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Not So Close to Colette

Colette

by Joanna Richardson
Franklin Watts, 276 pp., $17.95

The Collected Stories of Colette

edited with an introduction by Robert Phelps, translated by Matthew Ward, by Antonia White, by Anne-Marie Callimachi. others
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 605 pp., $22.50

No female novelist could be less like Jane Austen than Colette, but they share an unfortunate distinction: it is difficult to love either without finding oneself enrolled in a club. If there is no word corresponding to the horrible “Janeite,” then it can only be for reasons of euphony. But in both cases the fans have got it wrong: they admire Jane Austen for being an adult’s Kate Greenaway, and Colette, in the words of Glenway Wescott, for being “a kind of female Montaigne.”

The most unexpected and reassuring thing about Joanna Richardson’s biography is that she does not appear to love Colette unduly. She slots in concise and lucid accounts of the major works, dismissing some, excusing others, admiring most, and not going overboard for any of them. As for the life, already interminably and variously told by Colette and others, she covers every move in it, however temporary or insignificant. She may have decided to do this because Colette’s own versions are frankly poeticized, and perhaps she thought earlier biographers had relied too much on them and on the memoir by Colette’s last uncritically devoted husband Maurice Goudeket, whom she married in 1935 when she was sixty-two and he was forty-five.

Richardson can be critical: she thinks Colette neglected her only child, the daughter of her second marriage, to the editor and politician Henry de Jouvenel; and she disapproves of her seducing her stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel when he was sixteen and she forty-seven. But on the whole she remains uninvolved and simply assembles the facts—all the facts, and there are an unconscionable number of them. For Colette lived a life full to bursting point: she had three husbands, lovers of both sexes, and many careers: novelist, journalist, playwright, script writer, drama critic, lecturer, mime, music hall artiste, straight actress, advertising copy writer, and beautician. Had she been alive today she would probably have written cookbooks: she was greedy and understood food as she did all sensual pleasures, and though perpetually groaning how much she hated writing, she was always willing to turn an extra penny by it. Her output was enormous and very variable in quality.

In Paris she constantly changed her address while simultaneously acquiring and selling properties in the country. She needed and usually had two establishments to complement her two personae: the urban bohemian, and the country girl with a Burgundian accent. She knew tout Paris, and had many famous friends and correspondents and innumerable pets with eventful careers of their own. From the time she got her Légion d’Honneur in 1920 (Proust said he was proud “to have the cross at the same time as the author of the wonderfully clever Chéri“) honors rained on her, culminating in a state funeral in 1954. She traveled and was frequently ill, especially in later life when she was crippled with arthritis.

Richardson must have worked hard to get all this material into chronological order, and it is a pity she did not provide a chronological table while she was about it. More selection and shaping would have made it more pleasurable to read. Colette’s life comes out like a British football scarf: bright-colored, with all the stitches the same size and not much pattern. The publishers claim that Richardson’s is the first full-scale biography of Colette in English, and based on much new material. The second claim is surely correct, but one wonders in what way Yvonne Mitchell’s much more enjoyable Colette: A Taste for Life1 is not a full-scale biography. It even has a chronological table and a great many photographs.

Neither Mitchell nor Richardson claims to be a literary critic, but Richardson makes up for this with profuse quotations from French and other writers to demonstrate Colette’s status as an original, unique, and brilliant performer with French prose: “Her style is an instrument most elaborately fashioned to reveal her temperament,” wrote Raymond Mortimer.

Her immense prestige comes indeed largely from the quality of her prose, which is rich, flawless, intricate, audacious, and utterly individual. From her imagination images rush profusely forth like bees from a hive, pollen from poplars, smoke from a cigarette, nudes from the staircase of the Moulin Rouge, platitudes from statesmen or painting from Picasso. She can foreshorten the French language as boldly as Mallarmé; she has it trained to obey her caprices like a pony in a circus.

This praise by a foreigner emphasizes what it was that eventually made the French literary establishment clasp the somewhat louche Colette to its gold-encrusted bosom: much as many of its members disliked her material (which continued to shock until she became a national monument), her prose was sans peur et sans reproche.

Robert Phelps, the editor of The Collected Stories of Colette, is a Colette Club member of long standing. In 1966 he published Earthly Paradise, “an autobiography drawn from her lifetime writings.” The present volume contains exactly a hundred stories, which is far too many. Some of them have never been translated before and are as wispy as May flies: plotless sketches two or three pages long, they might have been composed postprandially straight down the telephone into the drowsy ear of a woman’s-page editor. Others, more substantial, have a whiff of women’s magazines. Set among sub-beautiful people with face lifts and their pictures in the boulevard papers, stories like “In the Flower of Age,” “The Respite,” and “The Rivals” exude a cheap, bitchy wisdom which, to use one of Richardson’s favorite phrases, one might call “unworthy of Colette.” The trouble is that about half of Colette’s work is unworthy of her. So there is no sense in calling it names: it belongs to her as much as the lovely prose.

And much of that is lost in English. Phelps’s translators are a good team in spite of lapses when conversations sound like the French voice-over in a vermouth commercial: “Move it, go on, move it. You have lead in your legs to-day?” Decisions have to be made and some turn out disastrous: in the steamy tale “The Tender Shoot” the middle-aged narrator plays sexual games with a fifteen-year-old girl. He refers to her as “la petite.” Antonia White, the most distinguished of all the translators, has chosen to translate this noncommittal expression as “the little thing.” But when “the little thing” skips three or four times across the same page it gives a false impression of the narrator’s attitude to the girl. And yet it is not easy to think of a better solution.

Phelps’s book is a bedside Colette for dipping into, though the irritations of finding no index or indication of where the stories come from or when they were written may give some readers sleepless nights. The decision about what is a story had to be fairly arbitrary because Colette contrived to blur still further the line between autobiography, fiction, and causerie which had been getting blurrier throughout the nineteenth century. To Phelps, “the most imposing element in Colette’s art is the use of herself.”

This has nothing to do with her actual private life. It has simply to do with art, the art of using her own first person, and creating on the printed page a savory and magnetic presence (imaginary for all I know) called Colette….

Essentially Colette was a lyric poet, and her basic subject matter was not the world she described so reverently but the drama of her personal relation to the world. Her injunction to those around her was always “Look!” and her own capacity to behold was acute and untiring. But when she is writing at her best, it is not what she describes so much as her own presence, the dramatic act of herself watching, say, a butterfly, which becomes so absorbing, morally exemplary, and memorable. This is no accident, for the very delicate art of using the first person without indulgence is one that Colette developed as thoroughly, and as consciously, as Joyce explored the art of eschewing it.

Without indulgence? Reading through The Collected Stories (or indeed the collected works) one might come to agree not with Phelps, but with Pascal, that “le moi est haïssable.” Yes, almost every word Colette wrote is stamped with herself, and sometimes one wishes she would go away for a moment or two.

When Maurice Goudeket was introduced to her, he thought “like a great many people when they first met her, that she was playing at being Colette. But after living with her for thirty years I came to the conclusion that she must indeed be Colette.” He was right both the first time and thirty years later: she was a performance artist, her personality as much a work of fiction as her writing. Still, it was she; there was no other. And this makes nonsense of the “female Montaigne” idea. Montaigne’s every word is imbued with his personality, and for all one knows (though it’s not what one feels) that personality may have been a fiction: but not a fiction that he performed live to a live audience every day, and even on days when he was not feeling up to it. Besides, his personality is not so self-conscious, or provocative, or m’as-tu-vu as Colette’s. If everything is to be buttered with self, then it should be the best butter.

Colette herself said: “I am no thinker, I have no pensées.” But she went ahead and thought just the same, and the result is often vulgar and banal. The more vatic she grows, the more she uses the vocative, apostrophizing anything that happens to be around—the sea, animals, her furniture, her heart. (“There, there, heart. There, there. Softly, softly. At least you have always despised happiness. That justice we two can do ourselves.”) But the ear she bends most is that of her dead mother, Sidonie.

Colette devoted a memoir—Sido—to Sidonie, who also crops up all over her other work. Her mother, she declared, was the person she had always loved most. She also liked to think that she inherited from her a special affinity with animals and nature in general. Sido is a favorite with Colette fans, but there is something phony about the central portrait, and in her doting Colette can fall into a dreadfully arch irony: “My mother thought it natural, nay, obligatory, to perform miracles.” As for Sido, she seems to have used her empathy with nature to play faintly cruel games with people, particularly her loving, unijambiste husband:

You are so human,” my mother would sometimes say to him, with a note of suspicion in her voice.

And so as not to hurt him too much she would add: “Yes—I mean you hold out your hand to see if it’s raining.”

Sido herself, it is to be understood, knew instinctively whether it was raining or not. The false candor of “so as not to hurt him too much” only makes the put-down more crushing.

  1. 1

    Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

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