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.
Colette herself was a great practitioner of the put-down. The character “my friend Valentine,” who is the subject of eleven boring stories in Phelps’s collection, exists only to be shown up (or put down) for being superficial, conventional, and a slave to fashion, while the first-person narrator demonstrates her indifference to what people think and her closeness to nature by going barefoot (Colette herself always affected sandals without stockings) and not minding wasps on her food. Valentine is a tire-some early invention and her name soon disappears from Colette’s work. But not her presence: it is you, dear reader, so insensitive, hidebound, unobservant, and psychologically clumsy compared to the writer. Perhaps this showing up by examples of the opposite is what Phelps means by “morally exemplary.”
Colette was born in 1873, just as the second wave of the romantic “pathetic fallacy” was gathering momentum (the swell continued well into the Thirties). During the first wave at the turn of the eighteenth century, writers addressed themselves to rocks and streams and felt at one with nature (or desperate when they didn’t). This time around there was a scramble to get into the skins of animals. Mowgli, half boy, half wolf, was halfway there by definition. Chekhov congratulated Tolstoy on his story about a horse by saying: “I think you must once have been one.” Animals were no longer human beings in disguise as they had been in fables like La Fontaine’s: they were beginning to take the place the noble savage had occupied a few decades earlier. They were dignified, proud, brave, aloof, undivided, and loyal. In Belgium Maeterlinck celebrated his birds and bees, in Germany there was Felix Salten’s Bambi, whose aspirations to authentic deerhood have been overlaid by Disney’s silly celluloid fawn. On the stage Pavlova fluttered full of insight into the souls of swans and dragonflies, while Colette herself appeared as a male faun.
In real life pets were in, especially exotic ones. Colette herself was trumped by the Comtesse de Comminges, her predecessor in the affections of Henry de Jouvenel (“the Tiger”). This lady was known as “the Panther,” and kept one; she was also the mother of Jouvenel’s illegitimate son Renaud (the Fox?), not to be confused with his elder half-brother, who became Colette’s lover.
Colette’s sinuous prose is just the stuff to wrap around animals, and she writes of them with incomparable allure, particularly when she is not over-demonstrating her tactile, olfactory, and visual virtuosity. The novel La Chatte, not overwritten and as elegant as its feline heroine, is “an extraordinary version of the eternal triangle,” Richardson says (not mentioning, though, that it appeared in 1933, ten years after David Garnett’s Lady into Fox), “for the third protagonist is the cat itself.” The cat wins, recapturing the young husband from his bride. She is a real cat, not a person, and Colette makes us feel her misery at being displaced as though we were cats too. Her fastidiousness is contrasted with the bride’s vulgarity, but the cat is also the symbol of the young man’s immaturity and unfitness for marriage: that is the real subject of this harsh story. Pure animal fiction, however pathetic or charming, is a literary cul-de-sac. It cannot help being spurious because no one really knows what it is like inside an animal’s skin, and false pathos and the faux naif lurk ready to pounce on the impostor.
They also lie in wait for Claudine, the adolescent heroine of Colette’s first, highly biographical, and wildly successful novel Claudine à l’école. It was published in 1900 under the name Willy, the nomde-plume of Colette’s first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars. She had married this middle-aged literary roué when she was twenty, dazzled by him and also, perhaps, by the prospect of getting away from the Burgundian village where she was born and for which afterward she never stopped pining, at any rate in print. No one seems agreed how much of a hand Willy had in the series of Claudine novels: certainly less with each successive one and never enough to sign them, as he did—the middle ones in tandem with Colette. He has been blamed (by Colette among others) for the lubricity of these successful potboilers; but Colette herself must be responsible for their terrible cuteness, which comes precisely from the choice of a first-person narrator. Claudine/Colette presents herself as a harumscarum charmer. By the third installment, Claudine en ménage, this monster of self-adulation is talking about “impulsive Claudineries.” It is really too much to take.
The reading public took it all the same, and Willy and Colette were on to a good thing. Tomboys, like animals, were fashionable at the turn of the century; and Claudine, a leggy schoolgirl with a dash of wood nymph, was the sister of countless fictional nymphets of all nationalities. The difference was that Colette made her innocent but not sexually obtuse like all the rest: Claudine knows about men and women and also about lesbian attachments in girls’ schools. In the second volume she marries a Willy-type figure and her sexual range increases. In the third he is encouraging her in an affair with another young married woman. It’s all very unlike the home life of Louisa M. Alcott’s Jo, to whom the early Claudine bore a period resemblance.
Colette herself moved on to the lesbian scene after the collapse of her marriage to Willy. He was a monster: dishonest professionally, and dishonest and brutal sexually. But she loved him and hung on until he pushed her out. She had a nervous breakdown, recovered, and began the stage career for which lessons in mime under Willy’s aegis had prepared her. She also began living with the Marquise de Belboeuf, known as Missy, a member of the large circle of aristocratic or otherwise high-profile lesbians known as Paris-Lesbos. Some of these, like the beautiful demimondaine Liane de Pougy, were as elegantly, flutteringly feminine as could be. Missy was not: square and ungainly, she always dressed as a man, except at family funerals when she wore a skirt out of respect for the dead and embarrassed her relatives by looking like a man in drag. But her appearance belied her nature, which was gentle, delicate, considerate, idealistic, fastidious, and, for Colette, healing.
Colette’s luscious descriptions of young girls leave no doubt that she was attracted to women, and she paid her debt of gratitude to Missy and her circle passim throughout her writing, and explicitly in Le Pur et l’impur, which appeared in 1932, the year she opened her beauty salon. She thought it was her best book, but that seems doubtful. A collection of half essays, half sketches, it is crammed with pensées, tremulous woolly ones, and authoritative pretentious ones. But it contains a charming account of the dandified young homosexuals who kept her company when Willy neglected her, and a hymn to the quiet joys of a long, happy, rustic marriage with the ladies of Llangollen as Philemon and Baucis.
Colette thought that Proust illuminated Sodom but got Gomorrha wrong by describing it as a gang of “inscrutable and depraved young girls…an entente, a collectivity, a frenzy of bad angels….” In her view,
there is no such thing as Gomorrha. Puberty, boarding-school solitude, prisons, aberrations, snobbishness—they are all seedbeds, but too shallow to engender and sustain a vice that could attract a great number…. Sodom looks down from its great height upon its puny counterfeit.
Her point is that while Sodom is a world without women, the citizens of Gomorrha are only too conscious of men, looking over their shoulders at them, aping them, trying to be men.
In a feminist semiologist symposium, Colette: The Woman, The Writer,2 Erica Eisinger reads the autobiographical novel La Vagabonde (1911) as an aspiration toward androgyny:
Renée (the heroine) must recapture the psychic wholeness of her youth: she must shun the narrow definition of female purpose as centered on house and family. She must, in fact, choose the opposite: vagabondage, the homeless existence of the wandering androgyne.
Déclassé by her husband’s desertion as Colette was by Willy’s, Renée, like Colette, earns a hard living on the music-hall stage. A rich and charming lover appears, but even though she loves him too, she turns down his proposal of marriage. Renée is a self-obsessed bore, perpetually demonstrating her strength in frailty, her supersensitivity, and her pluckiness. Her music-hall colleagues are mere sketches: effective as quick-action drawings of dancers, acrobats, and jugglers often are, but two-dimensional and frequently sentimental. The best thing about this novel is the vivid sense it gives of music-hall life: the smell of the dressing rooms, nerve-racking high-speed costume changes, chilly dawns on provincial railway stations, weary rehearsals after sleepless nights on the train. All this can also be found in the “Music Hall” section of Phelps’s book, a series of sketches spun off from La Vagabonde.
If Renée is aspiring toward androgyny in order to escape the female role, she is unaware of it. She gives two quite different reasons for refusing Max. One sounds like early Rilke at his second-best:
In spite of a first marriage and a second love I have remained a sort of old maid—an old maid of the kind so much in love with love that no love seems fine enough to them, and they refuse themselves without deigning to explain their refusal.
The other reason is more down to earth: at thirty-four, Renée feels too old for Max, who is the same age.
It was inevitable that feminist critics should adopt Colette, and perhaps she would have been pleased with their homage: her boldness in writing about female sexuality makes her a sort of pioneer. She explored female comradeship, solidarity, and complicity more carefully and consciously than they had been explored before; and she defined the weariness with men that affects women between love affairs and in old age, and the exhilaration of learning to do without them that heals broken hearts and the pain of aging.
Aging and its Angst, however, were Colette’s most haunting preoccupation. (Later on, when she herself had aged, she tended to preach the joys of overcoming the Angst.) It shows first in Claudine’s husband, who is obsessed with the difference between their ages; it is the subject of the most impressive story in Phelps’s collection—“Le Képi”; and it is the core of Colette’s best-known and best novels, Chéri and La Fin de Chéri. The eponymous hero is a stunningly beautiful, spoiled, heart- and mindless boy, the son of a successful retired cocotte. He is having an affair with one of his mother’s excolleagues, a woman in her fifties whom he loves in his fashion while she dotes on him. Elegant still and desirable, Léa knows that she is too old for Chéri and will soon be too old for love. She turns him out so that he can marry the rich, pretty daughter of yet another retired colleague.
The first novel is set in 1914; the second after the war. Chéri is now pushing thirty and his narcissist’s perfectionist eye tells him that he is no longer quite as beautiful as he was at the time of his liaison with Léa. His wife has developed from a meek jeune fille into an efficient hospital administrator who is having an affair with the American army doctor in charge. Chéri feels disoriented and unwanted. Desolate, he runs back to Léa and finds that five years have turned this voluptuous soignée beauty into a sexless old bag with no interest in him at all. He falls into depression and finally shoots himself.
His suicide is a tour de force of writing. Only Colette could have described it entirely in terms of mechanics:
Without getting up he experimented in finding a suitable position. Finally he stretched out supported on his bent right arm which also held the pistol. He pressed his ear to the barrel buried among the pillows. Immediately his arm began to go numb, and when his fingers started to prickle he realized that if he did not hurry they would refuse to obey him. So he hurried. Crushed beneath his body his right forearm gave him trouble. He uttered a few stifled groans with the effort of adjusting his body. Then he knew no more of life except the pressure of his index finger on a little knob of polished steel.
In its context Chéri’s death (and life) is desolating. No wonder the Jansenist Mauriac pounced on the two novels as examples of
what Pascal called the wretchedness of man without God…. These two wonderful books do not abase us, do not soil us; the last page does not leave us with anything’ like the nausea, the impoverishment we suffer when we read licentious books. With her old courtesans, her handsome, animal, miserable young man, Colette moves us to our very depths. She shows us to the point of horror the ephemeral miracle of youth, obliges us to feel the tragedy of the poor lives which stake everything upon a love as perishable, as corruptible, as its very object: the flesh…. This pagan, this woman of the flesh leads us irresistibly to God.
In spite of the Savonarola tone, this judgment is no exaggeration, though some critics might read the novels as a justification not of Christianity but of some other philosophy—stoicism or epicureanism, perhaps. Anyway, there can be no doubt about their tragic impression. There is no first person here, no “I” at all, but complete objectivity and economy. Both novels are also extremely funny in exactly the same way as the novella Gigi about the training of a future poule de luxe. In both cases the comedy springs from social observation, from Colette’s discovery that the demimonde “which seems so disorderly in fact observes a code almost as narrow as bourgeois prejudice.” The conversations in Léa’s circle and among Gigi’s relatives firmly lay down this code and hilariously embroider it with the Bouvard and Pécuchet clichés of women who are uneducated and unsophisticated except in matters of sex, investment, and jewelry.
How could Phelps leave Gigi out of his collection? It is and deserves to be Colette’s most famous short story and it is no longer than some of the ones he includes. Perhaps he doesn’t like funny stories. There is not a single one in all his book, and no indication in Richardson’s that Colette could be a delightful writer of comedy. It could be argued that her comedy is based on mimicry of speech and therefore less like her than her other writing. But that could be an advantage.
April 26, 1984