There is a much folded photograph reproduced in Yvonne Mitchell’s charming and richly illustrated biography of Colette which shows Monsieur Willy and his wife at lonely table.1 A white rail of the sort you might find in a Baroque church divides the dining room from the rest of the apartment. This rail passes in front of us, opening only to provide an entrance to the space, and we can easily imagine taking a rising or descending step toward the chalk-white cloth, which, in the photograph, advances to occupy the railing’s compositional place; but whether the step should be up or down, it is difficult, and even undesirable, to say.
Colette was always able to project an expressive image upon the photographer’s plate, just as her own style gave the objects it described a lively face: the grass snake coiled like a snail shell by her hand or the heath spiders she says are pink and round as pearls; indeed, the quality of every quality, the rhythm of every contour, is rendered as by a composer, so that, with the immediacy of music and thus as suddenly as Marguerite is brought before Faust by the magic of Mephistopheles, we are seated in a country schoolroom in company with Claudine or on the big embarrassed bed of her girlfriend, Luce, who has fallen from the provinces to Paris like the fruit she chews, and now serves her fat “uncle” in return for silks. The camera, too, has brought us to a flat on the rue de Courcelles, and put us in front of this frozen tableau, the gray domestic world of women: full of cosmetics and clutter, yet ordered and empty, expensively utensiled, but patently futile, noisy and corseted and fussy, deathly still.
To the right on that white rail squats a cut glass decanter which appears nevertheless to contain a candle, and on the left rests a large, probably brass, bell. Two half-full Burgundy bottles, well-corked, clearly white and red, flank Willy’s plate. He is eating fruit, and a basket of apples draped with grapes sits on the table in front of him. A Persian rug embarrasses the edges of the luncheon linen like a poorly fitting petticoat. When the meal is removed (…the bell does not look rung, though perhaps once it rang…), the rug remains to enliven the table top and disguise its scars.
It is a long way from the much loved landscape of Colette’s childhood, the woods which she described in perhaps the first pages she ever wrote:
No small creatures in those great woods; no tall grasses; but beaten earth, now dry, and sonorous, now soft on account of the springs. Rabbits with white scuts range through them and timid deer who run so fast that you can only guess their passage. Great heavy pheasants too, red and golden, and wild boars (I’ve never seen one) and wolves. I heard a wolf once, at the beginning of winter, while I was picking up beech-nuts—those nice, oily little beech-nuts that tickle your throat and make you cough. Sometimes storm-showers surprise you in those woods; you huddle under an oak that is thicker than the others and listen to the rain pattering up there as if on a roof. You’re so well-sheltered that when you come out of those depths you are quite lost and dazzled and feel ill at ease in the broad daylight. [Claudine at School, p. 2]
In a mirror beyond the married pair, who sit in profile to us, the room behind our backs floats like a world on water. There is a lamp, corner cupboard like a standing corpse, and in the distance, deeply submerged, a dark frame shorelining something that looks like a boarded-up lake. I don’t see Willy’s image, though over the low mantle the mirror seems well placed to perceive him. His attention is fixed on some book we cannot see, or on perhaps a bit of biscuit, crumb of cheese, or sheaf of notes. A white collar obliterates his throat. He is absorbed, composed. He wears a dark suit and a second beard behind his ears. He is distinguished and sits well forward on the caned seat of his chair.
Across from him, Colette is held firmly inside her clothes the way her napkin lies rolled and ringed beside her. A silk blouse, gray in the photograph as stone, grasps each wrist; a beaded collar closes about her neck; and a satin belt is cinched about her waist. To make room for her elbows and remove her life, she has pushed away a plate on which there remains the indistinct skin of a grape, and she is leaning forward now to rest her breasts on the table and her right cheek heavily on the peak of her clasped hands.
Her stare is nowhere, and her unnaturally pale face seems fastened to her head like a mask. Above the black velvet bow in her flattened hair there is a ghostly photo of Willy, top-hatted, hanging on the wall, while on the oriental rug at her skirt-covered feet is a white blob like a knitting egg—a toy, one supposes, a ball for Toby-Chien. The creases in the photograph appear as cracks in the plaster, as broken glass, as lines of worry on the walls, ill fortune in the furniture, as judgments, omens, anger.
Who but Willy, who adored his image and desired its presence everywhere; who had a thousand depictions of himself—including caricatures and paintings—made and printed and posted about in Paris like the herald of a social cure; who even persuaded Colette to dress herself like Polaire, the Algerian actress then playing Claudine to full loud houses, in order to enhance certain lesbian allusions, and who dared to have himself photographed standing behind his “twins” as though he were their evil Svengali, not merely their benevolent Papa; who but Willy would have posed for such a domestic picture, or permitted Colette’s unhappiness or his own indifference—their total estrangement—to be so nakedly stated? Perhaps it was his own fist which folded their images together in a kiss—a curse—when he saw more than boredom in her emptied gaze, but in addition how his young wife’s eyes had fallen like early apples onto a hard and distant interior earth.
It is not difficult to see ourselves what the Parisian public saw and enjoyed in these novels about Claudine which Colette had written almost accidentally, first at the suggestion and then the insistance of her greedy usurious Monsieur; but what can we find in them now but Colette? for we have read Violette Leduc since then, among others, and have played all the schoolgirl games; we have had quite enough of lewd and giggling innocence, of unaimed spite and wide open ego, of coltish spirits, silly presumption, ignorant courage, or naïve trust. Natural wit’s old hat, sweet fears, fresh hope, we’ve had instance after instance of, and the contrast between mistress and maid, cynicism and faith, the unripe and the spoiled, cannot strike us any more with tragic weight or moral force. What worms we are, like Willy, to have forsaken the fruit to cannibalize its grubs!
In any case, there are no silly schoolgirls any more, and if the public nowadays wants to know what young girls think, they are served a stronger brew than Daisy Miller or What Maisie Knew. Wedding nights are still disappointments, but scarcely surprises; the war between the sexes has never been noisier, meaner, or emptier of sense, adultery more snoozily middle-class, or homosexuality more sordid—no, and trivial commonplace lives, for Colette a specialty, have never been more blandly cream-o’-wheat, more catsup leaked on steak, reaching stale middling heights; nor has the production of vapid conversation or cretinous creature comforts, shimmering baubles and other visual distractions—football, films—fallen off, on the contrary, or the use of the carnal drug; and loneliness is as large as it ever was: paper napkins snuffed in plastic glasses testify to it, the floor of every closet cries out “love me!,” wadded towels too, windows on which the images of waiting faces have been fixed, long halls like highways, and on kitchen counters, where waxy cartons speak of it to knives smeared with crumbs and purple jelly; so that the fascination we now find in these novels about Claudine, and it is certainly there, is due solely to the ever fresh charm—the instinctive grace—the greatness of Colette, which is certainly immense.
Colette was not the sort of natural genius whose eventual vocation appears spelled out on baby’s Beethovian brow. Her intelligence, her curiosity, would not allow her to remain safely at home where she really wanted to be, but let her be taken in by Willy’s worldliness and sophistication, as so many were—perhaps by his masterful gaze, his sexy voice—and carried out of her little Burgundian town, where indeed hard times were another incentive, to the great city, no doubt the way captives were once brought to Rome for amused display. She must almost immediately have felt as Rilke’s hero, Malte, did: surprise that people came there to live when the place seemed best fitted to sustain physical distress, loneliness, and fear, and supplied only the facilities for dying. In any event, it was this paunchy old publicist, who picked brains better than crows clean carrion, who introduced Colette to the smoky world of men, and he did it with a thoroughness to inspire praise and discourage imitation.
The recognitions began immediately, if the wedding night is immediate enough, but only gradually did the full measure of her mistake stretch the dressmaker’s tape to its tip. By and by (fine words for what it emotionally meant), her toes growing cold in the too big bed, she was twisted by jealousy like a wet towel until she wept, and was compelled to admit that her husband did a good bit more than neglect her like a friendless pet. She was in fact left alone all day in a small cold flat with a poisonous stove where she dined on nuts and fruit like a monkey and nibbled candy like someone kept. Then fell evening when she was led through salons like a fox terrier on a chain, as Cocteau said, and thence to musicales which Willy might review but at which, in any case, he must be seen, and finally to cafés full of smirk and innuendo and late hours—what was there to say? to these polished and brittle homosexuals? to these softly jowled fat Don Juans? by a girl from the country? with a thick Burgundian burr? especially since they were none of them red and golden pheasants or even geese come down on a smooth deep lake.
Willy’s jaded sexual interests were limited to her innocence which stimulated him the way new snow invites small boys to trample it, and he had at once begun to cheat, as Colette discovered one day when, by unforgivably demeaning herself, she followed and discovered him with a foul-tongued, back-bumped dwarf, little Lotte Kinceler, whom Colette could only pity, and who later blew her mouth apart like glass, committing suicide with a symbolic substitute for what had murdered her already. Willy eventually brought his other cocottes to Colette’s apartment where they would finger her things and speak smut. He also carted his collection of pornography with them when they traveled to the country, either to visit and vacation or to escape creditors. And he clung to the skirts of bankruptcy like a bewildered boy.
This wit and bon vivant and raconteur, moreover, this powerful journalist and man-about-town, signed his name to books he hadn’t written, claimed ideas he hadn’t had, professed tastes he’d never formed. Willy consumed talent like a pimp, and Colette slowly realized that she’d become his latest literary whore in addition to her other duties; that the true sensitivity, intelligence, and taste, furthermore, were on her side; that grace was hers, and honest animal sensuality, the clear uncluttered eye, even good character, industry, and decent ambition, were hers rather than his; that nevertheless she had no vocation, no real role, no independence, a rudimentary education, no polish, no funds; and so she must do her stint and wait at the window and furnish his life, when he chose to share it, with slippers and prattle and pie; that she must be obedient and willing and patient and pretty, cheerful and faithful on top of it, like dung decorated with whipped cream and a cherry, though now she was braidless and ill and bruised, unfresh and scrambled as crawled over snow; still she was supposed to be grateful, and eager to unbutton his vest and remove his tie, to clasp his fat back in amorous arms, and closely regard, even admire, that thick neck swollen with blood and exertion which rose from his trunk on those occasions like a peeled raw root, while her own body went through the sorrowful motions of love to a conclusion which had from the first time to the last to be a burning and shameful, embittering lie.
Colette could not write to her mother of her misery—not just yet—and later the Claudines, those ostensible fictions, gave her a chance at the truth, while her warm and optimistic letters home to Sido, by virtue of what they left out, were in effect made up. Memoirs mixed with fiction, fictions compounded of fact: these were to remain the poles of her work, and the journalism she eventually produced—made of impressionistic, on-the-spot responses—was like a switch engine shunted between these principal stops. Colette was clearly not a novelist by nature as her beloved Balzac was. She wrote her early novels on demand; the key was turned in the lock. Her plays were also a response to pressing necessities, and she toured in them eventually, and bared her bosom too, and struck eloquent attitudes like one of those seductive figures who advertise perfumes: in order to live, to escape being cast forever in the role of a little girl or superfluous femme; although there can be scarcely any doubt that a large part of her yearned to be fed sweets—comforted, cosseted, ruled.
Writing was furthermore a means of shading her mother’s eyes. It earned Willy’s parsimonious praise and shifted slowly the direction of dependency between them. As time and her success reduced these complex causes to simple considerations, Colette turned more and more openly to autobiography, to that sort of reposeful meditation which was to make her great: the evocation of nature and the celebration of the senses, the beautiful rewording and recovery of her life.
But in Paris Colette found herself strangely imprisoned in an open ruin—a marriage destroyed because of jealousy, mistrust, infidelity, a series of explosive truths—with physique and spirit weakened by her sense of the futility of everything, aching loneliness, the worn-out view out her window, her empty odd hours and odder diet. So she fell ill—what else was there to do? sickened by fumes from a salamander stove, by the little cruelties of daily life, the slick wig of evil tongues and stupid wag of amorous pastimes, but especially by lies both large and immensely petty. She was burning—that was it—consumed by a nostalgia which became a happy characteristic of her consciousness, when she was well, the way her breasts continued to gladden her body. Yet among all those innumerable disappointments which close over a soul grown small and tender as a snail to be swallowed, there was the persistent reappearance of reality like a hard shell or bitter pit. Always that. And every dream dead of the truth. The future, too—dead of it.
Sido had to be summoned at last. That resilient will which was to be the core of Claudine’s charm and the center of Colette’s strength during a difficult life, had become as loose and limp in her body as the bedclothes on her bed, and slid away whenever she rose. Recovery was slow, but her illness won her a few more trips into the country, a little respite from the gentleman in the black hat.
The second photo shows us Willy, pen in hand, forcefully facing the photographer. He is seated at another table, also berugged, another mantle behind him, other paintings, further glass glint, smears of image and reflection, amply figured in an ample darkness.2 He could well be wearing the same suit. There is a spread of papers signifying industry, a pen holder, silver tray, a book or two, perhaps a magnifying glass. To his left Colette sits with her fingers holding down a passage on its page as if it could wiggle away. No doubt Willy wants this important section marked, held for him like a seat at a play. The hands are patient. They serve his needs. While Willy and the camera are tête-à-tête, Colette’s gaze, as if she’d carried it between the two pictures like a brimming bowl, slips weakly over the edge of the table and disappears into the void. Her expression is one of quiet but profound sadness. The far side of her face is as white as her blouse, though barely there, and a tie covered with bursts of light falls from a high tight collar like a crack of dark sky between clouds.
To write about school in a copy book—to continue the little themes indefinitely into life—what could be more natural? but fate had to conspire almost constantly to bring it about. She and Willy stayed at her old school for a few days while on vacation one July (she writes about this “return” in Claudine en ménage), and back in Paris that fall Willy suggests that she write down and spice up the best of what she remembers of those carefree girlish times. This idea, coming from Willy, was not so surprising, since Willy was used to hiring out such work, and he doubtless expected her scribblings to come to nothing. It was a therapeutic occupation like needlepoint and tatting; perhaps it would provide some private titillation, little more, and direct her chatter from his ear to the no longer listening and indifferent page. Indeed, Willy found only dull trivia when he later examined the six exercise books Colette had filled. There was nothing he could use. Too bad, but no matter.
Having nibbled on the pen, Colette did not suddenly become insatiable. When Willy tossed her work deep into his black desk, she was content, as regards that, to return to her candy and her cat; yet she continued to write long letters as she had always done, not understanding how they reflected her true and early love of language, her real vocation. Chance again put these notebooks back in Willy’s hands. Two years later he happens on them while cleaning out the rear of a drawer.3 He finds them interesting—useful—this time, though publishers are not easily convinced, and refuse more than once to issue Willy’s saucy little novel about a pack of odd, though ordinary, kids, a pair of overly fast friends, some childish high-jinks, and one long worrisome exam; and they continue to refuse even after Willy has had its actual author bend a few relationships toward the piquant and perverse. Claudine à l’école was not published until 1900, some six years after its very circumstantial composition. Then twenty-seven, Colette had been married from her twentieth year to the Monsieur Willy who signed the volume and composed its preface, one which put much of the truth inside a joke: that the book had been written by a schoolgirl—Claudine herself.
Sales began slowly, but with favorable reviews and word of mouth, the novel became a sensation. Willy redoubled his visits to the photographer, and set Colette to work on a second confection—a briefer, poorer book, but an even greater success. Soon hats and collars, ice creams, lotions, perfumes carried Claudine’s name. Then there was the play, and more Claudines, each shorter, more ambiguous, less resolutely cheerful. Meanwhile Colette kept herself trim in her little private gym, and began to choose her future—a future open to a woman of her present class and condition—the stage.4
Nearly unnoticed amidst the schoolgirl gush of the Claudine books, the amorous titivations, the mounting references to immediate Parisian social life—all calculated to entice—was Colette’s angry exposure of the condition of young women in rural France. What was a Burgundian girl to do? In Claudine at School, for instance, appears this sudden paragraph of social commentary. The girls are readying themselves for a spelling test:
There was a great hush of concentration. No wonder! Five-sixths of these little girls had their whole future at stake. And to think that all of those would become school-mistresses, that they would toil from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon and tremble before a Headmistress who would be unkind most of the time, to earn seventy-five francs a month! Out of those sixty girls, forty-five were the daughters of peasants or manual labourers; in order not to work in the fields or at the loom, they had preferred to make their skins yellow and their chests hollow and deform their right shoulders. They were bravely preparing to spend three years at a Training College, getting up at five a.m. and going to bed at eight-thirty p.m. and having two hours recreation out of the twenty-four and ruining their digestions, since few stomachs survived three years of the college refectory. But at least they would wear hats and would not make clothes for other people or look after animals or draw buckets from the well, and they would despise their parents.
Claudine is not in school to come to this. Nor has she been reluctantly badgered there by a mother who wishes her daughter to escape, as one of the girls who fails explains to Claudine:
Mother sent me to boarding-school, father he didn’t want it, he said I’d do best looking after the house like my sisters, and doing the washing and digging the garden. Mother, she didn’t want it—it was her as they listened to. They made me ill, trying to make me learn—and you see how I come over today.
Although Colette will carry on a life-long romance with little villages and country gardens, in her less reminiscent moods she will realize that despite her attachment to her mother, her beloved Sido, she could never have stayed put.
Come over here little girl and let me show you something, wheedles the dirty old world, and sweet ignorant Claudine—well—all tiptoes, she does want to see. Weary of innocence, she does desire to know what the sexual fuss is all about. She is a tight string eager to sound yet fearful of the music; and since she wants to take risks while retaining her safety, she will pass from one school to another, one teacher to another, one parent to another, in every case learning the unforeseen and unexpected, insecure on one leg because, mistrustful of the ground, she cannot chance having both put firmly down together.
So curiosity…not your window-shoppers’ sort, those strollers whose eyes in muggy weather light like nervous flies on crumbs and sweets yet leave without lessening their prize or fattening themselves, but the curiosity that bites the peach to the pit and allows the mouth to fill with juice like a basin; that licks hard and listens, that fingers and sniffs and above all looks, regards—watches, stares, peers—that observes, receives, as an infant explores its world, all drool and smear, as if the world were a fistful of thumbs…such curiosity consumes both Colette and Claudine, and unties them from their homes, and lets them for a time believe that certain dashing older gentlemen will open the earth for them, expose life as they expect to be exposed, and give them the only kind of experience that counts: carnal knowledge of all things.
These Claudines, then…they want to know because they believe they already do know, the way one who loves fruit knows, when offered a mango from the moon, what to expect; and they expect the loyal tender teasing affection of the schoolgirl crush to continue: the close and confiding companionship, the pleasure of the undemanding caress, the cuddle which consummates only closeness; yet in addition they want motherly putting right, fatherly forgiveness and almost papal indulgence; they expect that the sights and sounds, the glorious affairs of the world which their husbands will now bring before them gleaming like bolts of silk, will belong to the same happy activities as catching toads, peeling back tree bark, or powdering the cheeks with dandelions and oranging the nose; that music will ravish the ear the way the trill of the blackbird does; that literature will hold the mind in sweet suspense the way fairy tales once did; that paintings will crowd the eye with the delights of a colorful garden, and the city streets will be filled with the same cool dew-moist country morning air they fed on as children. But they shall not receive what they expect; the tongue will be about other business; one will hear in masterpieces only pride and bitter contention; buildings will have grandeur but no flowerpots or chickens; and these Claudines will exchange the flushed cheek for the swollen vein, and instead of companionship, they will get sex and absurd games composed of pinch, leer, and giggle—that’s what will happen to “let’s pretend.”
The great male will disappear into the jungle like the back of an elusive ape, and Claudine shall see little of his strength again, his intelligence or industry, his heroics on the Bourse like Horatio at the bridge (didn’t Colette see Henri de Jouvenel, editor and diplomat and duelist and hero of the war, away to work each day, and didn’t he often bring his mistress home with him, as Willy had when he was husband number one?); the great affairs of the world will turn into tawdry liaisons, important meetings into assignations, deals into vulgar dealings, and the en famille hero will be weary and whining and weak, reminding her of all those dumb boys she knew as a child, selfish, full of fat and vanity like patrons waiting to be served and humored, admired and not observed.
Is the occasional orgasm sufficient compensation? Is it the prize of pure surrender, what’s gained from all that giving up? There’ll be silk stockings and velvet sofas maybe, the customary caviar, tasting at first of frog water but later of money and the secretions of sex, then divine champagne, the supreme soda, and rubber-tired rides through the Bois de Boulogne; perhaps there’ll be rich ugly friends, ritzy at homes, a few young men with whom one may flirt, a homosexual confidant with long fingers, soft skin, and a beautiful cravat, perfumes and powders of an unimaginable subtlety with which to dust and wet the body, many deep baths, bonbons filled with sweet liqueurs, a procession of mildly salacious and sentimental books by Paul de Kock and company—good heavens, what’s the problem?—new uses for the limbs, a tantalizing glimpse of the abyss, the latest sins, envy certainly, a little spite, jealousy like a vaginal itch, and perfect boredom.
And the mirror, like justice, is your aid but never your friend.
Dependent as a young girl is, she has only her body to sustain her. Her body has brought her to Paris. Her body can free her from her husband if she wants to go on the stage or be a whore, but she must possess a pleasant face, a fresh complexion, good limbs, prominent breasts, a narrow waist. She will succeed only so long as she gives pleasure to men. To do that, she must know how to flatter, how to be silent, when to be weak; for women must be weak in public, strong at home, compliant in private.
The prudent woman will not accept gifts from just any body, so frigidity will be the rule. To become dependent there, to allow a male that power over you, to lose the last of your lands without a struggle, the citadel of sensation, is to surrender everything and enjoy even the humiliation of your rape.
The Claudine books do not contain the complete scenario. The independent woman goes to bed with bankers and invests her tips with wisdom on the Bourse, and the time will come when she will keep men as she was kept, requesting their erections, and requiring them to pleasure her as she was once supine and sweetly willing. A woman who has children and who remains married will someday sell her daughters off as she was sold, and by middle age the intelligent, ambitious ones will be so accomplished at managing the world through their husbands—as if soft arms were in those manly sleeves—and so skilled at beating back female competition, so sly with insinuation, clever with wigs and rouge, so unscrupulous about the truth, adept at blackmail and intrigue, hard inside as cinders, that males would fall to their knees in terrified admiration if they believed to their bones what they’ve hitherto only suspected, and occasionally felt: the scornful condescension which has shivered the small hairs of their skin when they turned away to sleep sometimes in bedrooms shut away from any breeze.
During wars, as it is written in La Fin de Chéri, when the men go off to be brave in front of one another, rump to rump and arm in arm and hand to hand (for that’s esprit de corps), the women, as dangerous as the slaves which the Spartan soldiers left behind, take over. They discover, the way Rosie the Riveter did, that women can shape the real world as well as any man; that manipulating men has made them peculiarly fit for politics and administration; and they become men then, improving on the species; for it never occurred to Colette (as it never did to Gertrude Stein) to question the roles, only the assignments of the players.
There is one value in this sort of life, one currency which can be cashed like grapes crushed in the mouth, spent in the released limbs, received from one’s surroundings as simply as rain, and that is the quiet ease of soul called contentment, the joyful joining of the body to the world which we vaguely spell as pleasure. The realm of animals and nature, quiet open country, unassuming streams and ponds, flowering plants: these yield that pleasure up with greatest certainty and safety, and young Claudine and the mature Colette are sensualists of a greedy straightforwardness and simplicity supreme enough to put Pierre Louÿs’s perversities to rout, and J.-K. Huysmans’s hothouse visions and rococo plans, like out-of-fashion paintings, into the museum basement.
But the body fails us and the mirror knows, and we no longer insist that the gray hush be carried off its surface by the cloth, for we have run to fat, and wrinkles encircle the eyes and notch the neck where the skin wattles, and the flesh of the arms hangs loose like an overlarge sleeve, veins thicken like ropes and empurple the body as though they had been drawn there by a pen, freckles darken, liver spots appear, the hair…ah, the hair is exhausted and gray and lusterless, in weary rolls like cornered lint.
It is the hair we see in the final photographs, after arthritis has marooned her on that pillowed divan she calls her raft. She wears a futile sweater against the chill which swells from within now like a puff of cold breath, and a fur bedspread is draped over her former body. She is looking at us with Claudine’s eyes and Colette’s mouth. Her alertness is utterly unlike the hopelessness we earlier saw when she sat beside Willy. It is preternaturally intense. Her jaw juts as it always did; her nose has not lost its longish taper either; the brow has risen, lying beneath her frizzy hair like snow beneath a wintering bush; and her hands, thank god, can still form words. A table crosses her body like a bridge, running toward the window which overlooks the gardens of the Palais-Royal, and bearing, like pedestrians trooping over it, a telephone, pen and little pitcher chocked with spares, her spectacles, some papers (what’s that, an address book?), a potted plant overbearingly in bloom, and plenty of bleaching sunshine. One of the immortals, she will soon die, and be given a state funeral and denied consecrated ground on the same day.
Claudine never had enough to do. She had no children, few plants, and her husband’s servants. She had her husband, too, who kept her at ends as loose as carpet fringe. She gives way to her impulses and encourages her moods. She recoils from imprisonment but plays at being kept. Yet what can a plaything feel but the handling? Love is the great distraction. Romance can fill you better than pasta, and when it’s digested it leaves you thin. Love gives you the sense of having been alive, but the life of love is always in the past tense, in that remembered moment when a curl touched your cheek or an amorous glance felt like a warm palm on the belly—there, where the smallest muscles tremble to the touch like an animal. Chéri, too, a male Claudine in many ways, though without her elasticity, can only hunger and fondle, fuck and sleep; find his intermittent being in his mother-mistress, Léa’s arms, as Claudine finds hers in Renaud’s, her equally fatherly lover. “Devoting oneself to sensual pleasure is not a career for a respectable man,” Colette writes in L’Etoile Vesper,5 or for a woman who would live past fifty either, since by that time…time….
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.
April 14, 1977
Yvonne Mitchell, Colette: A Taste for Life (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), pp. 68-69. ↩
Mitchell, p. 62. ↩
Maria le Hardouin says it was a few months (Colette: A Biographical Study, London: Staples, 1958), but most biographers fix the time at two years: Mitchell, previously cited, Margaret Crosland in her two books (Madame Colette: A Provincial in Paris, London: Peter Owen, 1953, and Colette: The Difficulty of Loving, Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), and Elaine Marks in hers (Colette, Rutgers University Press, 1960). Margaret Davies (Colette, Grove Press, 1961) suggests that it was two to three. Maurice Goudeket’s memoir (Close to Colette, London: Secker and Warburg, 1957) does not cover this period. ↩
Nothing went to waste: this music hall life too, almost accidentally and desperately arrived at, would provide the background and some of the form for Mitsou (where a playlet is inadequately digested), as well as for Music Hall Sidelights (a series of vivid sketches), and The Vagabond, perhaps her first fully realized fiction—a novel in which the sexual dilemma of the “working woman” is beautifully defined. ↩
Written in her seventies, The Evening Star, translated by David Le Vay (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), along with The Blue Lantern, translated by Roger Senhouse (Farrar, Straus, 1963), make up the summit of what is an actual mountain of memoirs and reflections (My Mother’s House, Sido, Break of Day, The Pure and the Impure, each published here by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) which overshadows, in the pure quality of its literary achievement, even her finest fiction. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩