We Anglo-Saxons, as the General indiscriminately calls us, have special problems with Colette, and I think the way to sort them out is to argue from the premise that she is a great writer (not, that is, a merely interesting or charming or odd one) and see what happens. Getting close enough to her to do this well is a further difficulty, obviously because she is not an easy writer to translate, obviously again because there is so large a body of work, and less obviously because the alien eye is especially likely to confound what is really impressive with what is more or less strictly for the members of the Colette cult.
By and large the translators have served her well, especially Antonia White and Roger Senhouse. And there seems to be a very fair amount of Colette at present available in this country. Farrar Straus have a program to publish translations of the whole Fleuron edition, which has fifteen solid volumes, and there are eight books in print, of which six have been collected in a Modern Library edition. Paperbacks include Chéri and The Last of Chéri, The Other One (La Seconde), The Ripening Seed (Le Blé en herbe) Gigi and Julie de Carneilhan, and an important collection of stories called The Tender Shoot; these all are Signet Books which have deservedly sold in enormous numbers, and there is nothing against them except their jacket-designs and the omission of one or two indispensable works, above all of Break of Day (La Naissance du jour). Finally, no Anglo-Saxon should nowadays take on Colette without the help of Margaret Davies’ excellent short introduction (Evergreen Pilot Books, $.95). Thus equipped, he can pursue the inquiry suggested above, and face the third difficulty, that of sorting out the really valuable from the merely chic or adorable.
At this point I might as well say which books I myself think the ones to be reckoned with if you believe (as I do) that Colette ought to be considered with the same kind of attention given to her most distinguished contemporaries: both of the Chéri stories, The Ripening Seed, Break of Day, The Cat (at present, it seems, unobtainable), Julie de Carneilhan, and some short stories. About one or two more I cannot make up my mind, and there are moments when I have doubts about some of these. But it is a working list.
The newly translated pensées called The Blue Lantern don’t change the picture substantially. This is a brave and gay performance by an old woman in pain, a kind of unaffected tribute to herself, a book by a brilliantly intelligent member of the Colette cult, rather as if Jane Austen should have survived to take part in those learned and adoring games played by devoted Janeites. But this sounds much too harsh. Years before, Colette in her strangest book had celebrated, as a woman of fifty, her liberation from the sharper lusts, partly for the reasons which caused Sophocles to rejoice similarly (but at eighty) in The Republic, partly because that masculine directness and hardness—which she thought women really had more of than men—could now be allowed a larger share in the arrangements of life. Now she faces another change, death; she writes about the progressive fading of the senses, accepts it, and values what remains behind: sights, sounds, smells, animals, and old friends. She speaks with love of Jean Marais, of Cocteau and Moreno and the dying Fargue; she is charitable to the most egocentric of the young, remembering her own youthful “shudder of repugnance at the touch of old people.” She watches children at play in the garden beneath her window, and writes of them with the unillusioned toughness she showed in the music-hall stories of long before. She writes of animals with an unsentimental anthropomorphism we Anglo-Saxons may have trouble understanding, because our culture precludes the unsentimentally anthropomorphic.
Colette combines a stronge sense of the total otherness of plants and animals with an equally strong assumption that they have their real meaning in terms of a human world; thus the final cause of flowers is the art of the gardener and the florist, of rustic foods Parisian haute cuisine. Her intensely civilized attitude to the wild reports of sense distinguishes her clearly from Anglo-Saxon nature-mystics, Wordsworth or Thoreau, as we can see in this book from her accounts of painful visits to the vendange at Beaujolais, or to Provence for the scents of the hills behind Grasse. She is the inheritor of that great French nineteenth-century enterprise which was devoted to the confusion of nature with art. Out of it springs a delicate veneration for the cosmetic but also a grossness, the grossness of the belle époque. Colette has them both, is as much at home in the reeking scent factories of Grasse as in the hills; a parody of her manner would have to concentrate on her cult of odors, which is alike responsible for much that seems tedious and affected and for such marvels as the conclusion of The Ripening Seed.
On the whole, then, one sees The Blue Lantern as an agreeable act of self-indulgence, a cultist tribute to a writer whose notoriety has merged into her fame, whose grossness time and the worshippers have sublimated into a unique delicacy. The books have been part of an experiment in living conducted as if there were no evidence to work with except what living provides; thus the conclusions—that the passionate senses beget their own temperance, the mind its own heaven—are what we extract at our own risk from books which never offer a moral formulation and are variously and unpredictably gross and delicate.
Anglo-Saxon attitudes to Colette may be further contorted by our lack of ease with the French concept of the woman writer as homme de lettres. We think, maybe, of some burly suffragette, made more formidable by a native French arrogance, as of Colette’s own grandes cocottes in their contempt for alien whores. And to have got rid of this feeling is not to have abolished altogether that obscure discontinuity of understanding which intervenes between French and English, and in which flourish such reputations as those of Charles Morgan The very career of Colette is likely to promote fruitless wonder in us. Her first books were no more than tricks done at the bidding of an unscrupulous husband; she wrote herself out of mere naughtiness into the relatively serious Lesbian plot of Claudine Married, and out of mere whimsical compliance into a vocation. Leaving him, she became a music-hall dancer, and some of her best stories come out of this episode. Still dancing and writing, she was next the hostess wife of an amorous diplomat. Her third marriage was marked by a new combination of interests: actress, dramatic critic, owner of a beauty shop, novelist. She moved about in worlds to be realized and made concentric only in Paris. Not very like Virginia Woolf, or the modern lady campus-novelist.
And throughout there is this unfamiliar sensual empiricism, expressed most often as a completely open mind on love. She herself was involved in a scandal about a music-hall kiss with another woman; one of her heroes, a lover of young girls, comments on the natural sensual depravity of a rustic fifteen-year-old and describes the smell of her sweat (like “rest-harrow” in this story; in Le Blé en herbe Vinca’s is “pink cammock or crushed green wheat”). The most cultivated life of the senses (food, scent, clothes, the country) is easily associated with venal sexuality, the remote language of botany with a physical innocence that only full experience can restore. Colette would have understood up to a point the New England hedonism of Wallace Stevens, his Florida with “mornings meet for the eye of a young alligator,” but not the usurping metaphysics, not the poetry which says “It is not in the premise that reality is a solid.” In Le Blé en herbe the boy, newly promoted to manhood by an older woman, sees his girl and thinks, not “how innocent!” “how beautiful!” but “Comme elle est solide!” Hardness, truth to natural instinct, are the qualities for which she values people and animals. To be so confidently rooted in the senses is egoentric; yet one sees why André Billy told her, “Beside you we are all little boys.” Men have less solidity, a less certain grasp of things; this homme de lettres is entirely female, and in her total freedom from grand male notions and theories is perhaps the first great woman writer.
We return, then, to the problem of how to be seized of this greatness without joining the cult. The best thing is to avoid Gigi, merely a throwback to naughty Claudine and tackle the Chéri books. Chéri begins in the belle époque manner, a piquant study of a boy educated by grandes cocottes; but with a great technical and moral leap Colette invents a mode, the mode of hedonist tragedy. Chéri’s beauty and taste, his meanness about wine and gasoline, the eternal awareness that luxury and beauty have to be hoarded against extravagance and time in a fashion more bourgeois than a banker’s, are all part of a severely rendered social milieu. The detail is characteristic: “Have you noticed,” asks one aging lady of another, “that as the skin gets less firm, the scent sinks in better and lasts much longer?” Chéri’s leaving his older mistress Léa to make a proper marriage is a normal event of this world; but it projects the story into a dimension where the will confronts unknown and terrible possibilities, and the passions assert themselves as imperious enemies of ease and content, the allies of time the destrover. In each book Chéri has, by means of a faint, to flee the world of sense. The postwar Last of Chéri is a great book, surely; Colette is here in the position of Piranesi cutting deeper into the plates of the prison etchings made years before. It is still Chéri and Léa: but the man, symbolically wounded, carries a paralyzed will into a life of pure misery. These are two episodes of exceptional power; the scene in the opium flat where Chéri, under great photographs of Léa, suffers dreams which are ambiguously of her and of the world before the war and the properly famous peripeteia when he comes to her in despair, as if to regain lost time, and finds an old woman, masculine and derisive, wearing age like a natural costume; obese, pure, life-accepting, whereas he carries death with him; she is a Falstaff who rejects the prince.
The Chéri books are a triumph of time. Chéri progresses from beauty and vitality, from the world of death-denying artifice and irresponsibility to an intolerable world of corruption and ennui, and so to suicide. Between the two parts there appeared the more limited yet more perfect Ripening Seed. The adolescent lovers long for the end of innocence, inhabit an artificial paradise closed to their lifeless, shadowy parents. The boy escapes, and is seduced by an older woman, so exchanging an anguish rich in revery for a known and limited pleasure. But Phil is the soft male, wincing at the girl’s easy cruelty when fishing: and now even more vulnerable, he has discovered a sense that life is shared throughout nature, and this gives him the right and duty to tremble “devant la vie délicate des bêtes et le sang échappé à ses sources.” Returning from his woman he sees in the glass not the face of a new man but of a murdered girl. Vinca soon forces him to take her out of innocence also; but she is solid, and the morning after she loses her virginity Phil is astonished to see her happy on her balcony, singing and watering a fuchsia. The end reminds us of the hostages given to time and nature: in a few weeks the singing girl may be terrified and condemned, the boy may need to revise his new estimate of himself as the giver of only small pleasures, small pains. The fact is that in this book, with its delicate Breton beaches, its extraordinarily strong and accurate love-scenes, Colette invented not, as somebody said, “a new way of being sad,” but a way of telling the truth as a woman of civilized eye and sex and pen can feel it; and the truth is again tragic. It is in such works that what she herself began by treating as a trivial stock-in-trade is worked into great literature; and they are the best guide to the reader facing the problems I mentioned earlier.
“Death does not interest me,” Colette once said: and in spite of evidence to the contrary in such stories as “The Sick Child,” it seems generally true that it interested her mostly as an aspect of love. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this is the climactic scene in the first Chéri, where love is represented as an almost intolerable loss of personality, a closing of the other senses at the command of one grown gluttonous. Break of Day, of which Miss Davies rightly says that it is the one work without which Colette’s work cannot possibly be seen in perspective, enacts a psychic rebirth by the renunciation of sexual life; the return of the fully adult to the garden where children name the beasts and flowers. The long conversation which is the heart of this book has its longueurs, but they are justified by the conclusion. And Colette isn’t, hereafter, going to sell love short. Julie de Carneilhan is a somber record of the shabby middle-age of a twice-married and fastidious woman who, like Chéri, abandons the world of the rotten; in another splendid conclusion she polishes her riding boots and sets off through the autumn woods with her taciturn horsy brother, back to where she belongs.
The major Colette is tragic, and The Blue Lantern is strictly not so; it is brave, amused, charming. Yet the aged hedonist, almost happy in her pain, experiences the last stirrings of that spirit of rebirth which is the other side of tragedy. “If I am lying here motionless tonight, there is good reason for it, for I can feel stirring within me—apart from the twisting pain, as if under the heavy screw of a winepress—a far less constant turnscrew than pain, an insurrection of the spirit which in the course of my long life I have often rejected, later outwitted, only to accept it in the end.” When the aged homme de lettres passed in her wheelchair through a hotel lobby, everybody stood up. We shall not understand her quite so deeply as her countrymen, perhaps, but we can try to sort out the unique hedonist tragedies from the mere fluff; and we shall then know at least enough to see that to stand up was the proper and inevitable thing to do.
December 12, 1963