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Three Photos of Colette

The Retreat From Love

by Colette, translated by Margaret Crosland
Bobbs-Merrill, $7.95

Chéri / The Last of Chéri

by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse
Penguin, $1.95 (paper)

The Evening Star

by Colette, translated by David Le Vay
Bobbs-Merrill, $5.95

The Blue Lantern

by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $2.95 (paper)

My Mother’s House / Sido

by Colette, translated by Una V. Troubridge, by Enid McLeod
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $2.95 (paper)

Break of Day

by Colette, translated by Enid McLeod
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $2.95 (paper)

The Pure and the Impure

by Colette, translated by Herma Briffault
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $2.95 (paper)

Mitsou / Music-Hall Sidelights

by Colette, translated by Raymond Postgate, by Anne-Marie Callimachi
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $2.95 (paper)

The Vagabond

by Colette, translated by Enid McLeod
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $2.95 (paper)

There is a much folded photograph reproduced in Yvonne Mitchell’s charming and richly illustrated biography of Colette which shows Monsieur Willy and his wife at lonely table.1 A white rail of the sort you might find in a Baroque church divides the dining room from the rest of the apartment. This rail passes in front of us, opening only to provide an entrance to the space, and we can easily imagine taking a rising or descending step toward the chalk-white cloth, which, in the photograph, advances to occupy the railing’s compositional place; but whether the step should be up or down, it is difficult, and even undesirable, to say.

Colette was always able to project an expressive image upon the photographer’s plate, just as her own style gave the objects it described a lively face: the grass snake coiled like a snail shell by her hand or the heath spiders she says are pink and round as pearls; indeed, the quality of every quality, the rhythm of every contour, is rendered as by a composer, so that, with the immediacy of music and thus as suddenly as Marguerite is brought before Faust by the magic of Mephistopheles, we are seated in a country schoolroom in company with Claudine or on the big embarrassed bed of her girlfriend, Luce, who has fallen from the provinces to Paris like the fruit she chews, and now serves her fat “uncle” in return for silks. The camera, too, has brought us to a flat on the rue de Courcelles, and put us in front of this frozen tableau, the gray domestic world of women: full of cosmetics and clutter, yet ordered and empty, expensively utensiled, but patently futile, noisy and corseted and fussy, deathly still.

To the right on that white rail squats a cut glass decanter which appears nevertheless to contain a candle, and on the left rests a large, probably brass, bell. Two half-full Burgundy bottles, well-corked, clearly white and red, flank Willy’s plate. He is eating fruit, and a basket of apples draped with grapes sits on the table in front of him. A Persian rug embarrasses the edges of the luncheon linen like a poorly fitting petticoat. When the meal is removed (…the bell does not look rung, though perhaps once it rang…), the rug remains to enliven the table top and disguise its scars.

It is a long way from the much loved landscape of Colette’s childhood, the woods which she described in perhaps the first pages she ever wrote:

No small creatures in those great woods; no tall grasses; but beaten earth, now dry, and sonorous, now soft on account of the springs. Rabbits with white scuts range through them and timid deer who run so fast that you can only guess their passage. Great heavy pheasants too, red and golden, and wild boars (I’ve never seen one) and wolves. I heard a wolf once, at the beginning of winter, while I was picking up beech-nuts—those nice, oily little beech-nuts that tickle your throat and make you cough. Sometimes storm-showers surprise you in those woods; you huddle under an oak that is thicker than the others and listen to the rain pattering up there as if on a roof. You’re so well-sheltered that when you come out of those depths you are quite lost and dazzled and feel ill at ease in the broad daylight. [Claudine at School, p. 2]

In a mirror beyond the married pair, who sit in profile to us, the room behind our backs floats like a world on water. There is a lamp, corner cupboard like a standing corpse, and in the distance, deeply submerged, a dark frame shorelining something that looks like a boarded-up lake. I don’t see Willy’s image, though over the low mantle the mirror seems well placed to perceive him. His attention is fixed on some book we cannot see, or on perhaps a bit of biscuit, crumb of cheese, or sheaf of notes. A white collar obliterates his throat. He is absorbed, composed. He wears a dark suit and a second beard behind his ears. He is distinguished and sits well forward on the caned seat of his chair.

Across from him, Colette is held firmly inside her clothes the way her napkin lies rolled and ringed beside her. A silk blouse, gray in the photograph as stone, grasps each wrist; a beaded collar closes about her neck; and a satin belt is cinched about her waist. To make room for her elbows and remove her life, she has pushed away a plate on which there remains the indistinct skin of a grape, and she is leaning forward now to rest her breasts on the table and her right cheek heavily on the peak of her clasped hands.

Her stare is nowhere, and her unnaturally pale face seems fastened to her head like a mask. Above the black velvet bow in her flattened hair there is a ghostly photo of Willy, top-hatted, hanging on the wall, while on the oriental rug at her skirt-covered feet is a white blob like a knitting egg—a toy, one supposes, a ball for Toby-Chien. The creases in the photograph appear as cracks in the plaster, as broken glass, as lines of worry on the walls, ill fortune in the furniture, as judgments, omens, anger.

Who but Willy, who adored his image and desired its presence everywhere; who had a thousand depictions of himself—including caricatures and paintings—made and printed and posted about in Paris like the herald of a social cure; who even persuaded Colette to dress herself like Polaire, the Algerian actress then playing Claudine to full loud houses, in order to enhance certain lesbian allusions, and who dared to have himself photographed standing behind his “twins” as though he were their evil Svengali, not merely their benevolent Papa; who but Willy would have posed for such a domestic picture, or permitted Colette’s unhappiness or his own indifference—their total estrangement—to be so nakedly stated? Perhaps it was his own fist which folded their images together in a kiss—a curse—when he saw more than boredom in her emptied gaze, but in addition how his young wife’s eyes had fallen like early apples onto a hard and distant interior earth.

It is not difficult to see ourselves what the Parisian public saw and enjoyed in these novels about Claudine which Colette had written almost accidentally, first at the suggestion and then the insistance of her greedy usurious Monsieur; but what can we find in them now but Colette? for we have read Violette Leduc since then, among others, and have played all the schoolgirl games; we have had quite enough of lewd and giggling innocence, of unaimed spite and wide open ego, of coltish spirits, silly presumption, ignorant courage, or naïve trust. Natural wit’s old hat, sweet fears, fresh hope, we’ve had instance after instance of, and the contrast between mistress and maid, cynicism and faith, the unripe and the spoiled, cannot strike us any more with tragic weight or moral force. What worms we are, like Willy, to have forsaken the fruit to cannibalize its grubs!

In any case, there are no silly schoolgirls any more, and if the public nowadays wants to know what young girls think, they are served a stronger brew than Daisy Miller or What Maisie Knew. Wedding nights are still disappointments, but scarcely surprises; the war between the sexes has never been noisier, meaner, or emptier of sense, adultery more snoozily middle-class, or homosexuality more sordid—no, and trivial commonplace lives, for Colette a specialty, have never been more blandly cream-o’-wheat, more catsup leaked on steak, reaching stale middling heights; nor has the production of vapid conversation or cretinous creature comforts, shimmering baubles and other visual distractions—football, films—fallen off, on the contrary, or the use of the carnal drug; and loneliness is as large as it ever was: paper napkins snuffed in plastic glasses testify to it, the floor of every closet cries out “love me!,” wadded towels too, windows on which the images of waiting faces have been fixed, long halls like highways, and on kitchen counters, where waxy cartons speak of it to knives smeared with crumbs and purple jelly; so that the fascination we now find in these novels about Claudine, and it is certainly there, is due solely to the ever fresh charm—the instinctive grace—the greatness of Colette, which is certainly immense.

Colette was not the sort of natural genius whose eventual vocation appears spelled out on baby’s Beethovian brow. Her intelligence, her curiosity, would not allow her to remain safely at home where she really wanted to be, but let her be taken in by Willy’s worldliness and sophistication, as so many were—perhaps by his masterful gaze, his sexy voice—and carried out of her little Burgundian town, where indeed hard times were another incentive, to the great city, no doubt the way captives were once brought to Rome for amused display. She must almost immediately have felt as Rilke’s hero, Malte, did: surprise that people came there to live when the place seemed best fitted to sustain physical distress, loneliness, and fear, and supplied only the facilities for dying. In any event, it was this paunchy old publicist, who picked brains better than crows clean carrion, who introduced Colette to the smoky world of men, and he did it with a thoroughness to inspire praise and discourage imitation.

The recognitions began immediately, if the wedding night is immediate enough, but only gradually did the full measure of her mistake stretch the dressmaker’s tape to its tip. By and by (fine words for what it emotionally meant), her toes growing cold in the too big bed, she was twisted by jealousy like a wet towel until she wept, and was compelled to admit that her husband did a good bit more than neglect her like a friendless pet. She was in fact left alone all day in a small cold flat with a poisonous stove where she dined on nuts and fruit like a monkey and nibbled candy like someone kept. Then fell evening when she was led through salons like a fox terrier on a chain, as Cocteau said, and thence to musicales which Willy might review but at which, in any case, he must be seen, and finally to cafés full of smirk and innuendo and late hours—what was there to say? to these polished and brittle homosexuals? to these softly jowled fat Don Juans? by a girl from the country? with a thick Burgundian burr? especially since they were none of them red and golden pheasants or even geese come down on a smooth deep lake.

Willy’s jaded sexual interests were limited to her innocence which stimulated him the way new snow invites small boys to trample it, and he had at once begun to cheat, as Colette discovered one day when, by unforgivably demeaning herself, she followed and discovered him with a foul-tongued, back-bumped dwarf, little Lotte Kinceler, whom Colette could only pity, and who later blew her mouth apart like glass, committing suicide with a symbolic substitute for what had murdered her already. Willy eventually brought his other cocottes to Colette’s apartment where they would finger her things and speak smut. He also carted his collection of pornography with them when they traveled to the country, either to visit and vacation or to escape creditors. And he clung to the skirts of bankruptcy like a bewildered boy.

  1. 1

    Yvonne Mitchell, Colette: A Taste for Life (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), pp. 68-69.

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