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Three Photos of Colette

This wit and bon vivant and raconteur, moreover, this powerful journalist and man-about-town, signed his name to books he hadn’t written, claimed ideas he hadn’t had, professed tastes he’d never formed. Willy consumed talent like a pimp, and Colette slowly realized that she’d become his latest literary whore in addition to her other duties; that the true sensitivity, intelligence, and taste, furthermore, were on her side; that grace was hers, and honest animal sensuality, the clear uncluttered eye, even good character, industry, and decent ambition, were hers rather than his; that nevertheless she had no vocation, no real role, no independence, a rudimentary education, no polish, no funds; and so she must do her stint and wait at the window and furnish his life, when he chose to share it, with slippers and prattle and pie; that she must be obedient and willing and patient and pretty, cheerful and faithful on top of it, like dung decorated with whipped cream and a cherry, though now she was braidless and ill and bruised, unfresh and scrambled as crawled over snow; still she was supposed to be grateful, and eager to unbutton his vest and remove his tie, to clasp his fat back in amorous arms, and closely regard, even admire, that thick neck swollen with blood and exertion which rose from his trunk on those occasions like a peeled raw root, while her own body went through the sorrowful motions of love to a conclusion which had from the first time to the last to be a burning and shameful, embittering lie.

Colette could not write to her mother of her misery—not just yet—and later the Claudines, those ostensible fictions, gave her a chance at the truth, while her warm and optimistic letters home to Sido, by virtue of what they left out, were in effect made up. Memoirs mixed with fiction, fictions compounded of fact: these were to remain the poles of her work, and the journalism she eventually produced—made of impressionistic, on-the-spot responses—was like a switch engine shunted between these principal stops. Colette was clearly not a novelist by nature as her beloved Balzac was. She wrote her early novels on demand; the key was turned in the lock. Her plays were also a response to pressing necessities, and she toured in them eventually, and bared her bosom too, and struck eloquent attitudes like one of those seductive figures who advertise perfumes: in order to live, to escape being cast forever in the role of a little girl or superfluous femme; although there can be scarcely any doubt that a large part of her yearned to be fed sweets—comforted, cosseted, ruled.

Writing was furthermore a means of shading her mother’s eyes. It earned Willy’s parsimonious praise and shifted slowly the direction of dependency between them. As time and her success reduced these complex causes to simple considerations, Colette turned more and more openly to autobiography, to that sort of reposeful meditation which was to make her great: the evocation of nature and the celebration of the senses, the beautiful rewording and recovery of her life.

But in Paris Colette found herself strangely imprisoned in an open ruin—a marriage destroyed because of jealousy, mistrust, infidelity, a series of explosive truths—with physique and spirit weakened by her sense of the futility of everything, aching loneliness, the worn-out view out her window, her empty odd hours and odder diet. So she fell ill—what else was there to do? sickened by fumes from a salamander stove, by the little cruelties of daily life, the slick wig of evil tongues and stupid wag of amorous pastimes, but especially by lies both large and immensely petty. She was burning—that was it—consumed by a nostalgia which became a happy characteristic of her consciousness, when she was well, the way her breasts continued to gladden her body. Yet among all those innumerable disappointments which close over a soul grown small and tender as a snail to be swallowed, there was the persistent reappearance of reality like a hard shell or bitter pit. Always that. And every dream dead of the truth. The future, too—dead of it.

Sido had to be summoned at last. That resilient will which was to be the core of Claudine’s charm and the center of Colette’s strength during a difficult life, had become as loose and limp in her body as the bedclothes on her bed, and slid away whenever she rose. Recovery was slow, but her illness won her a few more trips into the country, a little respite from the gentleman in the black hat.

The second photo shows us Willy, pen in hand, forcefully facing the photographer. He is seated at another table, also berugged, another mantle behind him, other paintings, further glass glint, smears of image and reflection, amply figured in an ample darkness.2 He could well be wearing the same suit. There is a spread of papers signifying industry, a pen holder, silver tray, a book or two, perhaps a magnifying glass. To his left Colette sits with her fingers holding down a passage on its page as if it could wiggle away. No doubt Willy wants this important section marked, held for him like a seat at a play. The hands are patient. They serve his needs. While Willy and the camera are tête-à-tête, Colette’s gaze, as if she’d carried it between the two pictures like a brimming bowl, slips weakly over the edge of the table and disappears into the void. Her expression is one of quiet but profound sadness. The far side of her face is as white as her blouse, though barely there, and a tie covered with bursts of light falls from a high tight collar like a crack of dark sky between clouds.

To write about school in a copy book—to continue the little themes indefinitely into life—what could be more natural? but fate had to conspire almost constantly to bring it about. She and Willy stayed at her old school for a few days while on vacation one July (she writes about this “return” in Claudine en ménage), and back in Paris that fall Willy suggests that she write down and spice up the best of what she remembers of those carefree girlish times. This idea, coming from Willy, was not so surprising, since Willy was used to hiring out such work, and he doubtless expected her scribblings to come to nothing. It was a therapeutic occupation like needlepoint and tatting; perhaps it would provide some private titillation, little more, and direct her chatter from his ear to the no longer listening and indifferent page. Indeed, Willy found only dull trivia when he later examined the six exercise books Colette had filled. There was nothing he could use. Too bad, but no matter.

Having nibbled on the pen, Colette did not suddenly become insatiable. When Willy tossed her work deep into his black desk, she was content, as regards that, to return to her candy and her cat; yet she continued to write long letters as she had always done, not understanding how they reflected her true and early love of language, her real vocation. Chance again put these notebooks back in Willy’s hands. Two years later he happens on them while cleaning out the rear of a drawer.3 He finds them interesting—useful—this time, though publishers are not easily convinced, and refuse more than once to issue Willy’s saucy little novel about a pack of odd, though ordinary, kids, a pair of overly fast friends, some childish high-jinks, and one long worrisome exam; and they continue to refuse even after Willy has had its actual author bend a few relationships toward the piquant and perverse. Claudine à l’école was not published until 1900, some six years after its very circumstantial composition. Then twenty-seven, Colette had been married from her twentieth year to the Monsieur Willy who signed the volume and composed its preface, one which put much of the truth inside a joke: that the book had been written by a schoolgirl—Claudine herself.

Sales began slowly, but with favorable reviews and word of mouth, the novel became a sensation. Willy redoubled his visits to the photographer, and set Colette to work on a second confection—a briefer, poorer book, but an even greater success. Soon hats and collars, ice creams, lotions, perfumes carried Claudine’s name. Then there was the play, and more Claudines, each shorter, more ambiguous, less resolutely cheerful. Meanwhile Colette kept herself trim in her little private gym, and began to choose her future—a future open to a woman of her present class and condition—the stage.4

Nearly unnoticed amidst the schoolgirl gush of the Claudine books, the amorous titivations, the mounting references to immediate Parisian social life—all calculated to entice—was Colette’s angry exposure of the condition of young women in rural France. What was a Burgundian girl to do? In Claudine at School, for instance, appears this sudden paragraph of social commentary. The girls are readying themselves for a spelling test:

There was a great hush of concentration. No wonder! Five-sixths of these little girls had their whole future at stake. And to think that all of those would become school-mistresses, that they would toil from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon and tremble before a Headmistress who would be unkind most of the time, to earn seventy-five francs a month! Out of those sixty girls, forty-five were the daughters of peasants or manual labourers; in order not to work in the fields or at the loom, they had preferred to make their skins yellow and their chests hollow and deform their right shoulders. They were bravely preparing to spend three years at a Training College, getting up at five a.m. and going to bed at eight-thirty p.m. and having two hours recreation out of the twenty-four and ruining their digestions, since few stomachs survived three years of the college refectory. But at least they would wear hats and would not make clothes for other people or look after animals or draw buckets from the well, and they would despise their parents.

Claudine is not in school to come to this. Nor has she been reluctantly badgered there by a mother who wishes her daughter to escape, as one of the girls who fails explains to Claudine:

Mother sent me to boarding-school, father he didn’t want it, he said I’d do best looking after the house like my sisters, and doing the washing and digging the garden. Mother, she didn’t want it—it was her as they listened to. They made me ill, trying to make me learn—and you see how I come over today.

Although Colette will carry on a life-long romance with little villages and country gardens, in her less reminiscent moods she will realize that despite her attachment to her mother, her beloved Sido, she could never have stayed put.

  1. 2

    Mitchell, p. 62.

  2. 3

    Maria le Hardouin says it was a few months (Colette: A Biographical Study, London: Staples, 1958), but most biographers fix the time at two years: Mitchell, previously cited, Margaret Crosland in her two books (Madame Colette: A Provincial in Paris, London: Peter Owen, 1953, and Colette: The Difficulty of Loving, Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), and Elaine Marks in hers (Colette, Rutgers University Press, 1960). Margaret Davies (Colette, Grove Press, 1961) suggests that it was two to three. Maurice Goudeket’s memoir (Close to Colette, London: Secker and Warburg, 1957) does not cover this period.

  3. 4

    Nothing went to waste: this music hall life too, almost accidentally and desperately arrived at, would provide the background and some of the form for Mitsou (where a playlet is inadequately digested), as well as for Music Hall Sidelights (a series of vivid sketches), and The Vagabond, perhaps her first fully realized fiction—a novel in which the sexual dilemma of the “working woman” is beautifully defined.

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