The Blue Lantern
by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse
Farrar Straus, 161 pp., $3.95
We Anglo-Saxons, as the General indiscriminately calls us, have special problems with Colette, and I think the way to sort them out is to argue from the premise that she is a great writer (not, that is, a merely interesting or charming or odd one) and see what happens. Getting close enough to her to do this well is a further difficulty, obviously because she is not an easy writer to translate, obviously again because there is so large a body of work, and less obviously because the alien eye is especially likely to confound what is really impressive with what is more or less strictly for the members of the Colette cult.
By and large the translators have served her well, especially Antonia White and Roger Senhouse. And there seems to be a very fair amount of Colette at present available in this country. Farrar Straus have a program to publish translations of the whole Fleuron edition, which has fifteen solid volumes, and there are eight books in print, of which six have been collected in a Modern Library edition. Paperbacks include Chéri and The Last of Chéri, The Other One (La Seconde), The Ripening Seed (Le Blé en herbe) Gigi and Julie de Carneilhan, and an important collection of stories called The Tender Shoot; these all are Signet Books which have deservedly sold in enormous numbers, and there is nothing against them except their jacket-designs and the omission of one or two indispensable works, above all of Break of Day (La Naissance du jour). Finally, no Anglo-Saxon should nowadays take on Colette without the help of Margaret Davies’ excellent short introduction (Evergreen Pilot Books, $.95). Thus equipped, he can pursue the inquiry suggested above, and face the third difficulty, that of sorting out the really valuable from the merely chic or adorable.
At this point I might as well say which books I myself think the ones to be reckoned with if you believe (as I do) that Colette ought to be considered with the same kind of attention given to her most distinguished contemporaries: both of the Chéri stories, The Ripening Seed, Break of Day, The Cat (at present, it seems, unobtainable), Julie de Carneilhan, and some short stories. About one or two more I cannot make up my mind, and there are moments when I have doubts about some of these. But it is a working list.
The newly translated pensées called The Blue Lantern don’t change the picture substantially. This is a brave and gay performance by an old woman in pain, a kind of unaffected tribute to herself, a book by a brilliantly intelligent member of the Colette cult, rather as if Jane Austen should have survived to take part in those learned and adoring games played by devoted Janeites. But this sounds much too harsh. Years before, Colette in her strangest book had celebrated, as a woman of fifty, her liberation from the sharper lusts, partly for the reasons which caused Sophocles …