The Landscape of Colette

Colette's FranceI have been a very bad blogger of reviews lately, choosing far too often to witter on about life (because it is shamefully easy to do) rather than make the small amount of effort it takes to write something coherent about a book. For this reason, I finished Colette’s France; her lives, her loves by Jane Gilmour several days before Christmas and am only just now getting around to assessing it.

This is a sumptuously beautiful book. A hardback with a floral border on all its pages, it is packed full of glorious photos of Colette and the places she lived, some from the time she lived in them, some from the present day when the author undertook her pilgrimage around the sites of Colette’s life. Really, it’s gorgeous, and the idea of illustrating the life of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted writers on nature and landscape is an excellent one. One of the great pleasures of Colette’s prose is her ability to conjure up places, sensations and vistas; she was a very visual and sensual writer who openly gorged herself on beauty. The way this book has been designed does great justice, I think, to that side of her work.

Author, Jane Gilmour, was a Colette scholar in her youth. But having finished her dissertation on Colette at the Sorbonne in Paris – in the late 60s, early 70s when the Left Bank was the pulsing hub of intellectualism – she left for Australia with her husband and a very different sort of life. The years passed and that first marriage ended. But gradually the idea returned to her to journey in the footsteps of Colette, and as she undertook a series of trips to France with a new partner, sharing her Francophile enthusiasms with him and revisiting the salient locations in Colette’s life, so the idea of a book became a reality.

I began to see Colette’s life emerging through the prism of the different places in which she had lived – the places of her heart – each representing a particular period in her life and particular relationships, each profoundly influencing her writing, and each so vividly evoked in the shapes, colours, perfumes and sounds of her prose.’

What follows is a memoir shaped by the houses of Colette’s life, which do seem naturally to mark out quite different eras. From the Burgundy of her childhood, steeped in vineyards and the crippling demands of respectability (demands which her family singularly failed to meet), Colette moved with first husband, Willy, to the centre of artistic Belle-Époque Paris. Whilst a great deal of her career would necessarily take place here, Colette was essentially a country woman who needed her rural retreats. Husbands and lovers were more than willing to provide them for her. Willy bought her a little house (not so little by today’s standards) in the Franche-Comté region east of Paris, a lushly forested area bordered by mountains. Missy, the lesbian lover she left him for, built her a seaside house in Brittany, which Colette refused to give back when they eventually split. Her next husband, the wealthy and aristocratic Henry de Jouvenel opened the doors of Castel-Novel to her, his family seat – complete with ivy-covered turrets and rows of ornate balconies – in the lush heat of the Limousin. Her third husband introduced her to the pleasures of Province, where she bought for herself La Treille Muscat, a pretty gorgeous villa in the shade of pine forests that overlook the Mediterranean. Old age and the second world war found her fixed in Paris, refusing to move away from the source of her work and finding comfort in the community of apartment dwellers in the Palais Royale.

The first thing that struck me was what a lucky woman Colette was to live is a series of amazing houses in lovely locations. The second was how many different lives Colette had managed to cram into her eighty-odd years. I confess I knew that about Colette already; what I hadn’t realised was how she changed the theatrical backdrop to her life with each reincarnation of herself, and how that must have helped her with the chameleon grace that she felt was so essential to female survival in the world. Colette was proud of her pragmatic peasant mentality, as she called it, and fascinated by the immediate. You might describe her as living in the moment, which undoubtedly facilitated her abilty to slip out from under the guilt she really ought to have felt about the way she treated people. Like most memoirs, this is a sympathetic portrait of Colette, but Jane Gilmour does admit in her conclusion that Colette surprises the avid reader of her work by turning out to be, at her worst, hard-headed, grasping and selfish. But stubbornly following her own star certainly gave Colette the best life she could have dreamed of, and by graft and determination, she certainly had plenty of rooms of her own to write in – while poor old Virginia Woolf pondered how difficult that was for a woman in polite and convention-bound England.

The biographical part of the book is a good, accurate and satisfying account of Colette’s complex and varied life. I have to admit that the prose is a bit pedestrian and the writer doesn’t always delve as deeply as I might have liked into the links between writing and life. The translations of Colette seem a tad stilted, too. But this is a book that sort of hovers around the coffee-table genre, and as such you get plenty of fascinating information to go with its gloriously decorative function. For an easy and enjoyable introduction to Colette’s life, and plenty of location-lust, you couldn’t do better.

 

The Trip To Echo Spring; Why Writers Drink

echoSpringThis book is a beguiling mix of biography, travelogue and memoir, that focuses on the life and work of six of America’s finest twentieth century male writers: Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver, crazy mad drunks one and all. Olivia Laing works her way around their geographical locations in a long peripatetic journey across the USA, musing on the relationship between literature and booze, thinking back over the lives of her authors and the works they wrote, remembering how her own childhood was distorted by drunken adults, and refusing all the easy answers.

En route, we learn a lot about alcohol addiction, some of which is fascinating. For instance, neuroscience has discovered that the pleasure of getting drunk inscribes itself on the human brain with an especially potent mark. And so regardless of what vile behaviour and dreadful consequences drink produces, the urge to return to it in times of stress never abates. The belief that it is the font of all pleasure is so very compelling. The more a person drinks, the more withdrawal symptoms he or she will experience and so the anxiety that they seek to quench with alcohol becomes even more acute and intense when they are sober. In this way, drunks are made: alcohol so quickly becomes a vicious circle, it’s no wonder getting dry and staying dry are particular difficult things to do.

Notably, all the authors Laing examines had severely troubled childhoods, which left them with legacies of extreme anxiety. Poverty, bad parenting, hostile, aggressive families, suicides, denied sexuality, it’s pretty much a roll call of all the dreadful things that can happen in ordinary first world families. This seems to be at the root of the obsession, much more so than artistic creativity itself. In fact, that creativity might be a destabilising force is something that Laing dismisses quite vigorously. Discussing John Berryman, the academic-poet of enormous brain, huge ego and quite stupendous drinking problems, she refers scathingly to a note written about him by Saul Bellow. ‘Inspiration contained a death threat,’ Bellow writes. ‘He would, as he wrote the things he had waited and prayed for, fall apart. Drink was a stabilizer. It somewhat reduced the fatal intensity.’

This, Laing declares, ‘was a foolish thing to say. The poems weren’t killing Berryman.’ She is very clear that drink was not a stabilizing force, but a method of self-destruction: ‘Alcohol might have quietened his near omnipresent sense of panic on a drink by drink basis, but on a drink by drink basis it had also created a life of physical and moral disintegration and despair.’ It seems much more in this account a question of personality and upbringing. Alcoholics are among those people who have an ‘external locus of control’, which is to say they don’t feel personally responsible for what happens to them, but tend instead to blame circumstances or be superstitious. They also tend to be mired in denial – about what’s happening to them, why it’s happening and what ought to be done about it. And they lack the faith in others and themselves, the trust in life, to give up their addiction.

What seems to emerge, then, is the sense, faintly miraculous, that these men managed to transcend their issues with alcohol sufficiently to write the works they did. That they managed to hang onto some functioning part of self-awareness and perspicuity, not to mention awesome wordsmith skills, to create their novels, poems and plays.

In this beautifully written book, the literary analysis, the biographies and the research on alcohol are the best parts – and they come together in impressive and powerful ways. But I don’t completely agree with the dismissal of creativity as a source of trouble. To be creative may well be one of our greatest skills and our sharpest pleasures, but the need to be creative, the drive to find ways to talk about the messy, paradoxical human condition, comes from some place of damage. You don’t have to be an alcoholic to write, but the factors that push people towards alcoholism are also in part those that push them towards writing. Well, I think so, after the past year or so of research into writers and their ways. There are the occasional exceptions, like Goethe, for instance, who seemed a fairly jolly sort. But the happy, balanced writer is not the norm. Still, Laing’s subtle and careful deductions about her writers are always insightful and sensitive.

I find that the more literary a book is, and the more ambitious in scope, the more flaws it can contain and yet still be a very good experience. So if I say that the travelogue elements, while gloriously written, don’t seem to add anything to the overall value of the narrative, this isn’t a reason not to read it. Equally I found the memoir element, which makes up a very small part of the book, to be unsatisfactory. Olivia Laing begins well by locating her motivations for the whole enquiry in the experience as a child of her mother’s alcoholic (and female) partner. This is the reason why she chooses only to study male writers. But having shown this much vulnerability, she is not about to show any more. After that she bounds through her story like a good head girl, getting all the answers right in the literary quiz, showing herself to be a competent and keen traveller, having a lovely few days bonding with her mother over Carver’s grave. I rather felt for her poor old authors, suicidal, hopeless, paranoid, defecating in corridors, hallucinating, beating their partners. I understand it must be very hard to write about people who are still alive, but having gone so far, I would have preferred it myself if Laing had had the courage to show her own scars. Still, this is a fascinating and intelligent book, and a very necessary investigation into the mysterious world of creativity.

A New Discovery

Probably because I am so keen myself on the activities of reading, deducing and interpreting, I am the kind of consumer of crime fiction who’s in it for the puzzle. I can read the gore and violence stuff (to a certain level) but playing mental games with fear and vulnerability just isn’t as interesting. No, what pleases me above all else is the arrival on the scene of the master detective – professional or inspired amateur, I really don’t mind – who will discern revealing clues in otherwise ordinary objects and events, and who will read the difference between what the suspects say and the subtext they try to hide. Nothing makes me happier than a really good dénouement when all the pieces fall into place in a surprising yet convincing order. And so my heart lies with the Golden Age of crime, when detecting was all about being clever, and the victim was so often someone the community was glad to see dead.

Elizabeth Daly looking suitably benign and cozy

Elizabeth Daly looking suitably benign and cozy

Imagine my delight, then, when the wonderful Danielle reviewed a ‘lost’ Golden Age author, Elizabeth Daly (what would we do without Danielle’s recommendations – I think half the books I’ve bought in the past seven years have come from reading her blog!). I immediately bought a couple of books by her, and after I’d read the first one, I did something I practically never do and immediately read the second. And then I ordered two more. I had taken with a pinch of salt the much trumpeted claim on the book cover that Elizabeth Daly had been the favourite author of Agatha Christie. But having read her books, I now believe it is probably quite true. There is something very Christie-esque in the way the plots unfold and the ingenuity of the solutions. I’ve been trying to find out a bit about Elizabeth Daly’s life but she is a regular woman of mystery. She was the daughter of a New York justice of the peace, had enough private income to pursue her interests in writing and putting on plays, but didn’t publish her first novel until the age of 62. In the next ten years she wrote 15 more novels, featuring her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge.

Henry Gamadge is an expert in antiquarian books and manuscripts and known to be discreet, trustworthy and shrewd. Although he’s a gentleman, he’s not the effete, foppish sort; rather, he takes advantage of his undistinguished features to blend in wherever he finds himself, and he’s not above involving himself in war work (intelligence, we presume). His location is a subdued New York in the 1940s and his clientele is made up of the kind of wealthy old families who are on the brink of extinction.  Whilst a louder, smarter set are close on their heels, these are the families for whom name, reputation and respectability are still worth killing. And given their innate secrecy, this is apt to happen when such families harbour a certifiable nutcase in their midst.

arrow pointing nowhereIn Arrow Pointing Nowhere, Gamadge receives – through the deployment of much subterfuge – an anonymous cryptic note asking for his help. More such missives follow, each one thrown from an upper window of a grand mansion belonging to a family of spotless respectability. Gamadge infiltrates their midst and has to figure out first of all what crime has been committed and who his client is. In Somewhere In The House, Gamadge has been asked to come and witness the unsealing of a room that has been blocked for 25 years and which may contain a valuable part of Grandmama Clayborn’s legacy. Harriet Clayborn has decided her family are so untrustworthy that attempts may be made to lift the treasures and so she reels Henry Gamadge in as an independent adjudicator. When the room is finally open, a gruesome discovery is made, and Gamadge finds himself involved in a series of crimes committed a generation ago.

I loved these novels! Sharp, elegant, clever and fast-moving, and Gamadge is a delight; a man whose compassion is matched only by his intellect, he effaces himself the better to observe others and always has a care for the dignity of the innocent. Most of all, though, I appreciated truly satisfying resolutions to the cases, ones I never saw coming even though I might have guessed I was being distracted and diverted. Golden Age crime in classic form.

Reading with Dark Puss

Several months ago now, Dark Puss and I were having a discussion online about the influence of gender in reading. Dark Puss didn’t believe that there were any books intended only for women, and I thought it would be interesting to challenge him on that. Gamely, he agreed he was up for it, and so I created a list of three books that we would read together – a feminist novel from the 70s, a contemporary novel about love and marriage and a piece of creative literary non-fiction about motherhood.

I have to say it’s been fascinating, comparing our thoughts and reactions as we read along. This week I’ll be posting the highlights of the conversations we had, so you can judge for yourselves to what extent gender plays a part – if at all – in the reading process. Let us know what you think!