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Three Photos of Colette

Love. Always that in these silly French novels. Isn’t there another subject, Jouvenel had complained, beside incestuous longing, adultery, absence? Well, not really. Look at how this tiny boudoir mirror reflects all the larger relations! Because novels about love are inevitably about its failures, and the failure of love leads directly to the need for an alternative salvation which can lie nowhere else but in one’s work, although most work is as impermanent as pleasure, often even hurtful, and pointless to boot; still for a fortunate few (and if they are women they are very few and fortunate indeed), there is the chance for a redeeming relation to some creative medium—in Colette’s case, as Fate finally settled it, the written word.

The better word, as she suggested her hunt was—the better word. But the better word did not fall toward her out of space like a star, nor did the untranslatable rhythms of her prose dance like urchins in the street beneath her flat. Words arose, came to her, fell in line, principally as she reflected upon her life, whether it was fiction she was writing or something else. Experience was her dictionary, and what we can observe, as we read through the Claudines,6 is the compiling of that dictionary, and how, out of that large scrawly book of girlish words, is finally shaped an art of grave maturity, subtlety, perception, grace; one which is at once so filled with Colette’s own presence and yet so open to the reader, so resolutely aimed, that it masters a mode: le style intime, one would be tempted to dub it, if that didn’t suggest it was a naughty perfume.

The memory transcribes loops. It begins here where I am; it departs for the past, then returns to me through possibly fancy slips and spins like a yo-yo to the hand. Colette was fond of mimicking such motion, beginning a chapter with Claudine breathless from an outing or a visit, and then returning the narrative through some carriage ride or concert until Claudine is once more at home. In this way the event is bracketed at both ends by its ending. The immediate moment can benefit then from the play of reflection, although there is little benefit from reflection in the Claudine books, which are for the most part shallow indeed. Plunged into iniquity, Claudine emerges as clean as a washed doll.

Events are naturally related in the first person. Even Chéri, which is written in the third, has every quality of the quiet “I.” The tone is of course girlish in these girlish books, but it is that of the confidential exchange in almost all of them: the personal letter, the intense tête-à-tête, confessions passed between chums like shared toys, or at its most innocent, it has the character of a daughter’s report of what happened on her first date (one suspects the presence of Sido, listening almost in the reader’s place).

Colette will copy the manner of the diary or journal too, but also include a great deal of designedly empty and idle yet lively chatter. Opportunities will be manufactured for the exchange of confidences, though the effect is nothing like that of Henry James. Equally contrived, the result is merely artificial, and unfortunately often cheap. Verbal voyeurism is the rule. Claudine enjoys hearing how it is to be a kept woman from her former school chum, Luce: “Old thing, you’ve got to tell me all.” “He’s old, my uncle, but he has impossible ideas. Sometimes he makes me get down on all-fours and run about the room like that. And he runs after me on all-fours too…. Then he jumps on me, bellowing: ‘I’m a wild beast!’ ” Claudine’s husband Renaud, and Marcel, his homosexual son, are both excited by accounts of amorous encounters. “I implore you, do tell me all about Lucy. I’ll be nice….” “What next, Claudine, what next?” “I’ll tell you everything, Claudine,” Annie promises, and Claudine is soon responding: “Go on, go on, just the main facts.”7

It is not the promise of dirty details which makes the style so personal and beckoning. Confessions can be as public as billboards, and our bookstores are as cluttered by beseechments and soulful outcry as our highways. It may be useful to remind ourselves how other masters of so-called female fiction sound, how done up in public prose, not plain brown paper, most conversations are. Here is an example of pure melodrama: public to its core. It has no internality. Clarissa has determined not to run off with Lovelace:

Fear nothing, dearest creature, said he. Let us hasten away—the chariot is at hand….

O Mr. Lovelace, said I, I cannot go with you—indeed I cannot—I wrote you word so—let go my hand and you shall see my letter….

…here we shall be discovered in a moment. Speed away my charmer—this is the moment of your deliverance—if you neglect this opportunity you never can have such another.

What is it you mean, sir? Let go my hand: for I tell you…that I will sooner die than go with you.

Good God! said he…what is it I hear!

Good god, what one hears, indeed! Well, Richardson will not greet us in his dressing gown, you can be certain of that, nor will Jane Austen go out without her Latinated English buttoned on; but Colette is always carefully en déshabillé. There is the unguarded expression of emotion (the all too frequent exclamation and oo-la-la!); there’s the candid opinion dropped as casually as a grape, the gleefully malicious judgments,

Model pupils!…they exasperate me so much with their good behavior and their pretty, neat handwriting and their silly identical flat, flabby faces and sheep’s eyes full of maudlin mildness. They swat all the time; they’re bursting with good marks; they’re prim and underhand and their breath smells of glue. Ugh!

the broken phrases, sentences darting in different directions like fish, gentle repetitions, wholly convincing observations,

The lanky bean-pole stood and made a secret grimace, like a cat about to be sick….

and above all the flash of fine metaphor, sometimes one of only local governance like this from The Last of Chéri:

He never went to the hospital again, and thereafter Edmée invited him to go only as a perfunctory gesture, such as one makes when one offers game to a vegetarian guest.

or sometimes an image which is both accurate summation and continuing symbol, as this from the same page:

He grew thoughtful now, prey to an idleness that, before the war, had been agreeable, varied, as full of meaning as the resonant note of an empty, uncracked cup.

and when we look down the length of her sentences, we see the energy which rushes up through them like the bubbler in the park—they are alive—even when otherwise they are callow and jejune, or even when they move with an almost Jamesian majesty, as they often do through the stories which make up The Tender Shoot, or reveal the pruned, precise lyricism, the romantic simplicity of a finely shaped head beneath a hair-cut:

Few memories have remained as dear to me as the memory of those meals without plates, cutlery or cloth, of those expeditions on two wheels. The cool sky, the rain in drops, the snow in flakes, the sparse, rusty grass, the tameness of the birds.

Colette did not invent so much as modify her memory, thus her work required continual return; yet retracing well demands forgetting too, or the early line will soon be overlaid with other lines and lose all definition. None of us now matches her skill at rendering the actual contours of experience. How far can we see out of raised eyebrows? How straight can we speak with a curled lip? Irony, ambiguity, skepticism—these aren’t attitudes any more which come and go like moods, but parts of our anatomy. However, Colette could recall a young girl’s innocent offer of commitment and not dismay it with the disappointments and betrayals which she knew were sure to follow. She did not feel obliged to insist that the confusions of the loving self rise from their depths to trouble every feeling just because she knew they were there and wanted us to know she knew. Our illusions, when they shattered, spilled affection like a cheap perfume which clings to our surroundings, overscenting, so that the sick smell of ourselves is everywhere, however frantically we move. In English, how many genuine love stories have we had since Ford wrote Some Do Not?

Colette is being pushed to pen it; nevertheless, Claudine in Paris is often a sadly meretricious book. Despite its causes, and despite the fact that she, herself, has suffered seven years of Willy like the plague, Colette can still remember what her hopes were—how it was—and can render Claudine’s feelings for this older man (handsomer than her husband to be sure, but close enough in every other way to guarantee discomfort) with a rare and convincing genuineness. In the best of these books, Claudine Married, there are many unreal and merely fabricated things, but the passion is real: at the sight of her beloved’s breasts, she aches and fears and trembles, is full of the gentlest and most giving hunger.

Perhaps the impossibility of love should be our only subject (it was certainly one of Colette’s), but living was not impossible, only difficult. There was always before her the specter, when love failed, when pleasure went out of the wet grass, and the air hung like further leaves in the quiet trees; there was always the possibility that these scents, these observations, these open mornings when the sky threw itself back out of the way like a concealing sheet; that not only would they pass as all things do, but that they’d leave no trace behind but triviality—snail slime, worm hole, bug bite, mouth with chocolate covered corners to be buried in.

HE LIKED HIS COCOA THICK NOT THIN

In one of her beautiful late stories, “The Photographer’s Missus,” she gives that missus, in explanation of her attempted suicide, the following speech:

…whatever do you think came into my head one morning when I was cutting up some breast of veal? I said to myself: “I did breast of veal with green peas only last Saturday, all very nice, but one mustn’t over-do it, a week goes by so fast. It’s eleven already, my husband’s got a christening group coming to pose at half-past one, I must get my washing-up done before the clients arrive, my husband doesn’t like to hear me through the wall rattling crockery or poking the stove when clients are in the studio…. And after that I must go out, there’s that cleaner who still hasn’t finished taking the shine off my husband’s black suit, I’ll have to have a sharp word with her. If I get back to do my ironing before dark, I’ll be lucky; never mind, I’ll damp my net window-curtains down again and I’ll iron them tomorrow, sooner than scorch them today. After that, I’ve nothing to do but the dinner to get ready and two or three odds and ends to see to and it’ll be finished.

It is the beginning of an attempted end.

The late books tell us what the late photos show: in a life of love and even melodrama, a life that was lived within the skin and nerves as few have been, it was her work which won—loved her and won her love; and that finger which once held down sentences for Willy helped write others which need no help and hold themselves. The moral isn’t new or arresting. Philosophers have been saying the same thing for centuries.

  1. 6

    The Farrar, Straus & Giroux edition calls itself The Complete Claudine (that is, Claudine at School, in Paris, Married, and Claudine and Annie) but there is a fifth and final Claudine, The Retreat from Love (Bobbs-Merrill, 1974) which continues the history of Annie and Claudine. This book was begun while Colette was still under Willy’s lock and key, figuratively speaking, but finished and published after they had separated, in 1907.

  2. 7

    Robert Cottrell’s suggestion that not all this sexual leering can be blamed on Willy is correct, I think. “…Titillation resulting from an artful toying with debauchery is one of the veins Colette worked, and it crops up even in the books of her maturity” (Colette, Frederick Ungar, 1974, p. 23). This is perhaps the best critical introduction to Colette: brief, clear, balanced, and very perceptive. Marvin Mudrick makes a similar complaint in his Hudson Review article, “Colette, Claudine, and Willy” (XVI, No. 4, Winter 1963-1964, pp. 559-572), but Mudrick’s sometimes eloquent piece is also peevish, and his drearily old-fashioned conception of what counts in fiction leads him to overlook the virtues of these books while somewhat misstating their flaws.

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