Colette: The Difficulty of Loving
The Thousand and One Mornings
We call her great, for her gift to us is not limited to the art of writing: it is the gift of a culture. I do not mean simply French culture and taste, but that she made certain discoveries with regard to the art of being which are indispensable to our lives, and which are regularly lost in the Western part of the world.
These discoveries came about as she got round the difficulties of her life. She became gradually the journalist of her own life, and in that journalism are strokes of genius that befit her to receive Nietzsche’s blessing. We can think of her as the prime exemplar of experiencing, who obtains truths which can only be got through the agency of things. She always found life new enough not to have to invent it; or we might put it another way, and say that she invented it by understanding it.
Because she teaches with her life, she is, fortunately, difficult to categorize, and belongs to philosophy as much as to literature. Her novels, which are brilliantly written, are as novels weak. By this I mean that when we read them we do not undergo a moral enlargement by reason of a vision whose effects are permanent, as we do with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, or Henry James. She did not formulate in the abstract characters powerful enough to carry out schemes of redemption and enlightenment. That was not her way; it might very likely have seemed to her not truthful enough to what was all around her. And there is the danger, in finding one’s ultimate reach in literature, of losing the original talent with which one set out. If it had cost her her seership, then that would have been a loss so much more terrible than any gain in re-sizing her art that it is better forgotten.
The apprehension of sensual or magical situations is her province, enveloped alive in their own detail. Her supreme moment is the Annunciation; having learned to listen, she can hear when invisible forces announce their presences in mortal things. Should this sound too abstract for rational minds, we need only remind them of the grand pattern of evolutionary and spiritual behavior, and the humbler rhythms within the human body, and thereafter of the unseen, illogical, wholly real struggle between good and evil in the world, in order to regain their attention.
Given this basis for her writing, it will be seen that the more fresh life she lived, the stronger her work became. Life did not distract her from her thoughts; on the contrary, her real thoughts—the thoughts which were given to her—were outside, engrossed in life, and synonymous with it. She was never a mere clerk to her ego.
There were three marriages, a primordial mother a daughter a connection with the theater as an actress and dramatist, travels, a beautician interlude, books, and success.
The irony of the story is that everything is …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.