Colette; drawing by David Levine

This batch of Colette’s writings does not seem to have been published according to any particular plan. It includes miscellaneous works from both the early and late periods of her career, and depends largely on the translations already issued in England by Secker and Warburg. The one exceptional item is the volume edited by Robert Phelps; it is an anthology of extracts from Colette’s writings so arranged as to form an autobiographical account of her life, from her early days as a lower-middle-class girl in the Burgundian countryside to her final position of eminence as a Parisian personality and the foremost French woman writer of her day, and perhaps of the whole of French literary history. Although Mr. Phelps maintains in his Introduction that Colette’s philosophy was in some respects harsh and unsentimental, the title he has chosen, Earthly Paradise, tends to confirm the average view of her as a latter-day pagan hedonist who rejoiced in the birds and the bees and was an apostle of happy orgasms. For good measure, the parcel also includes a new autobiographical volume by her third husband, who has remarried since her death. His title, The Delights of Growing Old, echoes Earthly Paradise. The book is so slight that it would probably not have been published at all, but for the author’s connection with Colette. However, it contains interesting details about M. Goudeket’s sexual potency, which is remarkable enough to put him well up among the Kinsey champions. During adolescence, he regularly had three nocturnal emissions per night and, since his remarriage, he has become a father at the age of seventy-two. Nature therefore speaks loudly enough in him to make him a Colette character in his own right, independently of his marriage to her.

For M. Goudeket, Colette is quite simply a genius, and everything about her is admirable and extraordinary. Mr. Phelps, for his part, has a thesis: Although Colette’s place in twentieth-century fiction is very high, her place in literature will be finally determined by her large body of autobiographical writing; she is a personality more than a novelist:

…like Montaigne or Thoreau or Whitman, Colette appears destined to become one of those writers whose literary achievement, however extraordinary, is itself caught up in something ampler: a personal myth, an emblematic image that merges the private life and the public art into a greater whole which then comes to incarnate some perennial tendency or tactic in human experience.

THIS TACTIC, says Mr. Phelps, is summed up in the command “Look!” To observe life clearly is a form of prayer or salvation, which leads us back to “purity.” Colette, who was so often criticized for “impurity” in the days before conscientious pornography was sold on every bookstall, becomes, in Mr. Phelps’s vision of her, almost a source of religious instruction. Although non-transcendental, of the earth earthy, she takes on a Schweitzerian quality of “reverence for life.” It is not difficult to see how this can come about. In her accounts of her Burgundian childhood, her mother, Sido, is presented as a green-fingered Ceres dispensing wisdom to the wondering Proserpine. Later, Proserpine is carried off to Paris by a bearded satyr and turns into an enigmatic Belle Epoque goddess with a beautiful, fox-like face, hair down to her waist, and a retinue of cats and dogs. In middle age, she sets up as the tutelary divinity of Saint-Tropez and helps to invent the mythology of the Côte d’Azur, which eventually gave birth, among other things, to that new goddess, Brigitte Bardot. In her final, arthritic phase, she is immobilized in the historic setting of the Palais Royal, having by now herself become a great wounded Earth-Mother, an object of international pilgrimage and one of the supreme brooding consciousness of France.

How deliberately she worked out this mythological progression I don’t know. Possibly not at all. She had the gift of attracting fashionable friends and connections, who publicized her in spite of herself—Cocteau, Schwob, the Comtesse de Noailles, and also, of course, her three husbands: Willy, a ubiquitous, unscrupulous man-about-town. Henri de Jouvenel, a well-known journalist, and Maurice Goudeket, a businessman who devoted himself whole-heartedly to the Colette cult. But for Willy, she might never have become a writer; it was he who locked her up in her room and made her produce so many pages a day, until she acquired the habit of writing and indeed the need to write. Not being in the first place an imaginative author, she had to build up her own childhood as a theme and so gradually turned her parents and herself into representative characters. It was also Willy who launched her in the demi-monde by parading her as a half-incestuous, half-Lesbian attendant on his own dubious personality. It was not she who discovered Saint-Tropez but Goudeket, who took her there. All her life, she seemed to have the ability to let things happen to her and then to turn them into literary material which sold without effort. At no point does she give the impression of being that typically French phenomenon, an author who is carefully cultivating a literary career and working out publicity angles. She lived and wrote, and the marvellous publicity angles appear to have been an effect of grace.


HAVING SAID THIS, however, I must confess that I cannot entirely accept either M. Goudeket’s or Mr. Phelps’s assessment of Colette’s literary quality. M. Goudeket, being a husband, is not required to be a critic, but Mr. Phelps strikes me as too solemn and undiscriminating in his approach. The fact is, surely, that a fair proportion of Colette’s writing is quite bad, and that her range at all times is rather narrow. Her obvious fault is that she overwrites and gushes and enthuses in a way which is less reminiscent of great literature than of a popular columnist doing an “In My Garden” or “These You Have Loved.” Admittedly, Nature poetry is difficult to manage; it has to be discreet and glancing if it is going to be tolerable at all, because sentimental admiration of the universe can be just as vulgar and silly as sentimental rejection of it. But Colette often plunges in with the shamelessness of a tourist guide and quite turns the stomach:

You must be calm, garden, calm and sensible! Don’t forget that you are going to feed me…I want to see you adorned, yes, but with a fruitful beauty. I want to see you covered in flowers, but not in such tender blooms as a single summer day of sizzling crickets will scorch up. I want to see you green, but away with the relentless green of palm and cactus, desolation of a mock, Monaco Africa! Let the arbutus burst into its flames beside the orange tree, and let there be sheets of purple fire dripping down my walls: the bougainvillaea! And at their feet, let the mint plants, the tarragon, and the sage push up their spikes, just so high that a drooping hand, as it crushes their slender leaf-stems, can set free their impatient scents. Tarragon, sage, mint, savory, and burnet opening your pink flowers at noon, then closing them again three hours later, I love you certainly for yourselves—but I shall not fail to demand your presence in my salads, my stewed lamb, my seasoned sauces; I shall exploit you. But all I have in me of disinterested botanical passion I shall keep for that other flower, over there, for her—honor of every climate favored by her presence—the queen, the Rose.

The passage is part of Mr. Phelps’s extract from La Treille Muscate, one of Colette’s accounts of her house in the South of France. It is no excuse to say that this sort of stuff goes down better in French than in English, because it doesn’t. Sometimes, when there are surviving traces of Gallicism, translation makes it sound more peculiar, but the error of taste is the same in both languages. At any moment, Colette is liable to fall into this style when she is writing in the first person and not expressing herself through the medium of objectified characters. She never cured herself of it and, if anything, it got worse as she grew older; it is combined, for instance, with sententiousness, in her last volumes of essays, The Blue Lantern (Le Fanal bleu) and L’Etoile Vesper. It occurs again and again in Mr. Phelps’s anthology, so much so that I suspect him of liking it and thinking that it is the essential Colette. For me, it even spoils a good deal of what she writes about her mother, Sido. The famous letter in which Sido, in old age, refused an invitation to come to see her daughter in Paris because one of her cactuses—a variety which flowers only once in five years—was about to bloom, seems to me intolerably self-conscious and priggish, although Colette herself presents it as an admirable epistle. In short, I would be prepared to jettison the Colette who rushed at Nature too ardently, who used the vocative in addressing gardens, who claimed to speak the language of the animal world and who wore sandals all the time, even for her reception at the Académie Royale de Belgique. She was not alone in this Panic enthusiasm; after all, she was a contemporary of D. H. Lawrence, Llewellyn Powys, and André Gide, as well as of the vegetarian, Jaeger-clad Bernard Shaw. All this was no doubt part of the historical mood of emancipation and being a woman and therefore, needing to be doubly emancipated, she was especially sensitive to it. But it has not worn well and it may put off younger readers who are approaching Colette for the first time through Mr. Phelps’s anthology, and who take the enjoyment of Nature for granted.


NEVERTHELESS, she is a great writer, or at least unique in her subtlety, when she combines psychological perceptiveness with her awareness of the moods of nature, as she does in some of the stories of The Tender Shoot, and in the short novel, The Other One (La Seconde). Here she has the qualities of her defects, i.e., she continues to react violently to material phenomena, but instead of rendering them for their own sake in cloying prose, she subordinates them to human relationships, and even achieves a degree of self-satire. The central character in La Seconde, Fanny, who seems to be a version of herself during her marriage to the unfaithful Henri de Jouvenel, is always exceptionally aware of the landscape, the temperature, the light, her degree of comfort or discomfort, fatigue or freshness, yet she is not allowed to wallow in sensation; she is always being brought up short by the astringent reactions of the other characters, as in the following tiny instance:

Dinner reunited the three of them on the terrace. In Farou’s absence, Fanny and Jane kept up a flickering sparkle of gaiety and, whether his father were present or not, Jean Farou maintained an intolerant and rarely broken silence.

“It’s curious,” said Fanny as she looked up at the clear white sky, “how unrewarding the close of day is here. The sun sets for others, over there behind …”

“The aspect of the mountains is monotonous,” Jane said.

“Maeterlinck,” growled Jean.

The same virtues are to be found in the stories of The Tender Shoot, apart from the lamentably saccharine one called The Sick Child. They usually present some psychological, preferably sexual, drama in a clearly defined physical setting. Colette is so good at suggesting the precise quality of the light, the feel of the wind, or the taste of food that the effect is of an Impressionist painting containing a slowly evolving plot. When she is at her best, the plot is completely amoral, in respect of conventional morality, yet relates to a deeper morality which is suggested rather than stated. For instance, La Seconde is about Fanny’s relations with her husband, Farou, and Farou’s secretary, Jane, whom she discovers to be one of his mistresses. Since Fanny and Jane spend more time together than either spends with Farou, their mutual relationship, which may even be slightly Lesbian, is in a sense more important than their separate attitudes to Farou. Nothing much happens in the novel, except that Fanny gradually achieves a modus vivendi with Jane instead of flying off the handle with jealousy, but the book is unforgettable because of the shimmering rightness of the physico-psychological notations. The technique is not unlike Virginia Woolf’s, except that her characters have only souls and artistic sensibilities, whereas Colette’s have genitals and digestive systems in addition to the higher feelings. Because she gets the details absolutely right, the book swells in the memory and one is surprised, on re-reading it, to see that a great many things that one had remembered as part of the story and that can be quite legitimately inferred from the text, are not actually said. Farou himself, the charming, sloppy, egotistical womaniser, who is a successful but superficial playwright and rather less intelligent than either Fanny or Jane, is an excellent characterization, although the number of words specifically devoted to him is very small. It has been said that Colette is not very good at describing men, and this is true if by men we mean intellectuals or active individuals in the exercise of their extra-sexual functions. She is not really interested in ideas and collective phenomena as such, i.e., the truly masculine domain, although she occasionally tries to be in her newspaper articles. She sees men only as they impinge on women, and therefore her recurrent male characters are womanisers, gigolos, amants de coeur, ponces or semi-ponces, in other words the male inhabitants of the demi-monde or the artistic or delinquent fringe that she was introduced to by Willy, and where she clearly felt more at home than in respectable or conventional society.

THE EXPLANATION may be that she was fundamentally bisexual, and so was naturally drawn to an area of society where masculine and feminine behavior overlaps and the same person can move, almost at will, from the masculine to the feminine role, or vice versa. The biographies don’t explain how Lesbian she was in practice; possibly not very much, even though she wrote Lesbian prose-poems. After all, she had three husbands, including the enviably well-equipped M. Goudeket. But there are many indications in her writing that she had a perfect understanding of that complex (though perhaps very common) relationship in which the richly endowed woman not only acts as mother and mistress, but also enjoys a transferred appreciation of her partner’s virility, as if she herself were exercising it. The words heterosexuality and homosexuality are probably too crude to define a relationship of this kind, or indeed any erotic relationship. At her best, Colette never thinks or feels monosexually; her men are men and her women are women, yet their sexual attributes wax and wane with wonderful accuracy, according to the tensions of the moment. One of the beauties of La Seconde, for instance, is the delicate implication that if Fanny and Jane go on living together, with only intermittent attentions from Farou, Jane will gradually take over the male, organizing role, while Fanny will sink completely into the part of languid odalisque.

In the last resort, the most typical Colette character, and no doubt the most complete projection of herself, is the matriarch, like Léa in Chéri, who has played out her feminine role to the full, yet sees herself doing so and controls her behavior as far as possible with virile efficiency and detachment. She is not a man in disguise, any more than the other splendid examples of the type in Gigi, Julie de Carneilhan, and Le Toutounier. She has the female virtues of housewifely care, sound cooking, discreet luxury, foresight for the future and sober morality within a context of amorality. Although she has never had a child (Colette herself did bear a daughter, but rather absentmindedly, one feels), she is maternal, because some of her lovers have been her children, and especially Chéri himself. She would possibly not be much fun to be with in real life, because of her lack of interest in anything transcending immediate well-being, but as a literary creation she is deeply satisfying and sublimates something that can be found in scores of examples in various walks of French life.

This Issue

June 9, 1966