Sunday, February 15, 2015

Rediscovering Colette

As luck would have it, I spent part of the winter afternoon reading Colette's story "Bella Vista," in the collection The Tender Shoot (tr. Antonia White, 1958), on the same day that actor Louis Jourdan of Gigi movie fame (1958) died. That, the movie I mean, is fifty-seven years ago. Even twenty-five years ago, my local library still had all five of the Claudine novels on its fiction shelves, and I do believe I read at least three of them. I remember two things about them: one, that I was impressed with Colette's imaginative integrity: at the end of the saga, the stock, older, safe Prince Charming type whom you would think the teenaged Claudine has no hope of attracting, actually does marry her (do I remember aright?); and two, that I was confused by the image of the two lady schoolteachers espied in a second-story schoolroom window, "kissing like hotcakes." I thought there must have been some mistake. Like Queen Victoria, I shrugged that Women did not Do That.  

"Bella Vista" gives us another couple of lesbians, this time running a remote hotel in the Midi where Colette, as herself, comes to stay while her little house nearby is being renovated. Again the author builds a story, slow and sensuous bit by bit, and closes it with -- I won't spoil it for you -- a rational and proud and unexpected dose of imaginative integrity.   

I like reading Colette for lots of other reasons. I like the way she simply goes on about anything -- about the way characters physically sling suitcases into the back of a car, or about how a dog puts its paws on the table and reaches up to sniff the sleeve of a man who turns out to hate birds. She likes to write about the look of a place, about weather and old stones in the walls and the "powdery" feel of a light spring rain. Of course she likes to write about food, too, but food is always simply a part of the plot of the day, it comes at mealtimes, it is not (at least in "Bella Vista") something to gourmandize over. It occurred to me this afternoon that perhaps Colette is the food writer M.F. K. Fisher would have liked to be, if only M.F.K. wasn't so angry and so anxious to be great and honorary-French. Colette's prose is filled simply with life, including eating, about which she simply natters on. She wrote a book called Barks and Purrs which I once downloaded, in French, onto an old model Kindle that died an inexplicable electronic death. I never got to it, though I plan to, in translation. I'm guessing it's entirely about dogs and cats.

I'd like to be able to read her in French, but at this point I would rather enjoy her for her productivity than struggle through her with my high school French-English dictionary at my side, cramming vocab. Her biographer, Judith Thurman, whose Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (1999) I also own and which I opened up today too, records that "in half a century she produced eighty volumes of fiction, memoirs, journalism, and drama of the highest quality," plus another seven volumes of published correspondence. (Woe to us moderns who don't write letters! What a feast is lost, what a feast is not even cooked and served! If email takes up the slack, I'll be surprised and maybe pleased, but emails seem so tinny already, don't they? Cold and canned, suitable to be read by millions and by no one.) ... I can't help but think part of the reason Colette churned out so much was because she did natter on about anything. I'll bet when I come to it I'll find Barks and Purrs is not least about the actual physical-ness of animals' barking and purring. Did Colette ever cross anything out, start again, or put draft upon draft of something painful into box after box, afternoon upon afternoon wasted, finally to shrug and reason that it was no good, but that this project was at least a kind of practice and that it's much better for garbage to be in a box, or even actually thrown out, than anywhere else? 

And there is not only the aesthetic wisdom of life observed but flashes of more basic insight, too. In "Bella Vista" she writes of the state of mind we sloppily call vacation mode.
...a peculiar pleasure blunts the sharp edge of my longing for my friends, my home, and my real life. Yet is there anyone who is not deluded about the setting of their 'real' life? Was I not breathing here and now, among these three strangers, what I call the very oxygen of travel? My thoughts could wander as lazily as they pleased; I was free of any burden of love; I was immersed in that holiday emptiness in which morning brings a light hearted intoxication and evening a compulsion to waste one's time and to suffer. Everything you love strips you of a part of yourself; the Madame Suzannes [the landlady] strip you of nothing.

To judge by the first few pages of Secrets of the Flesh, it seems Colette got a leg up (as it were) on a prolific career as a writer by having been only one generation removed from an eerily gamy, primeval French past, in which country virgins are married off to the insane sot of a village lordling, quite in droit du seigneur style; so that when the sot dies, the young widow is left with the crumbling stone house and the overgrown gardens which the author-daughter will remember to such trained effect in eighty volumes of fiction, etc. At least, I think that is where we are going with this. In the Introduction, we are also being asked to believe that Colette had to face the question how to be a person and a woman, a problem unheard of in human history before 1900. This seems a bit overdone, but who knows? Perhaps as we pair Colette with her biographer and go on to the next story and chapter ("Gribiche," and Chapter One), we'll find they agree.


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