Earth Mother of the Demi-Monde

The Tender Shoot and Other Stories

by Colette, translated by Antonia White
Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 404 pp., $4.95

The Blue Lantern

by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse
Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 161 pp., $3.95

Earthly Paradise: Colette’s Autobiography

drawn from the writings of her lifetime by Robert Phelps
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 505 pp., $6.95

Mitsou and Music Hall Sidelights

by Colette, translated by Raymond Postgate, translated by Anne-Marie Callimachi
Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 260 pp., $3.75

The Other One

by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse, translated by Elizabeth Tait
Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 160 pp., $3.50

The Delights of Growing Old

by Maurice Goudeket
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pp., $4.50

This batch of Colette’s writings does not seem to have been published according to any particular plan. It includes miscellaneous works from both the early and late periods of her career, and depends largely on the translations already issued in England by Secker and Warburg. The one exceptional item is the volume edited by Robert Phelps; it is an anthology of extracts from Colette’s writings so arranged as to form an autobiographical account of her life, from her early days as a lower-middle-class girl in the Burgundian countryside to her final position of eminence as a Parisian personality and the foremost French woman writer of her day, and perhaps of the whole of French literary history. Although Mr. Phelps maintains in his Introduction that Colette’s philosophy was in some respects harsh and unsentimental, the title he has chosen, Earthly Paradise, tends to confirm the average view of her as a latter-day pagan hedonist who rejoiced in the birds and the bees and was an apostle of happy orgasms. For good measure, the parcel also includes a new autobiographical volume by her third husband, who has remarried since her death. His title, The Delights of Growing Old, echoes Earthly Paradise. The book is so slight that it would probably not have been published at all, but for the author’s connection with Colette. However, it contains interesting details about M. Goudeket’s sexual potency, which is remarkable enough to put him well up among the Kinsey champions. During adolescence, he regularly had three nocturnal emissions per night and, since his remarriage, he has become a father at the age of seventy-two. Nature therefore speaks loudly enough in him to make him a Colette character in his own right, independently of his marriage to her.

For M. Goudeket, Colette is quite simply a genius, and everything about her is admirable and extraordinary. Mr. Phelps, for his part, has a thesis: Although Colette’s place in twentieth-century fiction is very high, her place in literature will be finally determined by her large body of autobiographical writing; she is a personality more than a novelist:

…like Montaigne or Thoreau or Whitman, Colette appears destined to become one of those writers whose literary achievement, however extraordinary, is itself caught up in something ampler: a personal myth, an emblematic image that merges the private life and the public art into a greater whole which then comes to incarnate some perennial tendency or tactic in human experience.

THIS TACTIC, says Mr. Phelps, is summed up in the command “Look!” To observe life clearly is a form of prayer or salvation, which leads us back to “purity.” Colette, who was so often criticized for “impurity” in the days before conscientious pornography was sold on every bookstall, becomes, in Mr. Phelps’s vision of her, almost a source of religious instruction. Although non-transcendental, of the earth earthy, she takes on a Schweitzerian quality of “reverence for life.” It is not difficult to see how this can …

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Letters

Colette’s Class July 7, 1966