Colette (1873-1954), the graceful French writer of lyrical, spellbinding novels and memoirs about love, sex, and work, is one of my favorite writers. The Vagabond and Break of Day are classics.
Not everyone agrees.
At a “salon”/dinner party (isn’t it adorable that we had a salon?) with some other university-town denizens who worked as professors, clerks, waitresses and electricians so we could stay in idyllic Iowa City/Ann Arbor/Berkeley/Chapel Hill/Fayetteville, a linguist spoke about the translation of French literature.
The name Colette came up. “I cannot read her,” he said.
I remember being surprised, and saying nothing. Is she mainly a women’s writer?
Her exquisite, inimitable prose is really poetry, and I especially appreciate her lush writing about nature. Take this perfect sentence from Break of Day: “Vial took himself off, and I became more aware of the warmth, the freshness, the increased slant of the light, the universal blue, a few sails on the sea, and the nearby fig tree spreading its odour of milk and flowering grass.”
That sensual image of a fig tree “spreading its odour of milk and flowering grass” would never have come to me.
Judith Thurman, author of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, believes in Colette’s wicked wit and writing, and, in her fascinating introductions to several newish editions of Colette’s books (Farrar Straus Giroux), she mused on the exclusion of Colette from the canon.
In the introduction to The Complete Claudine, Thurman writes:
But for the last quarter of a century, Colette has been out of fashion and, in translation, often out of print–or, to borrow an image from La Naissance du jour (Break of Day), which is probably her most innovative and profound novel–”hiding, like Poe’s [purloined] letter, in plain sight.” What accounts for her eclipse, particularly during a period when scholars and readers have been so avid to rescue even minor women writers from oblivion?
Thurman suggests that it is because Colette was far, far from politically correct–often conservative, not a feminist, not a suffragette, though she called herself an “erotic militant”: she was bisexual, married thrice, and had affairs with women and men.
I particularly appreciate Colette’s novels about middle-aged women. In Julie de Carneilhan, a beautiful woman in her early forties cannot get over her divorce from her second husband, Herbert Espivant, “the man of her life.” She lives alone in a studio, on a tiny (voluntary) alimony payment from her first husband, Becker. Colette’s detailed descriptions of her careful living arrangements are fascinating. I love reading about her habits, furniture, and clothes. “In five minutes’ time she was dressed in a white tailored shirt, a skirt with a pattern of black and white birds’ feet and a black jacket that flouted every current fashion. Her slightly overdone trimness betrayed the fact that Julie de Carneilhan was approaching the age when women decide to sacrifice their faces to their figures.”
She is blond and gorgeous, has a younger boyfriend, Coco, whom she scorns, and many sociable younger friends who drink and party too much.
Julie asks, “Am I expected to put on mourning in advance for a man who was unfaithful to me for eight years and has been married again for another three?”
She has a bitter humor, but indeed she deeply cares for her ex-, and it is part of her affected coolness to pretend not to care. When Herbert invites her to visit him on his sickbed, she begins to understand him as he is. A proposal he makes to her dramatically changes her life.
In a way this reads like a play. It is short, spare, and not much happens. The dialogue is sharp, and, though this is not one of her most lyrical, descriptive books, the drama plays out powerfully.
The novel Chance Acquaintances was also new to me, the last of the three short novels published together: Gigi, Julie de Carneilhan, and Chance Aquaintances. This is s novel which Colette herself narrates, and we quickcly understand that she cherishes her beloved cat more than people, and that both Colette and the cat are too finicky to live at the Knick-Knack, the “chalet” they have rented.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Colette begins the novel by writng of “human barnacles,” non-entities who have an ill effect on others. She thinks: “We are far too slow in realizing that they, though innocent of all personal ill-will, are, in fact, envoys from the nether world, deputized to act as a liaison between ourselves and beings with on other means of approaches.”
The rhythmic, pitch-perfect language is more noticeable than the plot, but the plot is deftly woven as a cobweb, and seems to stretch the tension between Colette’s need for solitude and her easy gift of sociability. One day, on a walk with her dog, Colette almost trips over Lucette d’Orgeville , a dancer from Colette’s music-hall days. Lucette says she is about to go away with her beau to stay in a gorgeous chalet in the mountains above X-les-Bains. A fortnight later she has decided to go off with a rich man in a yacht instead, and persuades Colette to sublet the chalet.
The chalet, which is called The Knick-Knack, and is one of several identical bungalows, does not meet Colette’s requirements, so she and her cat go to a hotel instead. And there she meets the “human barnacles,
a very pleasant couple, Gerard Haume and his beautiful older wife, Antoinette.
But all is not well in the Haume home. As soon as we know there’s an older woman, we know there will be a lack of balance. Antoinette is there to take the waters, because she is sickly. Gerard has been having an affair with a woman in Paris who has not written him in weeks. Toni gets very sick, and Gerard is not sympathetic because he is self-absorbed. He ends up confiding in Colette, who finds a way to help him.
What shocks Colette is Gerard’s quick transfer of his emotions from his Parisian girlfriend to Lucette, who shows up at the Knick-Knack after her plans on the yacht don’t work out. Lucette is sick, has blood poisoning, and Toni smells strange scents on Gerard.
It is finally the hypocrisy of the situation that breaks Colette’s liking of the Haumes.
This is a powerful drama, sketched with Colette’s usual irony and fastidiousness.