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Three Photos of Colette

Come over here little girl and let me show you something, wheedles the dirty old world, and sweet ignorant Claudine—well—all tiptoes, she does want to see. Weary of innocence, she does desire to know what the sexual fuss is all about. She is a tight string eager to sound yet fearful of the music; and since she wants to take risks while retaining her safety, she will pass from one school to another, one teacher to another, one parent to another, in every case learning the unforeseen and unexpected, insecure on one leg because, mistrustful of the ground, she cannot chance having both put firmly down together.

So curiosity…not your window-shoppers’ sort, those strollers whose eyes in muggy weather light like nervous flies on crumbs and sweets yet leave without lessening their prize or fattening themselves, but the curiosity that bites the peach to the pit and allows the mouth to fill with juice like a basin; that licks hard and listens, that fingers and sniffs and above all looks, regards—watches, stares, peers—that observes, receives, as an infant explores its world, all drool and smear, as if the world were a fistful of thumbs…such curiosity consumes both Colette and Claudine, and unties them from their homes, and lets them for a time believe that certain dashing older gentlemen will open the earth for them, expose life as they expect to be exposed, and give them the only kind of experience that counts: carnal knowledge of all things.

These Claudines, then…they want to know because they believe they already do know, the way one who loves fruit knows, when offered a mango from the moon, what to expect; and they expect the loyal tender teasing affection of the schoolgirl crush to continue: the close and confiding companionship, the pleasure of the undemanding caress, the cuddle which consummates only closeness; yet in addition they want motherly putting right, fatherly forgiveness and almost papal indulgence; they expect that the sights and sounds, the glorious affairs of the world which their husbands will now bring before them gleaming like bolts of silk, will belong to the same happy activities as catching toads, peeling back tree bark, or powdering the cheeks with dandelions and oranging the nose; that music will ravish the ear the way the trill of the blackbird does; that literature will hold the mind in sweet suspense the way fairy tales once did; that paintings will crowd the eye with the delights of a colorful garden, and the city streets will be filled with the same cool dew-moist country morning air they fed on as children. But they shall not receive what they expect; the tongue will be about other business; one will hear in masterpieces only pride and bitter contention; buildings will have grandeur but no flowerpots or chickens; and these Claudines will exchange the flushed cheek for the swollen vein, and instead of companionship, they will get sex and absurd games composed of pinch, leer, and giggle—that’s what will happen to “let’s pretend.”

The great male will disappear into the jungle like the back of an elusive ape, and Claudine shall see little of his strength again, his intelligence or industry, his heroics on the Bourse like Horatio at the bridge (didn’t Colette see Henri de Jouvenel, editor and diplomat and duelist and hero of the war, away to work each day, and didn’t he often bring his mistress home with him, as Willy had when he was husband number one?); the great affairs of the world will turn into tawdry liaisons, important meetings into assignations, deals into vulgar dealings, and the en famille hero will be weary and whining and weak, reminding her of all those dumb boys she knew as a child, selfish, full of fat and vanity like patrons waiting to be served and humored, admired and not observed.

Is the occasional orgasm sufficient compensation? Is it the prize of pure surrender, what’s gained from all that giving up? There’ll be silk stockings and velvet sofas maybe, the customary caviar, tasting at first of frog water but later of money and the secretions of sex, then divine champagne, the supreme soda, and rubber-tired rides through the Bois de Boulogne; perhaps there’ll be rich ugly friends, ritzy at homes, a few young men with whom one may flirt, a homosexual confidant with long fingers, soft skin, and a beautiful cravat, perfumes and powders of an unimaginable subtlety with which to dust and wet the body, many deep baths, bonbons filled with sweet liqueurs, a procession of mildly salacious and sentimental books by Paul de Kock and company—good heavens, what’s the problem?—new uses for the limbs, a tantalizing glimpse of the abyss, the latest sins, envy certainly, a little spite, jealousy like a vaginal itch, and perfect boredom.

And the mirror, like justice, is your aid but never your friend.

Dependent as a young girl is, she has only her body to sustain her. Her body has brought her to Paris. Her body can free her from her husband if she wants to go on the stage or be a whore, but she must possess a pleasant face, a fresh complexion, good limbs, prominent breasts, a narrow waist. She will succeed only so long as she gives pleasure to men. To do that, she must know how to flatter, how to be silent, when to be weak; for women must be weak in public, strong at home, compliant in private.

The prudent woman will not accept gifts from just any body, so frigidity will be the rule. To become dependent there, to allow a male that power over you, to lose the last of your lands without a struggle, the citadel of sensation, is to surrender everything and enjoy even the humiliation of your rape.

The Claudine books do not contain the complete scenario. The independent woman goes to bed with bankers and invests her tips with wisdom on the Bourse, and the time will come when she will keep men as she was kept, requesting their erections, and requiring them to pleasure her as she was once supine and sweetly willing. A woman who has children and who remains married will someday sell her daughters off as she was sold, and by middle age the intelligent, ambitious ones will be so accomplished at managing the world through their husbands—as if soft arms were in those manly sleeves—and so skilled at beating back female competition, so sly with insinuation, clever with wigs and rouge, so unscrupulous about the truth, adept at blackmail and intrigue, hard inside as cinders, that males would fall to their knees in terrified admiration if they believed to their bones what they’ve hitherto only suspected, and occasionally felt: the scornful condescension which has shivered the small hairs of their skin when they turned away to sleep sometimes in bedrooms shut away from any breeze.

During wars, as it is written in La Fin de Chéri, when the men go off to be brave in front of one another, rump to rump and arm in arm and hand to hand (for that’s esprit de corps), the women, as dangerous as the slaves which the Spartan soldiers left behind, take over. They discover, the way Rosie the Riveter did, that women can shape the real world as well as any man; that manipulating men has made them peculiarly fit for politics and administration; and they become men then, improving on the species; for it never occurred to Colette (as it never did to Gertrude Stein) to question the roles, only the assignments of the players.

There is one value in this sort of life, one currency which can be cashed like grapes crushed in the mouth, spent in the released limbs, received from one’s surroundings as simply as rain, and that is the quiet ease of soul called contentment, the joyful joining of the body to the world which we vaguely spell as pleasure. The realm of animals and nature, quiet open country, unassuming streams and ponds, flowering plants: these yield that pleasure up with greatest certainty and safety, and young Claudine and the mature Colette are sensualists of a greedy straightforwardness and simplicity supreme enough to put Pierre Louÿs’s perversities to rout, and J.-K. Huysmans’s hothouse visions and rococo plans, like out-of-fashion paintings, into the museum basement.

But the body fails us and the mirror knows, and we no longer insist that the gray hush be carried off its surface by the cloth, for we have run to fat, and wrinkles encircle the eyes and notch the neck where the skin wattles, and the flesh of the arms hangs loose like an overlarge sleeve, veins thicken like ropes and empurple the body as though they had been drawn there by a pen, freckles darken, liver spots appear, the hair…ah, the hair is exhausted and gray and lusterless, in weary rolls like cornered lint.

It is the hair we see in the final photographs, after arthritis has marooned her on that pillowed divan she calls her raft. She wears a futile sweater against the chill which swells from within now like a puff of cold breath, and a fur bedspread is draped over her former body. She is looking at us with Claudine’s eyes and Colette’s mouth. Her alertness is utterly unlike the hopelessness we earlier saw when she sat beside Willy. It is preternaturally intense. Her jaw juts as it always did; her nose has not lost its longish taper either; the brow has risen, lying beneath her frizzy hair like snow beneath a wintering bush; and her hands, thank god, can still form words. A table crosses her body like a bridge, running toward the window which overlooks the gardens of the Palais-Royal, and bearing, like pedestrians trooping over it, a telephone, pen and little pitcher chocked with spares, her spectacles, some papers (what’s that, an address book?), a potted plant overbearingly in bloom, and plenty of bleaching sunshine. One of the immortals, she will soon die, and be given a state funeral and denied consecrated ground on the same day.

Claudine never had enough to do. She had no children, few plants, and her husband’s servants. She had her husband, too, who kept her at ends as loose as carpet fringe. She gives way to her impulses and encourages her moods. She recoils from imprisonment but plays at being kept. Yet what can a plaything feel but the handling? Love is the great distraction. Romance can fill you better than pasta, and when it’s digested it leaves you thin. Love gives you the sense of having been alive, but the life of love is always in the past tense, in that remembered moment when a curl touched your cheek or an amorous glance felt like a warm palm on the belly—there, where the smallest muscles tremble to the touch like an animal. Chéri, too, a male Claudine in many ways, though without her elasticity, can only hunger and fondle, fuck and sleep; find his intermittent being in his mother-mistress, Léa’s arms, as Claudine finds hers in Renaud’s, her equally fatherly lover. “Devoting oneself to sensual pleasure is not a career for a respectable man,” Colette writes in L’Etoile Vesper,5 or for a woman who would live past fifty either, since by that time…time….

  1. 5

    Written in her seventies, The Evening Star, translated by David Le Vay (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), along with The Blue Lantern, translated by Roger Senhouse (Farrar, Straus, 1963), make up the summit of what is an actual mountain of memoirs and reflections (My Mother’s House, Sido, Break of Day, The Pure and the Impure, each published here by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) which overshadows, in the pure quality of its literary achievement, even her finest fiction.

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