, acceleration of our sentiments, she has the power to set our brains to work. As Montesquieu expressed it in a maxim: “A great thought is one that puts us in mind of a number of other thoughts.”
Meanwhile the process of Chéri’s death has started, though it does not happen until 1919. As noted above, a certain lack of intellect has been ominous in him all along, predisposing him to demoralization. Stupid, or if you like, innocent, apparently he has taken it for granted that he will be able to resume amorous intimacy with his old beloved after the necessary term of concentration on his young wife. He attempts it one night; and perhaps, if he had not then noticed certain new ravages of her age, devastated nape of neck, weightiness or weightedness of cheek — he pretends to be asleep, and peeps at her with only the narrowest beam of morning light between his beautiful eyelids, through his thick eyelashes — and if she had not noticed his noticing, perhaps, perhaps!
Indeed they are tempted by one another even after that; later that morning, for just a moment, there glimmers between them a further hope of the recommencement of love, a lunatic hope, “such as may be entertained by persons falling down out of a tower, for the time it takes them to reach the ground.” That is the conclusion of the first novel; a thrilling chapter. What difference would it have made if they had recommenced? Only the difference of a few more months of enjoyment, or perhaps a year, perhaps two years; down-hill enjoyment, of course. But is that not the best that is ever offered anyone on this earth: prolongation, with deterioration? Also, for Chéri, the difference between suicide and a gradual ordinary death.
As it happens, his suicide is gradual too. The entire second novel, The Last of Chéri, is devoted to it. No suspense; the very first page indicates to us, with many tiny touches — I count seven suggestive words, set in odd cadences — that he feels condemned to death or has condemned himself. But he finds it a strange hard task to carry out the sentence. Even his self-absorbed wife senses something wrong with him: “white shirt-front and white face hanging in a darkness.” One thing he has to overcome is his self esteem, his narcissism; that more than anything might have inclined him to spare himself. Every time anything or anyone reminds him of his good looks, the prospect seems to brighten.
The outbreak of World War I is wonderfully timely for him, just two years after his marriage; and as long as it goes on, his morbidity does deviate into heroism. And when peace has been restored, will that not, we ask ourselves, serve at least as an acceptable substitute for happiness? No, it is the ignobility of the postwar life which strikes him; ignoblest of all, his own parent and his own spouse. Of course the real trouble, or perhaps I should say, the true pretext for the real trouble, is just his inoperative and irremediable feeling about Léa. Not infrequently, I believe great love gets one in a habit of procrastination; so that one’s grief at the failure or loss of it also rather maunders, loiters, creeps.
Notwithstanding Colette’s deftness and forward-moving rhythm, she has allowed The Last of Chéri to be, doubtless wanted it to be, her slowest book. It has called to my mind the catch phrase of a comedian in old-fashioned burlesque years ago, one of those endlessly patient, absolutely pessimistic types prone to more or less comic accidents: “No hope, no hurry.”
Nothing that really deserves to be called accident happens to Chéri, scarcely even incident. We are given a fantastic feeling of being with him morning, noon, and night, while all his life is in a kind of quiet decomposition, unraveling and discoloring. We watch him as he seems to be deliberately experimenting with himself, with singular little techniques, little exercises, to turn his mind backward, to deaden himself to the present, to withhold himself from the future. It is all quite harmless behavior; only entirely unenjoyable and without true motivation.
At the last he spends most of his time with an awful little old woman, the oldest of all the courtesans, called La Copine, that is, the chum or pal, who knew Léa well in her heyday. Comedy again, but this time it is not vivace or even allegro; La Copine is like a death’s-head wearing a wig, reminiscing all through the night, largo. She has a great collection of photographs of Léa, studio portraits framed and snapshots just thumbtacked up. In one of the snapshots she is escorted by one of her young lovers; not the one before Chéri, but the one before that. In another snapshot there appears in the background an elbow which La Copine declares must have been Chéri’s own elbow; but he knows better, and it is only a blur anyway.
And then suddenly, when it has become almost a bore — in the scenes with La Copine, Colette has lulled our minds along with a soft, almost listless humorousness — suddenly we have reached the end. Chéri has reached the point of real readiness for the little flat revolver which he has had in his pocket a long time. He bolsters it up between two pillows so that he can stretch out at ease, his ear pressed to the barrel. In his freakish fatigue of life, at the last minute he seems almost unwilling or unable to make the effort of dying. We have a feeling that his laziness might almost have saved him. The worst and most rudimentary of the forms of will power, stubbornness, has destroyed him. We mourn over him very little.
Instead our minds run on ahead to what might possibly furnish a third volume: the reactions of those who have loved him. It is a gauge of the verity of Colette’s characterizations that we can conceive their suffering in a circumstance she has not written — the thunderclaps in their several minds, especially the punishment of Mme. Peloux, and the ghastly bafflement of Léa, realizing how stupid she was ever to let him go, how conventional, how lazy; and of course for them both, for all the courtesans, fear! The sudden needless passing of one so young sounds the knell of everyone older, deafeningly.
Glancing back at all the above synopsis and commentary, I have a troubling impression of having imposed on the story of Chéri an extra sordidness somehow; accentuation of the immorality, diminution of the charm. No wonder! For what, in fact, have I had to offer? Only some of its bones, no flesh and blood, nothing in the skin of the language in which it was written — none of the beauty of the way Colette wrote, which is often like a conferring of her own personal physical beauty upon the fictitious creatures she writes about, even unfortunate old satirized macabre creatures like La Copine. By means of diction, syntax, cadence, she gives them all something like complexion, milkiness and snowiness, rosiness and amber, and something like sheen of hair, sometimes raven and sometimes golden, and sinew in one place and bosom-softness in another, and every single lineament of things in accord with every other, according to all five senses; that is to say, verbal equivalents.
Style! it is what Colette is most celebrated for, in France, in French; or perhaps I should say, what first brought about her celebrity. Even in the early volumes, perhaps not in the Claudines but surely in the Dialogues des Bêtes (1904) and Les Vrilles de la Vigne (1908), she wrote like an angel; handled the language to perfection, or almost to perfection, in an inimitable, influential way.
And of course the sensuousness which I have tried to suggest is only one aspect of it. Elegance, brevity, and clarity are other aspects; and those turns of phrase, speedy and forceful and neat, and with a sense of fun, for which the French have the word “esprit.” Expressiveness above all! In the first place, the expression or at least implication of the mentality of the author, in passages where the theme or construction of the particular work requires this to be restrained or held back; connecting it, therefore, with the lifework as a whole, maintaining some coherency of thought and correspondence of emotions throughout. Colette’s great characteristics of mind and heart are an odd form of pride; serenity; thankfulness; stoicism; and a kind of sharpness or asperity.
And in the second place, more important for the novelist as such, the rendering of nuances of the particular subject matter, minutiae of characterization, instantaneities of the plot, with almost imperceptible touches, subtle selections of vocabulary, small patterns of syntax, even little calculated disorders. When a manner is as fine and intensive as Colette’s, it can hardly be distinguished from the action or emotion or thought it has to convey. On many a page her meaning really resides in the mode of utterance rather than in the terms of statement; the nuance is all-signifying, as in poetry; and it loses heartbreakingly in translation, as poetry does.
Having mentioned in passing certain subtleties of this kind in The Last of Chéri I wish that I could examine passages in the other novels with the like or even closer application. But I know that, alas, writing about the detail and texture of writing is a mug’s game, especially in English. We are short of technical terms of the art, English and American literature never having been as painstakingly wrought and self-conscious as the French. Academic critics of course invent technicalities and teach them to their pupils, but neither the general reader nor, indeed, the creative writer understands them very well. Perhaps on the whole the best way is just to express enthusiasm simply, as one would any other feeling, rejoicing in the artistry in question, marveling at it, pondering, with imagery more or less in the manner of the artist under consideration, and with borrowings from the phraseology of the other arts if they seem to suit.
In this way, for my part, I often compare Colette’s prose to dancing. That was at the back of my mind when I declared that her years on the stage had been helpful to her in the development of her greatness as a writer. I borrow an exquisitely apt term, not, to be sure, from the kind of dancing Colette did, but from the old Italian-Russian-French tradition: absoluteness, as applied to the perfectly trained and entirely experienced female ballet dancer, assoluta. A discipline and indeed muscularity altogether disguised by gracefulness, so that the eye of the beholder is deceived, the sense of reality set aside — for a split second, the ballerina assoluta is emancipated from gravity; she pauses and reposes in mid-air, stops to think in midair! Does this seem altogether farfetched, as an analogy of literary style? Believe me, I could prove it, with plentiful and suitable citations, with perfect phrases suspended in mid-paragraph, and never for a split second failing to keep time to a general music.
Twice, a quarter of a century apart, Colette undertook a most difficult or delicate theme: triangularity in marriage, by which term I mean something more than chance infidelity, something different from the regular sinfulness of adultery; an involvement of the marriage partner sinned against, condonation or acceptance for what- ever reason, or perhaps inclusion somehow — in Claudine Married (1902), which is the third in the Claudine series, and in The Other One (1929).
In the very early work the involving element, connecting link, is some measure of homosexual responsiveness between young Claudine and a strange young woman named Rézi, who presently turns out to be Claudine’s husband’s mistress. He encourages their attachment, with intermingled amusement, kindness, and lustfulness. To be a good novel, with this oddity and crisscrossed compounded feeling, it would have had to be very good. In fact, it is only pleasant and interesting.
For one thing, there is the dubious, perhaps illegitimate but irresistible biographical interest; the mirroring of Colette’s own youth in the immature and surely distortive creation. In those days when Claudine was not only a best-selling book but a successful play, played by Polaire, Willy persuaded Colette to bob her wonderful long hair to match the bizarre and entrancing little actress’s. In a popular edition of Mes Apprentissages Colette let us see a photograph of them, out of doors somewhere, at the races or at a garden party; unhappy young ghost writer and moody young matinee idol in strikingly similar white ruffles, like twins, escorted by their notorious elderly employer. Perhaps Willy intended only a bit of good publicity. We cannot now entirely accept the conclusion to which an excitable Parisian public undoubtedly jumped. In one of her most beautiful miniature narratives, Colette made her feeling about Polaire quite clear, as of great importance in her life then, in another way; no triangle. Possibly it was public misapprehension, wrong gossip, which provided her with that part of the plot of Claudine Married in the first place. Accident is sometimes inspirational.
But in spite of her great lifelong use of experience of her own in her work of fiction, on the whole she was less inspired by the turn of personal events, the impulse to explain or to justify her conduct, than most authors. Her life provided her with knowledge, but in the handling of it she has been extraordinarily objective, with pride of aesthetics rather than of reputation, and with unusual educability and severe critical sense. I am inclined to think that even in her early work, when any self-indulgence or frivolity appears in it, it is because, at that time, she could do no better; she had not learned how to write those pages more seriously. Le Blé en Herbe (1923), her masterly novel of young love, youngest love, initiation and defloration — the modern Daphnis and Chloe — recapitulates one of the themes of the not quite successful Ingénue Libertine. I think that dissatisfaction with Claudine Married may have been one thing that moved her to write The Other One. Alas, once more, she somewhat missed the mark. If she were to live long enough, she might try it again, in still another volume, perhaps a masterpiece.
Certainly the autobiographical factor has ceased to amount to much in The Other One. Farou, the husband in it, bears not the slightest resemblance to Willy. He is a playwright but rather, if I may say so, like Henri Bernstein. He is a great bull-like, hard-working, tireless and tiring creature. He loves his wife Fanny very well, though he has been unfaithful to her in the way of a little relaxation now and then, as it has happened to come in handy. She has always forgiven him and relaxed about it; and now relaxation, even laxness, laziness, is a part of her nature. She seems just not capable of not forgiving, though this time it is under her own roof, under her nose. The mistress this time, Jane, Farou’s secretary, has become her good friend and comfortable companion. Fanny is not young; neither is Farou, but he still seems rather excessive in her life, too much for her. All things considered, she feels the need of Jane; and Farou needs her, rather more in the secretarial capacity than the amorous capacity. Fanny gets to thinking of Jane no longer conventionally as interloping mistress, rather as an assistant wife; and the book comes to a close in this way, which is a kind of happy ending.
As a whole, The Other One lacks vitality. Perhaps this subject matter lay fallow in her mind too long. It does not lack plausibility or function or general human interest; only it is not intensely interesting. It lacks chiaroscuro: no brilliance anywhere in it, no deep sort of obscurity either. Or perhaps I should say, the lights and shades, the several contrastable elements, are not arranged to set each other off to best advantage. The date of it puzzles and fascinates me: 1929, the year after the avowedly autobiographical Naissance du Jour, sumptuous with landscape-writing, grievous with frustrated and stoical amorous feeling, haunted by Sido’s ghost. Perhaps wearied by that, she went to the other extreme in the story of the Farou family; overdid the objectivity. And after it, not another volume for three years — then a spate again, the most remarkable sequence of all: Le Pur et l’Impur (1932), the boldest of her reminiscences, all about various singularities of sex, then The Cat (1933), and then Duo (1934). When we consider The Other One in its place, in relation to the lifework, it is mysterious. In seemingly shallow, limpid, even glassy waters we discern greenish and bluish tones; something sunken perhaps, wreckage or treasure.
Duo (1934) also is a story of marital irregularity, but not condoned at all, quite the contrary; and it has an unhappy ending, as unhappy as Chéri, except that the denouement comes about more promptly. The marriage of Michel and Alice has lasted a decade; a good marriage, with no lack of sexual responsiveness thus far, a happy, hard-working life, working more or less in double harness in various theatrical enterprises. But, recently while he was absent in the South of France on some business venture, she gave herself to one Ambrogio, a business associate; a silliness, a mistake, to which she called a halt after about two weeks. And, indiscreetly, she has kept some improper letters from him, in a purple letter case; and she carelessly lets Michel catch a glimpse of this, then tries to persuade him that there is not, never has been, any such object; and thus the deadly trouble starts; jealousy, the unpleasantest conceivable subject, the shame and disgrace of humankind, from the beginning of human history. No, not from the beginning, but ever since Dante or ever since Catullus!
“I do not believe in denouements,” Balzac made one of his high-brow great ladies say. Literature can do as well as chance, if the literary man tries hard enough. “But,” she concluded, “if we reread a book it is for the details.” Colette’s details are a marvel. For example, turn to Michel and Alice’s breakfast on the terrace. It is the morning after the first evening of his wild jealousy and her evasiveness and defiance; after a night of extra-deep sleep, in avoidance of intercourse. Our concern about them has been well worked up, in behalf of both the justifiably but exorbitantly aggrieved husband and the culpable but regretful and well-meaning wife. “Man and woman, close together, disunited, languishing for one another.” We hope that they may soon make peace.
Wifely, there on the terrace, to make him as comfortable as possible, she reaches across and turns the coffee pot and the cream pitcher, so that he shall have the handles on his side. Without comment! A good part of matrimony is in that gesture. Then a still slumberous bee comes clumsily to the honey pot, and she will not let him swat it with his napkin. “No, let it go,” she cries, “it’s hungry, it’s working.” And the mention of those two fundamentals, work, hunger, bulking so much larger in her womanly mind than jealousy — that male mania, negative form of eroticism, which is tormenting him, destroying their marriage, destroying him — brings tears to her eyes.
Note Colette’s probity in this particular: she informs us of Alice’s being the healthier-minded of the two, having the more constructive purpose. Michel is the sympathetic one, we suffer for him; but she is rather to be approved, less disapproved. And subtlety as well as probity! Writing as a woman, with wisdom explicitly womanly always, Colette enters further into Alice’s mind and motivation than into Michel’s. She seems to hint at various extenuating circumstances, excuses for her infidelity. Also, I think, she makes it quite clear that, if asked, as one woman moralizing with another, she would agree with Alice that infidelity was no such terrible thing, per se.
In due course, remembering and understanding everything about Alice, her background, family, upbringing, and all, Colette also added a sequel to Duo — Le Toutounier (1939). — Alice widowed, back in the family studio apartment in Paris; a conversation piece with two of her sisters, Colombe and Hermine, somewhat woebegone bachelor girls, career women. Their fond curiosity brings out Alice’s defects, inadequacies; their psychology mirrors hers with the greatest animation of little lights and colors. And here we note that those characters Colette knows best, and perhaps loves best, put her under no particular obligation of indulgence. Here we learn why we did not like Alice better in the former novel; what it was about her that, almost more than the fact of her infidelity, contributed to her husband’s desperation. For example, a certain conceit not unusual in women, but especially brought out by tactlessness in her case; and a kind of bravery that is not real courage, only false pride and defiance. Think back! how she frittered away Michel’s patience and good will by changing her story every little while: admixture of truth and falsehood, unkinder than either. How self-indulgent she is, doubtless always was; therein she trespassed in the first place. Worst of all, her lack of imagination; therefore she fails to say the things that might possibly have consoled the poor creature trespassed against; therefore at last she lets him have it, the entire documentary truth, crude and exciting.
Note how I have mingled tenses in all these sentences, turning from the one book to the other; years apart in the writing, only months in the chronology of Alice’s life. Here once more the binary form is impeccable; the division of the material very precise and meaningful. For one thing, at the end of Duo we are alone with Michel when he is planning to drown himself; whereas in Le Toutounier, Alice allows herself to believe, and convinces her sisters (and the insurance company), that it was an accidental death.
Nevertheless, she blames him, even for misadventure — hah, the fool! stumbling into the floodwater, forgetting the slipperiness of the red-clay riverbank — because she loved him, still loves him, and terribly misses him. There is often a factor of anger in great bereavement. Do you remember Schumann’s song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben? — “Now for the first time you have hurt me, hard unmerciful man, by dying, and that struck home!” She also blames him for his proneness to tragical feeling, darkening those last few days before the so-called accident; much ado about nothing, a trait of maleness.
But even in bitter widowhood Alice does not blame him as Colette blames him, and as we blame him. Colette shows us his abysmal pessimism, his self-destructive ardor, from the first word of the trouble. And at the end, Alice’s impatient stupid entire revelation, with documentary evidence, which maddens him: he himself insisted on it; he would not take no for an answer. Neither to the right nor to the left would he turn or even look; nothing else touched or excited him, only his determination to know more than he could bear knowing. The sin of Psyche! he would commit it if it killed him, and it did.
Let me also call attention to the pages about the singing of the nightingales, once to each of these miserable mortals whose love is failing. The nightingale is a bird very dear and personal to Colette. Les Vrilles de la Vigne (1908), one of the first works of her own sole devising, without Willy, begins with a sort of allegory or fairy tale, two or three pretty pages. A nightingale falls asleep in a vineyard in the burgeoning springtime, and when it wakes up, has a bad fright; for the tendrils of grapevine have begun to wind around its feet and wings. Therefore, thereafter, it sings and teaches its young to sing, “While the grapevine is growing, growing, growing, I’ll stay awake.” In French this is a near enough approximation of nightingale rhythm. It expresses her feeling of escape from marriage — thirteen years of tendrils! — and of blessedly finding that she has voice and song of her own; that is, literary talent and something to express by means of it.
Here in Duo, in the prime of that talent, we have nightingales once more. The poor adulteress leaves the room, and the poor cuckold, sitting there by himself, begins to pay attention to a number of them, singing their hearts out, but softly, remotely; and then to a soloist, a much greater voice than the others, or perhaps only proximity makes it seem so. But how sad! how sick! Michel is not able to take any pleasure in any of it. It is as though his thoughts partly deafened him. How can a man so sad and sick partake of glorious nocturne? Only by withholding his breath, then trying to breathe in time to the music, which suffocates him a little and keeps him from thinking for a minute or two. And afterward — one of Colette’s characteristic touches, with her sense of physiology keener than anyone’s! — he feels a burning thirst.
A couple of pages further on, he goes out of the room; Alice comes back. It is her turn to listen, especially to that one loud tenor voice seemingly wasting itself away in brilliance, in repetitions so insistent and variations so farfetched that it scarcely suits her troubled heart; it seems to hinder all emotion, except its own emotion, if it can be called emotion. But, but, when the soloist pauses for a moment to catch its breath, there arises the soft chorus of the faraway singers, each for himself, each at the same time in harmony with the others — “accordés” is Colette’s word, which means reconciled as well as harmonized; which also means matched, mated, betrothed. And unhappy Alice is reminded of the great spring labor going on along with the spring concert; assembling and weaving the nests, laying and hovering and hatching the eggs, feeding the fledglings; labor of the females for the most part. But not lonely; as long as they must labor the males will not fail to serenade them!
It is one of those metaphors, extended and, as you might say, dramatized, bearing as great a portion of the author’s thought as her dialogue or her action — for which I love her. Do you not? Do you see what it signifies, suggests? The woman listening to those male birds, thinking of those dutiful female birds inarticulately nesting, is childless. In her joint life with Michel now stricken suddenly, in their hapless marriage unbalanced, toppling, hopeless, that important cornerstone of civilized heterosexuality is lacking: no egg, no fledgling, no real nest! Therefore, perhaps she thought of herself as free to lead a little double life for a fortnight, entitled to partake of modern single-standard morality; thus she erred in idleness, with not even watchful conscience, not even sufficiently troubling to keep it secret. Therefore, therefore . . . Go farther with this theme if you wish. Colette always knows when to stop; here she has stopped with the metaphor.
A bad thing about jealousy is the element of pornography in it: the stimulation of visualizing one’s darling in someone else’s arms, with the consequence of desiring somewhat more than usual just when one is expected to content oneself with somewhat less — or as in extreme and morbid instances, as in Michel’s case, looking backward, crying over spilt milk, desiring the past. How clearly Colette has marked this, though with no stress or scabrousness! Michel himself admits it, in a single painful exclamation, after Alice has let him read all Ambrogio’s letters: one of the games of love played by those two happened to be, ah, something the miserable husband has especially delighted in, more than anything, more than life.
Another detail: whereas Alice is Parisian, Michel is a Southerner, meridional — even as Sidonie, nee Landoy, and Jules Joseph Colette. Make no more of this parallel than it is worth; it doubtless furnished their daughter with observations of the contrast of temperaments. From the first page of Duo it is suggested that Alice is somewhat the more intelligent or more civilized — or rather, the other way around: Michel is the more instinctive, primitive. Perhaps I oversimplify this. The point is that he is not at all the type of man for whom it is normal or natural to forgive a breach of the marriage vow. But for the grace of God, but for a generation or so, and a veneer of twentieth-century morals, this story might have ended in murder instead of suicide. It would have done Michel good to give Alice a beating, would it not? Yes, but perhaps he would not have known when to stop. Indeed, this might quite plausibly be given as his excuse for committing suicide: to prevent murder, or to punish himself for murderousness.
As representations of suicide, a subject most important to us, important in the symbolical or anagogical way especially, psychologists having shown us how frequently misdemeanors and misfortunes partake of the same dark frenzy, only a little less dark — the same desire to die but less determined, the same unwillingness to live, dilatory — see how the case of Michel compares, contrasts, with the case of Chéri! This is but a momentary violence, though the result is forever; an act almost of aggression, though the point of departure is true uxorious devotedness.
Whereas Chéri is bemused and benumbed, torpid, unmotivated. Would that he had been capable of a bit of violence 1 Colette has given us, as one of the gravest indications of his state, the fact that he feels no jealousy of Edmée. That might have waked him up and saved him. Or, alas, he might have relapsed into his slumberousness again, gone sleepwalking away in some other realm no less lonely. For there is a curse upon him; and we feel that if he had not turned it into the channel of death it would have developed in an- other direction: imbecility or worse.
The Last of Chéri, from the first page to the last, is a representation of that famous so-called sin of the Middle Ages, rampant again in this century in more ways than one: acedia, that is, horrible languor, malignant listlessness, irremediable boredom, paralysis of soul; the intolerable sorrowfulness when even the specific sorrow keeps slipping one’s mind. And this is the greatest portrayal of it in modern literature. Michel is not in this classification at all. If the enraging circumstance of Alice’s infidelity had not befallen him, or if Alice had kept him in blessed ignorance of it, he would have been all right.
See the mystery of morals! Although Chéri’s background is so bad, all those old courtesans constituting so gross and mean and base a society — and Michel and Alice and even Ambrogio are just average inoffensive humanity — the opprobrium upon him is slighter; for the most part we think of it as sickness. Michel is the wickeder.
In case of suicide we cannot moralize upon the act itself — we do not know enough — only upon the attitude of mind, heart, and soul, just prior to it. What was in Michel’s mind, heart, soul? Possessiveness, punitiveness, intermingling of lust and prudery, deafness and blindness to all the signs of Alice’s love, rejection of her. In Chéri’s? Only disappointment, disappointment in himself and in the crazy bad sick world — many a saint has felt as much — and fatigue and loneliness and stupor; nothing very bad, nothing unfair.
And see the indivisibility of morals and psychology! in Duo Alice is the healthy one. In so far as Michel’s wicked intention is to make her suffer, he miscalculates, it miscarries, she is too strong for him. Wherein lies her strength? In her dullness of mind as well as her robustness, lack of imagination as well as good nature. Her salvation and Chéri’s perdition are correlative in some way, but impossible to correlate. The fact is that neither of the two sets of values by itself — neither right versus wrong nor sickness versus health — will serve to explain or to save humanity. We have to try first one, and then the other. And in the last analysis of course there is no salvation: everyone is deathward bound, the road has no turning, God is not mocked.
It occurs to me that I have taken Duo out of chronology, for no particular reason; not far out. The Cat (1933) is another of Colette’s masterpieces, made of rather similar materials of middle-class humanity, matrimony again; matrimonial misunderstanding and mischance and fiasco. Approximately of the same length, the same shortness, I think you will agree that, because it is more poetical, it tells more and signifies more per page. It has no sequel, needs no sequel.
The marriage of Alain and Camille scarcely deserves to be called a marriage; it lasts only a few months, a trial and a failure. We first see Alain still living at home with fond parents. He has a most cherished, most beautiful cat named Saha, a thoroughbred Carthusian, grayish-bluish. After the honeymoon he takes it to live with them. Marriage does not make him any the happier; neither does he make his wife happy. He lets her realize his vague sense of having made a mistake, vague longing to be back home again, infidelity of spirit. The cat seems to Camille emblematic of all that. She tries to kill it, does not succeed. But Alain cannot forgive her, nor she him.
Do you observe how this constitutes a sort of diptych with the story of Michel and Alice? And here also, how strong and sure Colette’s sense of justice is; how deft her communication of it, though never passing specific judgment! Is it by instinct, or with intellect like a precision instrument? I think it is a part of her femininity, and an attractive part, to seem to set aside claims of mere cerebration. As in Duo she has presented the wife somewhat more understanding^ than the husband, that is, more explanatorily, with an extra perspective, a brighter light. But by the same token, the more critically! We are not in the least obliged to love the female; we are allowed to love, and to feel that Colette herself loves, the male.
Indeed, peering a little more profoundly into creative coincidence than it is proper to do, we may remark that we have heard of only one other person on earth as devoted to cats or to a cat as this young Alain; that person is old Colette herself. And as she conceived this story she may well have arrived at a part of the tension between him and his bride by asking herself, What if I had to choose between my cat and some such vain, disrespectful, disturbing new young person?
Alain’s young person really is a terrible girl, a type that may sometimes incline one to despair of the epoch; so very nearly in the right about almost everything, but just missing the point; so self-righteous but so lacking in self-assurance; possessive without strength, destructive without deadliness. She has energy to burn but somehow very little warmth, except perhaps in the specific conjugal connection. With a certain fatuity, as to her importance to her husband, which gradually gives way to sadness and bitterness, in the realization of her unimportance, she seems to have nothing else to live for.
Indeed we sympathize with her as to her resentment of the cat. We see that it is less exorbitant and less abstract than Michel’s jealousy in Duo. The trespassing of Ambrogio against him was a thing of the past; and even at the time of its happening he felt no injury, not the slightest pang, no deprivation. Whereas Saha is an ever-present rival, lauded by Alain with every other breath, and established by him as a permanent feature of their married life. But why, we wish to know, why could she not somehow gradually vitiate and exorcise the childish magic it has for her dear husband? Is there ever any point in a vain, violent iconoclasm, loudly denying the tabu and pushing down the sacred image? And if it came to the point of violence against her will, if her husband in his aelurophily suddenly maddened her, why so inefficient about it? Why defenestration, instead of poisoning or drowning? The folly of just giving it a push, hurting it, and arousing its hatred, paroxysm of hissing and explosive yellowish eyes, which is what betrays her to Alain!
The worst of this kind of female character, we say to ourselves, is that even in violence it falls between two stools. It results not even in disaster but in muddle and mess and absurdity. But, beware! this kind of objection is valid in aesthetics, if you really prefer tragedy to comedy; but in morals it is evil nonsense. Falling between two stools is better than successfully killing cats. The reason for Camille’s weakness and coarseness and confusion, and even loss of husband, is fundamental and creditable. To express it in the sentimental style, she is on the side of life. It not only enables us to forgive her, it necessitates our forgiveness.
Her dear husband really is a maddening youth, though attractive. He is as fatuous in his feeling of unimpeachable male supremacy as she in her feeling of absolute female desirability; as self-indulgent in his daydreaming and voluptuous frivolity with his pet as she in her vain commotion and pursuit of pastime. We can never feel quite happy about him, even when he is perfectly happy himself, even when he gets back home where perhaps he belongs. In the very first chapter we observe how recklessly his parents have spoiled him; marriage to Camille seems the only hope for him. At the end of the story we cannot see into his future at all; it seems all beclouded and scarcely even tragic, just harrowing. He is a type that may sometimes incline one to despair of France.
Two thousand years ago St. Paul decided that it is better to marry than to burn; a way of stating the case which seems to start marital relations off on the wrong foot. Psychologists nowadays, scarcely less severe, have added that it is better to be infantile — better to disappoint a wife and concentrate on a cat and give up marriage altogether, as Alain did — than to commit suicide. If we agree, we are constrained to admire this young man more than the poor hero of Duo. Colette seems not to have reached any absolute decision upon this point; no aphorism that I can recall. But certainly she expects us to take Alain’s cat as an emblem of child life, home life, childish home life, and of its compromise and consolation in secret: autoeroticism. No pettiness about this; nothing belittled or made sordid or left sordid — not ever, in the writing of this good woman and liberal writer!
Let me call your attention to her description of Saha at night, at the beginning of the story: one night just before Alain’s marriage, on his bed, thrusting her claws through his pajamas just enough to worry him, with a pleasurable worrisomeness; then giving him one of her infrequent quick kisses with her chilly nose; then seating herself on his chest while he falls asleep; and until morning, vigilant perfect superhuman creature, seeming to fix with her hard eyes, and to follow around and around in the darkness, the fateful zodiacal signs, lucky and unlucky stars, which in unknowable time and in incomprehensible space dance to and fro over sleeping humanity. Two things at once — it is that manifoldness in Colette’s mind which I have mentioned, as of the time of her great fit of depression in Franche-Comté — a very slight instance, Alain’s mere inconsequential self-provided soporific pleasure, and at the same time a very great concept, great eternality and destiny, even as personified by Bashet, the cat-goddess of the Egyptians.
Toward the close of the story there is another little picture of Alain and Saha together. He holds her in his arms, rejoicing in her entire contentedness and entire confidence in him. With the peril of Camille’s rivalry happily averted, Saha has, Alain reflects, a life expectancy of perhaps another decade; and he winces at the thought of the brevity of life, the brevity of love. In the decade after that decade, he promises himself, probably he will want a woman or women in his life again. He does not specify Camille; he is not such a cad as to expect her to wait for him. But in any event, he promises Saha, he will never love another cat.
Yes, this love scene of childish man and almost womanly cat seems almost too good to be true, too pretty and tender and humorous. It is a kind of happy ending. Any valid commentary upon a work of narrative art has to be in some measure a retelling. Now suddenly I realize how much less cheerful my retelling of this has been than the text itself. The loveliest of love stories; at the same time a serious study of modern matrimony, yes, indeed! But the true love in question is that between Alain and Saha; the true marriage is theirs. Camille is the troublemaker, the interloper, who makes a fool of herself and is successfully driven back out of the way. It is almost an allegory or a fairy tale; and what truth there is in it I certainly cannot state, in the way of either ethics or psycho-therapeutics.
In Gigi, the most successful of Colette’s short narratives — metamorphosed into an American play and into two motion pictures, one French, with perfect performances by two illustrious elderly comediennes, one American, with music — two of her chief lifelong themes are entrancingly and significantly combined: the crossing of the border between girlhood and womanhood, and the ordeal of growing old, with due sagacity and tenderness and vicarious power. Gigi is the darling child of a family of unmarried women, all (or almost all) courtesans. Her mother has been unsuccessful, and therefore is reduced to singing small parts at the Opéra-Comique. Therefore her loving and tyrannous, realistic and pessimistic grandmother and her wealthy and conceited and didactic great-aunt Alicia have taken her in hand, to train her for, and launch her in, the only way of life they know.
It is, for the reader as well as the pretty and promising girl, educational: how to sit becomingly with one’s elbows close at one’s sides and one’s shoulder blades flat on one’s back, how to smoke without getting the tip of one’s cigarette wet or even moist, how to negotiate difficult foods such as soft-boiled eggs and broiled or roasted small game birds; and questions of still graver consequence, for example, which jewels may be accepted as a sufficient token of esteem, and which, on the other hand, are virtually an insult.
By the miracle of Colette’s handling, her gift of romanticization, her profundity of human kindness, none of this is cynical or squalid. The details of petty and even funny realism do not obscure the sad reality of old age, most notable in cases of extreme worldliness like these superannuated charmers, in whose range of vision there is no eternal life except ever-recurrent youth, generation after generation. Nor does the social satire detract from the romantic happiness of the ending, when Gigi is wiser than they; when all their calculation of making a living by being lovable suddenly gives way to love itself, love requited, and wedding bells.
Perhaps the reader has begun to have enough of being escorted through Colette’s enjoyable lifework from page to page by me, and will willingly go on now independently, with references to his own experience and applications to his own problems. For my part, at any rate, I suddenly feel almost ashamed of stating and interpreting so much, topsy-turvy and wrong end to.
For, truly, slight pure narrative itself ought to be given precedence over any meaning that one can read into it or any moral that may seem attachable to it. Is not this the profound thing about narration, the almost mystic belief of the true narrator? Incident, description, characterization, dialogue, are the means of expression of truths that are greater, more affecting, truer, than anything that can be put in general or theoretical form. Perhaps a great narrator like Colette only pretends to be thinking about her characters, coming to conclusions about them, pointing morals — the supreme narrative device, to convince us of their reality! We are able to moralize about them, ergo they exist.
I will tell you something of the latter part of Colette’s life, with a particular appreciation of the extraordinary love story which is reflected in her autobiographical novel, La Naissance du Jour (Break of Day); then conclude this long fond essay.
Colette’s later years do not lend themselves to lively recapitulation as her venturesome youth did. Somewhat as it is said of kings and queens, that happy reigns have no history, it will be understood that very great labor of authors and authoresses — fifteen short novels and fifteen long stories and scores of very short tales and sketches and half a dozen volumes of nonfiction in this authoress’s case — is bound to curtail the more obvious materials of biography.
Just prior to World War I Colette married Henry de Jouvenel. She bore him a daughter, Bel-Gazou, of whom she wrote enchantingly, enchantedly, at the age and stage of growth when a little human being is most like any other immature animal: La Paix chez les Bêtes (Peace among the Animals). Jouvenel was a distinguished and successful newspaperman. Therefore, very naturally, Colette forsook the stage and also took up the career of journalism, and after their divorce continued in it for many years, indeed never discontinued; presumably had to depend on it for a part of her livelihood until almost the end of her life. The literary art, in the present half-revolutionized world, does not as a rule feed its practitioner, though world-famous. While more Frenchmen read more books than we, they pay less per volume.
Thousands of pages of Colette’s collected works were first printed in, if not conceived for or commissioned by, various newspapers and periodicals; including five solid years of drama criticism, in the second-thickest volume. No one has written more gravely than she of the waste and fatigue of hack writing, though without plaintiveness or pretension. But, on the other hand, I think no one has managed it so well, with so much to show for it in the end. After her autobiographies have grown familiar around the world as one great work, perhaps her greatest, then surely some editor will select and assemble from all her reporting, column writing, and familiar essay writing the equivalent of an important diary, notable especially for terse, intense aphoristic passages, which surely a great many readers will appreciate.
All her life, she confided to us, she suffered from two recurrent bad dreams: one of the presses rolling, and no copy; and another of coming out on a vast vacuous platform or stage to sing, and her song lapsing. In those old days of her acting and dancing, did she also sing? I do not recall any mention of that. Which reminds me: just for the pleasure of it, in 1924, she went back on the stage in Leopold Marchand’s dramatization of Chéri, in the role of Léa, with the famous comedienne so near and dear to her, Marguerite Moreno, in the role of Mme. Peloux, Chéri’s mother.
In 1925 she met Maurice Goudeket, and, before long, entered into the great understanding and intimacy with him which continued for the rest of her life. As I have said, an early stage of that relationship is reflected, but not (Goudeket has assured us) truly narrated, in Break of Day. Both in content and in form, this work of fiction is especially meaningful and central. Central even in the way of paper and printer’s ink, it is to be found in Volume VIII of the Oeuvres Completes, with seven octavo volumes before it and seven after it. In our understanding of her narrative art as a whole, it is impressive as a kind of divide, or watershed, halfway between her story-telling and her vein of autobiographical subjectivity, and indeed between fact and fiction; halfway also in her life, between the influence of her unforgettable mother and her exemplary and helpful third marriage. Even her style in it is transitional and momentous, a matter of echoing, reminiscing effects and of little clarion notes of surprise and prophecy here and there; befitting that time of life which has been called the old age of youth and the youth of old age, a time fraught with heartache and youthful tensions.
An almost careless admixture of autobiography in her various forms of fiction was characteristic of Colette even in her salad days, when her first husband, Willy, bullied her into writing, and she let him sign her books temporarily. The heroine of L’Entrave and of The Vagabond, the sad divorcee bravely earning her living as an interpretative dancer in vaudeville, is obviously a self portrait. Upon occasion she mingled things the other way round, carrying elements of her yarn-spinning over into the early volumes of non-fiction: for example, the most important of her tributes to her mother is entitled La Maison de Claudine, as one might say, The Home that Claudine Came From.
In Break of Day, which is in story form, nouvelle form, the mingling is stranger than ever. It frankly purports to be an experience of her own, and she portrays herself not only in the throes of it but with pen in hand, fountain pen in sunburned, garden-hardened hand, all through the summer night and in the dawning blueness of another day, day after day, writing it. The name she gives herself in it is the same as on the title page: “Colette.” Furthermore, she surrounds herself with known unfictitious friends: Carco, the successful novelist, Segonzac, the famous painter, Thérèse Dorny, a beloved comedienne of those days, and others. Only, evidently, Vial, a young man whom this “Colette” loves and decides not to go on loving, is fictitious.
Most nouvelles, which somehow take place in a perpetual, mobile present, with continuous updating of the past and continuous glimpsing of the future, have simple plots. What could be simpler than the plot of Break of Day? A literary woman in her fifties has been enjoying an amorous intimacy with a man in his thirties. Into the picture comes a strong young woman who has made up her mind to marry him. Thus far, he seems not to have fallen in love with the young woman; he still loves the older woman; but she is ashamed to compete, perhaps afraid to. She gives him up and sends him away, and resignedly dedicates herself to an independent way of life, with her good friends and beautiful cats, with her garden and orchard and vineyard, with her literary subject matter (including what has just happened) and her sense of style, decisive in morals and mores as well as in literature.
What necessitated this renunciation? That is suggested to us by the secondary sense of the title, La Naissance du Jour: the birth of the day, the coming of the light, revelation. In the pattern of her intimacy with the young man — altered, though only slightly altered, by the marriageable girl — it has been revealed to her that he will not be able to make her happy much longer; neither will any other young or youngish man. Worse still, it is going to be impossible for him to keep from making her unhappy. To suffer from ill-founded expectations of love at her age is beneath her dignity. It is her duty, she thinks, to avoid unhappiness of that order.
In his tender, distinguished memoir, Close to Colette, Maurice Goudeket states that Vial was not modeled upon him in any essential. Certainly, let us take his word for this, although the dates and overlapping circumstances to be noted in two recently published volumes of Colette’s letters are striking and must have meaning. When Colette and he drew close to each other in 1925 they were aged, respectively, fifty-two and thirty-five. She wrote Break of Day in her house in Saint-Tropez, which is the scene of it, and in a hotel nearby in Provence (when Goudeket was in Paris) during the autumn of 1927 and the following winter.
We often thoughtlessly say that art takes a long time, whereas life is short, “Ars longa, vita brevis”; which saying seems to relieve the embarrassment of unenergetic artists, but is not necessarily true. In fact it may be quicker and easier to write a story than to love or hate, settle down or run away, marry or part. The creative faculty is able to do some experimenting with the creator’s life, which may be to his or her advantage.
Certainly, for Colette, the renunciation of love accounted for in this fiction of “Colette” and Vial was, in actuality, the road not taken. Her loving companionship with Goudeket went on uninterruptedly; she refers to him in almost all her letters from 1925 on. In
1935 they got around to a formalization or legalization of their relationship, and he was her perfect helpmate, watchdog, adviser, editor, and (as she customarily called him) “best of friends,” until her death in 1954. It is hard to think of Goudeket as ever having been a mere lover and beloved (like Vial), so greatly did he transcend that youthful role in the successive decades. He has not written boastfully of the transcendence; but pages and pages of her elderly autobiographical writing have a marvelous aura of appreciation of him.
The most moving of her self-portraits is the opening chapter of L’Etoile Vesper, which is all interspersed with dialogue of husband and wife, the least wordy dialogue in all literature, as their conjoined minds at that late date scarcely required words. When the Germans were in France, with a weak French government to do their bidding, Goudeket, being of Jewish descent, was taken in a general roundup of about twelve hundred various unfortunate persons and kept in the concentration camp of Compiegne for a while; and after his liberation from that hellhole, had to live half free and half in hiding, here and there in the provinces, preyed upon by the bureaucracy and the evil police, for another eighteen months. Colette’s account of this is terse and stoic, and her account of his homecoming, at last, proud and reticently tender.
In the course of those war years Colette was gradually stricken with extreme arthritis, and for the last decade of her life was confined to wheel chairs and to bed. I do not see how she could possibly have accomplished the latter part of her lifework without Goudeket’s affection and surveillance and help.
All this is a far cry from the discouraged realism and renunciation of Break of Day. We may conclude that it was a hypothesis which did not come true, and that Vial was a personification. What Colette had to say farewell to in 1927 and 1928 was just a part of herself, and just one aspect of love; the fierce and fearful narcissism of always wanting to mirror oneself in the beloved, the weak possessiveness, the hopeless, unnecessary jealousy, and the point of pride. Indeed it is a wonderful simplification to be able to attribute all one’s happiness to someone and to blame that same someone for all one’s unhappiness; but there are other simplifications for us as we grow older.
The word “love” in a love story — and in almost any criticism of fiction, unless the critic spells out his meaning — is apt to connote only that magic realm in which, as Sir Thomas Browne expressed it, two people “so become one that they both become two.” Perhaps there is, or can be, some truth in this in young manhood and young womanhood; certainly it grows false and fatal as the years pass. Farewell to it, Colette said in this story; never again! And if she had not exorcised and uprooted the romanticism in herself by some such creative effort as this broken-off romance with imaginary Vial, she might not have had the courage to entrust the rest of her life and her lifework, and the first part of her posthumous reputation, to Goudeket.
The glory of the true history, and the crowning of their two lives with the Oeuvres Complètes, makes one almost impatient with the melancholy tale. Here we may see a disadvantage in the combining of real and personal materials with the composites and embodiments of fiction. Knowing the rest of Colette’s life as she lived it, we cannot take the somberness of her narration as literally as she intended. But the somber implications last, and may serve the reader well, in his own thought and feeling. Any piece of authorship that ends in leave-taking and in the solitude of the one left behind
(though left behind to write, as in this case) touches upon everyone’s loneliness and the universal anxiety. It reminds us of the one really hateful thing about life: that we must all depart from it eventually, or to state the matter more exactly, that it must depart from us, is departing from us.
But Colette’s melancholy writing is saved from dreariness and desolation by her stoic sense. It is a somewhat nobler and, I may say, better-natured form of stoicism than the mere endurance of distress. Though she never jokes, there are gleams of humor, bitter mischief, and brilliancy round and about her every sad saying and every poor prospect. Having said things or portrayed things, she rather simply forbids herself to be distressed by them any longer. She forces the distressing matter, disappointment or injustice or bad luck, all the way down inside herself, into depths of literature, profundities of love, and other almost mystic depositories of her thinking; and she gives us to understand, induces us to believe, that she is strong enough to be able to do this without too many of those cross-purposes of the mind and the nervous system which we call neuroses.
Break of Day begins with a letter from her mother, Sido, to her second husband, Henry de Jouvenel, declining an invitation to visit them in Paris, the year before her death; other maternal letters, in whole or in part, are interspersed in the text; and Colette handles a good many of her Active incidents and arguments as it were in a musical composition, variations on themes of Sido’s life and Sido’s thought; notably, an intense responsiveness to physical beauty, which is not often characteristic of the female sex; fastidiousness and pride, especially with regard to the imperfections of the body in the decline of life; and great work-morality. It makes a strange immortal atmosphere: a ghostly presence, handing down feminine ideas from generation to generation.
The reason Sido declined to visit Colette and Jouvenel was that a pink cactus which someone had given her was in bud. In untropical France, she explained, it was apt to blossom only every fourth year. If she missed it this time, she might not live to see another blossoming. This is on the first page, and on the second page, Colette imagines her mother’s joyous concentration, with an enraptured expression smoothing all the wrinkles out of her old face, bending down and watching the place in the midst of the knife-edged plant where the promise of the flower was thrusting — “a woman who, like a flowering plant herself, had gone on indefatigably unfolding and opening for three quarters of a century” — and on the third page, we have Colette’s acknowledgment of the similarity of her own almost perverse, blissful gaze at her Vial as he slipped out of her bed, out of her house, at daybreak.
When Sido, in her mid-seventies, played chess with a little shopkeeper in her village, she kept on the alert for any sign of her senescence. “When I become too disgraceful and impotent at it, I shall renounce it as I have renounced other things, as a matter of decency.”
In still another letter the solitary old woman, though in danger of fatal illness, objected absolutely to a family plan of hiring someone to spend the night in the house with her. No poor substitute companionship in the wee small hours for her! she protested, and itemized the miseries involved: the rumpled bed and the unpleasant toilet bowl, alien inhalation and exhalation in the dark, and the humiliating prospect of having to wake up with someone else in the room. “Death is preferable,” she said, “it is less improper.”
No wonder that the daughter of such a woman minded the compulsions of love as she began to feel un-young. Goudeket has told us that, even as an octogenarian, with every excuse of arthritic immobility and last-minute literary endeavor, his wife would not admit him to her room in the morning until the tasks and technicalities of her toilet and makeup and wardrobe had been completed.
Colette’s father also had cherished a packet of letters written to him by Sido when she had been obliged to spend some time in a nursing home after an operation. After his death she found them all in his desk, and expressed a sort of disapproval. “What a pity that he loved me so much! It was his love for me that annihilated, one by one, the fine faculties that might have inclined him toward literature and science. He chose to keep dreaming of me instead, tormenting himself about me; and I found this inexcusable.”
It is what I call work-morality. According to the idealism that the strong-spirited mother and the gifted emancipated daughter had in common, it is wrong to pride oneself on any mere greatness of love or mere intensity about it or mere continuation of it. Let us ask ourselves, instead, what results from it in the other areas of our lives, lifelong: perhaps a strengthening and steadying of the various functions of head and heart, perhaps not; possibly a tribute to it in some way, by means of intelligence and talent, or it may be, alas, nothing but inhibition and vapidity.
Break of Day is a story of literature as well as love. When Colette declared in it that she felt duty-bound not to subject herself to untimely, unnecessary unhappiness, the duty that she had in mind was her vocation of letters. As of that date, the time had come for her to lay in a supply of her customary lifelong pale-blue paper, to take pen in hand, to rediscover in her memory the great traces of nature and human nature, the pleasures and sorrows of the prime of life, and to convey them to others’ minds, readers’ minds, by means of well-focused language and logical grammar and clarifying syntax and sweet euphony; and never again to be distracted from literature by life. “Cold with emotion is the bronzed hand, which races upon the page, stops, crosses something out, and starts again; cold with a youthful emotion.”
From that time on, pride and courage and vocation were to be the predominant moral concepts in her work, and pantheism was to be its principal emotion, transcending individual or intrapersonal feelings. I find the imagery of nature worship in Break of Day, even in English, enchanting. Turn the page now, and see for yourself: the ripening color of the Saint-Tropez afternoon, after the siesta, with a cat also rousing from its siesta, yawning like a flower; and then the descent of the north wind, the mistral, anesthetizing all that part of the earth between the Alps and the Mediterranean; the early-morning seascape, blue-black, and scarcely awake yet, when Colette went wading out into it, then trudged back up the beach with a load of seaweed, to make a mulch around her tangerine trees; the beautiful child holding a rose, on the threshold of Sido’s sickroom, afraid of her because she was dying; even Vial’s naked beauty — his body somehow more exact, more aroused, more expressive than his face — with antique patina of sunshine and salt water, and a bluish light shining on his shoulders, a greenish light girding his loins. Death and sex also subordinated to a general concept of the rightness of nature. . . .
If one is religious at all, in the pantheistic way, when the fateful farewell time comes, it may be easier to forfeit and to take leave of things beloved, things more or less perfect, at their peak — the pink cactus in bloom — than of any lesser thing, worn away or overblown. In case of the more acute and tragic deprivation, one can at least keep, for remembrance and for a kind of worship, a godlike image, a concept of heaven on earth. So, at the time of writing Break of Day, Colette evidently thought.
Beginning in 1948, continuing through 1949, concluding in 1950, the illustrious old publishing company of Flammarion issued the collected edition to which I have kept referring in this essay; prepared for the press, as its colophon specifies, by the author’s husband. “Thus, at the conclusion of a long career,” wrote the collected one in a tiny general preface, “thus and only thus is the writer enabled to compute the total accumulated weight of his life-work. At this point only is he entitled to rejoice in his own good opinion; also his real anguish commences.” Anguish of unrevisability, irremediability — fundamental though much ignored principle of ethics as well as aesthetics!
In other brief sentences scattered all through the collection she sounded the same proud, uneasy note; glanced back disappointedly but dispassionately upon every work in which she could detect unworthiness, frivolity, mannerism. So many pages having been writ- ten in a great rush, of dire necessity, she was afraid of their seeming not polished enough. Here and there, alas, had she not failed to discover the absolutely suitable word, to form the perfectly felicitous phrase? As she had been dependent on incidental inspiration so frequently, with this fortuitous commitment and then that, perhaps her entire lifework lacked cohesiveness, which the younger generation, and in due course posterity, might notice and deplore.
Let no one laugh or even smile at her unnecessary humility, fastidious and fretful apologia. Instead, let the multitude of fellow writers hang their heads in, relatively speaking, shame; and let the shameless, the unhumble, the uneducable, despair and cease and desist from writing altogether; and let the very young with any talent, in high school, at universities, at writers’ conferences, on newspapers, wherever they may be, dedicate themselves with stricter and fonder vows than the usual! It seems to me that the time has come — a part of the twentieth-century revolution being against culture — to speak out in this connection with some portentousness and intensity. In the more serious sects of religion perfectionism is a sin: and according to the present science or semiscience of psychology, no doubt it is psychopathological. But in the literary art it is just method; the one and only good and sound method.
It is an essential feature of the artistic temperament: pride of greatness — and heartbreaking ideal of greatness for those who know that they personally are second rate, which keeps them from declining to third rate or fourth rate — taking all that has been done already as a matter of course, a matter of no further interest; climbing up on the previous proud accomplishment, not to glory in it, just to see what may lie beyond, perhaps accomplishable, if one lives long enough. From which must derive for aging artists a certain chronic bitterness, and for second-raters, a sickness at heart. For we never do live long enough. “Ars longa, vita brevis.”
It can be justified in religion, come to think of it! Bossuet, the glorious baroque theologian and preacher, explained it in someone’s funeral sermon: “We are inevitably less than our thoughts, God having taken pains to indicate by means of them His infinity.” Without changing his saying much: artists, by the great pains they take and by the extent of their intelligence, always greater than their ability — along with other voices in the enormous concert of the world, cacophony of the cosmos — indicate and celebrate infiniteness. And surely there is not in the world at present a greater exponent of this than Sidonie Gabrielle Goudeket, née, and known as, Colette.
We know how the aesthetic conscience and high, tender, and constant virtuosity began in her case. She recalled a very early, very significant slight incident for us. It is in a commissioned text, accompanying some fine color plates of exotic butterflies, hack writing — an account of the butterfly collecting of her two adolescent brothers; over-nice and wasteful. Every evening they would sit in judgment upon the day’s catch and relentlessly eliminate every unworthy specimen. “Thus, aged seven or eight, I learned that only beauty deserves preservation, and that the sons of men in their vainglory are never altogether satisfied with anything.” Neither, it may be concluded, are the daughters of women; least of all, the daughter of Sido.
Supreme rememberer! how frequently, and with what youthful sensitivity until the very end, her mind turned upon those early days! Perhaps I have laid too much stress on her dissatisfaction with the style and form of this and that small part of her lifelong creation. Certainly she regretted its incompletions more than its imperfections, looking longingly at certain mysterious untouched themes, unarticulated messages, especially things about her mother. She specified in the final preface to La Maison de Claudine in 1949 that, when Sido died, she seemed not to have departed upon any remote path into abstract eternity; instead, she said, “she has made herself better known to me as I have grown older.” Perhaps the extraordinary matriarch had deposited things in her mind that she had not yet discovered. “I began this discovery late in life. What better could I conclude with?”
I remember thinking, when I read this page, that she might still find time to paint one more filial portrait. She gave it up, or perhaps put it off too long. Almost everyone in the shadow of death likes to plan something up ahead; it gives one a feeling of a certain extension of one’s lease of life. But not extremely fearful, certainly disregarding her bodily desuetude and the unabating pain and the increasing awkwardness, she kept on with her exquisite journalism. Often, in the past, photographers had concentrated on her strong hand with well-fleshed and tapering fingers and unprotruding fingernails, poised over pages of her work in progress, or reposing amid sulphur-glass paperweights and other bibelots and small useful objects in elegant disorder. It appeared not greatly changed in the last photographs. It always either held, or was about to take up, one of her accustomed extra-thick pens.
She lived out her life in the heart of Paris, in the Palais-Royal, that extensive rectangle of not very palatial architecture built by Louis XV’s cousin Philippe-Egalité who was not opposed to the Revolution, whom the revolutionists decapitated nevertheless. It is said to be the first apartment house ever erected; that is, the first conglomeration of fairly small sets of rooms designed to be rented to independent individuals of middling income. Inside the rectangle is a colonnade, a playground, statuary, flower beds, a little melodious uplifted water, and an orderly plantation of modest trees.
It suited Colette. The bed in which she lay bedridden was placed alongside of the window, with a mobile desk that she could pull up close over her knees. She slept very little, troubled by the usual nervousness of the aged as well as by the caprices of unrelenting arthritis and by her genius, and often worked at night. Over her head hung that electric light sheathed with blue paper referred to in the title of her memoir of 1949, Le Fanal Bleu (The Blue Beacon). To nocturnal strollers in the colonnade and the arbitrary garden area down below it became as familiar as that star referred to in the title of her memoir in 1946, L’Etoile Vesper (The Evening Star), the folding star of shepherds, Sappho’s star. Colette’s modesty about her authorship was not constant, thank heaven; it was traversed by almost youthful gleams of natural and joyous importance and by the sense of immortality looming. And, especially when she worked late, she must often have thought of Flaubert, who more than anyone else influenced her in the matter of style, verbal workmanship, justness of diction, melopoeia; Flaubert who kept such a regular nocturnal working schedule that the bargemen up and down the Seine used his study window as a lighthouse.
There is a text expressive of her belief in the literary art, which let me now translate, carefully, not without vanity of my own style, as a somewhat more appropriate tribute to this writer whom I love than any 10,000-word exegesis. In her young womanhood she made friends with the noted courtesan, Caroline Otero, known as La Belle Otero; a sort of friendship of curiosity to which writers naturally are inclined. When she came to write Chéri, apparently this world-famous beauty — with thorough changes, from brunette to blonde, and from Spanish to one hundred per cent French, and so on — posed in her mind for certain aspects of the characterization of wonderful Léa.
Years later, sixteen years later, she wrote a description of Otero, in Mes Apprentissages, and brought into it with seeming casualness, with little touches in sentence after sentence, and with wondrous authority at the close of the second paragraph, an article of creative faith: “That beautiful body, so arrogant in its declining years, defiant of every illness and evil frequentation and the passage of time, that well-nourished body, with plumpness drawn smooth over its muscles, with luminous complexion, amber by daylight, pale in the evening: I vowed that someday I would describe it, painstakingly and disinterestedly. We can never produce perfect likenesses of the faces dearest to us; we slip into passionate deformation somehow. And who ever will undertake to set down faithfully all the traits of true love?
“Instead we record, with words as with paintbrush, the flaming redness of outworn foliage, a green meteor amid the blue of midnight, a moment of the dawn, a disaster. . . . Spectacles not notable for their significance or their profundity, but charged by us with premonition and emphasis. For the time to come they will bear the imprint of the four numerals of a given year; and mark the culmination of some error, the decline of some prosperity. Therefore, it is not for us to say with any assurance that we have ever painted, contemplated, or described in vain.”