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Colette in Pieces

Letters from Colette

selected and translated by Robert Phelps
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pp., $12.95

In 1923, Colette’s second husband, Henry de Jouvenel, left her for another woman. She writes to a friend, Mme. Georges Wague, to whom the same thing has recently happened:

But, my child, haven’t you heard the gossip? We’re in the same boat. If it is true that happiness is only relative, then think of yourself as happy, in comparison to me… You don’t have a child, which is a pity—or work to absorb you. But come and see me, not at Le Matin, though, and not before next week. Telephone me Tuesday or Wednesday morning. And, above all, arrange to move, to get out of the house where you’ve been tormented. Find another nest. I know that’s hard, but find one all the same, and at once. I am sure I am giving you good advice….

As for me, I’ve been alone for a month. He left without a word while I was on a lecture tour. I am divorcing.

This gives an impression of a highspirited and independent woman encouraging similar proud high spirits in her friend. But the translator has omitted a few sentences, from this letter as from almost all the other letters in this collection. The first paragraph above goes on: “When he misses you, even if only for an instant in the course of a month, you score a point. Otherwise everything is against you.” (“Quand tu lui auras manqué, fut-ce un moment dans l’espace d’un mois, tu auras marqué un point. Hors cela, tout est contre toi.”) What seems to be a counsel of pride is instead a counsel of policy, a very different matter.

Robert Phelps explains in his preface that he has followed his “own taste, trimming freely and trying simply to show Colette in her daily zest…. Letters and memoirs to come will certainly deepen the image this book makes, but it is unlikely that they will radically alter it.” His taste leads him to emphasize a zestful, simple Colette and to ignore the more prudent, calculating, and interesting woman who emerges from the complete texts of her letters. It is of course the defect of all collections of trimmings that the idea of the editor about the writer controls our understanding of his subject, the more particularly in cases of translated letters, which have the usual problems of translations in addition, among them that we are far less likely to go ourselves to the originals to see what is missing. Mr. Phelps, the editor and translator of Earthly Paradise, a compendium of Colette’s autobiographical writings, and of Les Belles Saisons, a picture book, has had considerable influence on our view of Colette.

Phelps’s note specifies his view of Colette, “a sort of twentieth-century earth goddess who lived most of her life in Paris, watching the world around her so attentively that she was able to describe how a single rose petal sounds when it falls.” For him she is a “robust country girl” much as in her letters, which he sees as “spontaneous, abundant, dashed-off, like nothing so much as an armful of field flowers, fresh, fragrant, still sparkling with dew, which Ceres, let’s say, brought in from her morning walk…, everywhere impulsive and intimate”—and “self-revealing,” adds the jacket, though letters less self-revealing scarcely exist. Moreover, it is exactly the self-revelation that Phelps has cut out, for instance all references to her unhappiness over the infidelity of M. de Jouvenel in the situation above. Whereas men like experience in women, they tenderheartedly hate them to have troubles.

Love of nature, on the other hand, is a truly unexceptionable sentiment, and Colette’s is agreeable, doubtless sincere, and produces a lot of animated description: “In one evening, between six and ten o’clock we planted oleanders, geraniums, pelargoniums in jars, and it looked ravishing. What fun it is to go broke!” (The English-speaking reader especially appreciates translations here, where reading in French would mean looking up a lot of names of plants you don’t really need to remember.) In the fifty years of letters represented (1902-1952), we have truly impressive evidence of Colette’s great vitality (learning to ski at fifty-two), hardiness (lots of cold sea bathing), appetite (wonderful descriptions of food cooked and consumed), and astonishing courage, for instance when breaking a leg:

a true fracture of the fibula bone, on the slant, below the calf. And if you could see the Saint-Tropez hospital where they brought me to set the break! Happily, I was back home a few hours later—but I wasn’t able to have my lunch until five o’clock, and I have no taste for five o’clock meals! I was still howling, but with hunger. Luckily there were some green beans with garlic, and marvelous local veal. It must have looked very funny to see me devouring my food in bed while Maurice looked on with stricken eyes and a clenched stomach….

To some readers, however, this gusto so admired by Phelps may seem less welcome than the knowledge that the poor woman, like a normal person, included in this same letter some natural complaints omitted by Phelps: “je m’ennui dans la plaître et en outre j’ai mal,” “mais je suis vexée, et ça me fait mal,” etc. In touching up the portrait of an earth goddess, Phelps renders her as wearing as the gods of mythology, fuller of appetite than sense.

We are given a number of these word pictures, as they used to be called, but without the grace notes of salutations and conclusions or routine remarks on the weather or on business matters (though considerable evidence of Colette’s financial prudence remains). Unimportant and dull sentences are left out. What remains sparkles, all right:

…If only you could see the monkeys running free in Chiffa! And antelopes in the hotel garden, with their black velvet eyes and long, almost curly eyelashes! And the mother monkeys with two little breasts, just like women! And the shrimps we eat, as large as sausages! And the sun, and a flower that looks like a cockatoo!

Sometimes he tones down the sparkle: “j’avance peu, j’avance mal—j’avance” (in writing a novel) becomes “my progress is slight and difficult, but it is progress.” Mainly, though, one feels the need of the dull little businesslike sentences to make the fine writing palatable, the way Jane Austen felt the need of some dull chapters in Pride and Prejudice, some solemn nonsense to set off the sprightliness. But more to the point, it is in the little exclamations and reports that the real character of this amazing woman begins to be accessible.

Since her death in 1954, Colette’s literary reputation has followed the usual curve, at its apogee during her last years, by which time she had received the medal of the Legion of Honor, been elected to the Academie Goncourt, and much else. A dozen years after her death, the august Henri Peyre would pronounce “our own conviction that she was always grossly overrated and that she may well, more than any other cause, be responsible for the sad plight of feminine writing in France up to the fourth decade of the present century.” Her heroines were “creatures who were all slightly venal, never forged bonds of comradeship with men, never discussed politics, ideas, ethics, aesthetics with them, never tried to found a loving relationship based on candidness and on loyalty, and accepted deceit as the condiment to their love life.” The heroes were “brainless gigolos,” and her world “one of boudoirs and of bedrooms with no genuine joy and no tenderness ever emanating from those unconvincing love gymnastics.” 1

Today we again admire her candor and penetration—the superb style has never been questioned—and assume her to have been an astute observer of her society. But because the “slightly corrupt sensibilities” M. Peyre believes Colette to have always had so poorly befit Mr. Phelps’s earth goddess, one cannot help wondering what the connection is, and whether the censure by Peyre and the omissions by Phelps have anything in common beyond that these are both men wishing, as usual, to think of women as either better or worse than they are. Has phelps removed the very things that make Peyre so uncomfortable?

For instance the bit of worldly advice to Mme. Wague, telling her how to score a point, may be for him a bit too much like Ceres telling Proserpine what to wear, the better to seduce Pluto. Colette’s advice, like all advice, is concerned with love, money, or health, and while advice always originates in either morality or calculation, Colette’s arises from calculation, or practicality, or whatever one will call that faculty which, when presented in men as business acumer or military genius, is always admired and is never admired in a woman. To be sure, Colette gave advice to her men friends, too, for she was sympathetic and understanding of their temporal ambitions and their erotic natures. She is unsurprised by them. Her attitude is never flirtatious, is instead that of someone disqualified by age, braininess, or even fatness from wanting anything from them, something she herself remark upon in The Pure and the Impure: “I never had to go out of my way to be let in on masculine secrets. The average man overflows with confidential talk when he is with a woman whose frigidity or sophistication sets his mind at rest.”

In her fiction, as well as in the letters, Colette’s preoccupation with advice is striking—it is her great subject. She is interested above all in the protégé(e) and in the emotional plight of the protector, and in the communication of experience, especially of love and its economics. As she moved in her own life from beloved child to protégée to protectrice, so are the characters in her books arranged. Each person is in some sense the creation of someone else in a natural hierarchy. She seems not to have minded, really, being locked in the room by the awful Willy, so much as she minded his infidelities. Locked in the room, she learned the rudiments of self-creation.

Her view of men in her fiction is a little harsher than the sympathetic tone of her letters to male friends, which may explain Phelps’s affection and Peyre’s anxiety. Men do not ever seem to admire fiction by women in which the heroines are encouraged to be unconventional, and we do understand the fate of fictional characters, however autonomous they may seem in the course of the story, to represent the views of the author. “je déteste Louisa Alcott,” cried Simone de Beauvoir, reading that Jo has married a dull professor, for women readers on the other hand do like to read stories in which the women succeed in being unconventional. People of both sexes have always admired Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Middlemarch, say, but for women these are cautionary tales of the kind men feel women need.

On the other hand, Colette’s women often get revenge—the fate of Chéri, the uppity independence of the Vagabonde. Colette’s view of the relations of the sexes fundamentally in opposition was founded upon observation and experience. At the outset of her affairs with both Jouvenel and Maurice Goudeket, her third husband, she had to deal with jealous rivals who threatened scenes, scandal, and even murder. She sees the real conflict of interests of men and women—alien creatures involved like spiders in some painful but inevitable biological conjunction which would lead to the extinction of one or the other; but like a biologist or a UN observer she can keep a certain sympathy for both sides; she’s a man’s woman and a woman’s woman both, and feels herself to have “a genuine mental hermaphroditism.” When she took up with Goudeket, she found that they were “two tranquil comrades who looked like friends. Oh the luxury of also being friends! It’s hardly believable!” Her wonderment seems very genuine.

It is rare in these selections, although we learn much of what Colette is doing, that we get much idea of what she is feeling or thinking. This is partly for reasons suggested, but partly because Colette seems to have had rigorous standards of self-presentation, at least to the people represented in this collection, intimates but not her nearest confidantes. She fears, or professes to fear, wearying them with the most taciturn of confidences (“je m’éxcuse de ne parler que de moi“). The letters are more often couched in terms of their recipients: “I’m sending you a copy of my first column in Figaro, but there’s only one reason I am eager for you to read it: your name embellishes the last line. I embrace you with all my heart.” One reason for the immediacy of these and all literary letters is of course the locution “you”; it is ourselves she embraces and admonishes with her abundant imperatives.

This may add to an impression, perhaps rather unfair, of formidable self-possession which belies Phelps’s conviction of her spontaneity. Perhaps we are so conditioned by a literature of self-examination and complaint that a selfless, gregarious interest in others can seem to be self-interested posing. For Colette, if hardly selfless, was really gregarious, interested in others more than in herself—a product of an era and a society more interested in the social manifestations of self than in its penetralia. Colette does not dismiss the psyche but rather takes it for a starting point, and her own psyche she seems to take for granted, peevish and greedy to the normal degree, and forgiven. Her self-acceptance explains why she wrote lots of letters and not diaries; she is the opposite of, say, Anaïs Nin. It is possible that in letters to people more intimate—to her husbands, or daughter, or her early lesbian lover Missy—one might glimpse a more vulnerable self. But these are not yet available.

The friends to whom she writes here are, in particular, the other great woman writer of her day, Anna de Noailles, Hélène Picard and Marguerite Moreno, Leo and Ma-Misz Marchand, Francis Carco the novelist, and there are a smattering of notes to Proust, Ravel. Unfortunately the letters are so abbreviated that one loses the biographical thread that can unite a collection of letters with an inferred action—in the case of Colette an unusually eventful action. Instead husbands seem mysteriously to appear. Her dear Hélène Picard and Ma-Misz Marchand, the recipients of dozens of letters, drop from the pages almost without explanation, certainly none from the editor; and her accounts to others of their deaths are so heavily edited as to seem almost offhand. More numerous biographical notes would have helped, but there is a chronology given. There is no index.

Whether because it didn’t fit within the chronological scheme of the book, which begins at 1902, or whether because Phelps believes Colette to have been a writer “without any pretension and theory,” “nor can any comparable writer be said to have flourished so independently of the tastes and ideologies of the time” (the times of which M. Peyre finds her so deplorably representative), he does not include an 1895 letter to Proust, who had evidently written to Willy an appreciative note about his (that is, presumably, Colette’s) work. She replies gratefully that Proust is “le seul, je crois (pourtant je crois que Fénéon [an art critic admiring of Mallarmé and Rimbaud] avait fait la même remarque), qui avez si nettement vu que, pour lui, le mot n’est pas une représentation mais une chose vivante, et beaucoup moins un signe mnémonique qu’une troduction picturale.” (“The only person, I think, though I think Fénéon made the same remark, who has so clearly seen that for him the word is not a representation but a living thing, and much less a mnemonic sign than a pictorial translation.”

This suggests that Colette was very much as one would expect, a writer of her own day, influenced by the visual aesthetics of Wilde, Gautier, Proust, the senior writers of her youth. Her rapturous passages of natural description owe as much to art as to nature—remind, even, of the descriptions in Huysmaas of art objects or perfumes: “one must live here to appreciate the four colors of figs: the green with yellow pulp; the white with red pulp; the black with red pulp; and the violet, or rather the mauve, with pink pulp.” Colette’s nature writing is a little à rebours, an attraction to style like her attraction to those turn-of-the-century lesbians, triumphantly stylish, whose wonderful evening costumes and dramatic decor she would so meticulously describe. Phelps has included a lot of her very interesting references to her way of working, slow and painstaking. She would often fall ill during the last stages of a work. Whether or not her letters were dashed off, they share all the qualities of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, applied instead to the natural world.

In what exactly does the interest of literary letters lie; why should we care about the lives of writers at all? But we do, cajoled, perhaps, by the “you” into the writer’s confidence, or wishing to see how the writer practices what he preaches, or to enjoy the discrepancy between the mess he makes of things and the tidy determinism of his endings; or to understand the sly metamorphosis of the real unfaithful husband into the jilted lover of a book. Not just literary historians but every reader tests a book against the real—the real life of the author and his own real life; and the real lives of authors, like those of saints and politicians, and of everyone who sets up as moralist or whose work is ultimately didactic, do have a strange exemplary power. Or maybe all lives do.

Letters further our acquaintance. But trimmed and altered letters can no more do this than notes smuggled out from a jail. We don’t know whether we can trust the intermediary or not. All is qualified and compromised. Given the realities of publishing and reading, we cannot have and probably wouldn’t want the complete correspondence of every great writer. Of som we do. The letters of Henry James and of Virginia Woolf are two recent examples of wonderful and well-published letters which merit the many volumes they take up. One can also defend certain principles of selecting shorter volumes, of the letters of a writer to one person, for example, or letters written at one interesting period of life.

It’s harder to defend making selections from letters, that is, tampering with the texts of individual letters. It’s a bit like copying out a passage of somebody else’s work in your own hand before submitting it to handwriting analysis. A truly self-effacing, tactful, perfectly invisible editor does not exist. The recent selection of Flaubert’s letters, ably translated by Francis Steegmuller,2 is really spoiled because short passages of love talk and quotidian gossip are omitted. It’s not so much that you value what Steegmuller has left out as that you ar bound to wonder about it, and never feel able to think of Flaubert without worrying about those little dots. Yet a little more space would have allowed the letters to be presented entire.

Of mere snippets there is little to say. If they were maxims, like La Rochefoucauld’s (or Kahlil Gibran’s), that some reader or other might want to refer to, to regulate his conduct by, that would be one thing, and another if there were photographs to illustrate the bits of natural description (“Cats and dogs swoon in the sun, and yesterday evening Maurice found a tiny lizard, surely a fairy prince, long as your little finger, onyx-red in color, with black eyes. What is this miracle?”), the whole to lie upon the coffee table. As it is one is merely unsatisfied. Colette herself would never have served such skimpy fare.

  1. 1

    French Novelists of Today (Oxford University Press, 1967),pp.276-277.

  2. 2

    The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, selected, edited, and translated by Francis Steegmuller (Harvard University Press, 1980).

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