In Good Company

‘There is always a moment in the life of young people,’ Colette wrote, ‘when dying is just as normal and seductive to them as living, and I hesitated.’ She was 28 at the time to which this quotation refers, and had sunk into a complex and unexplained illness. Later biographers have wondered whether her philandering husband had given her some unpleasant disease, but although she doesn’t expressly say so, Colette knew she was suffering just as much from the philandering. She had tried to cover it up and present a brave and invincible front, but it was by no means the truth of the matter.

In the middle of sitting for her portrait with the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, she heard carriage wheels at her door and spotted Willy bidding a loving farewell to the woman who dropped him off. ‘She had real convulsions,’ the painter wrote, ‘hysterical crying fits, one had to lay her on a sofa and bathe her temples with cologne because she believed herself abandoned forever.’ In later life Colette would talk about her propensity for jealousy, ‘the only suffering we endure without ever becoming used to it.’ She had married very young, and been taken from a doting and possessive mother to become the neglected wife of a manically social older man who had no intention of changing his ways. If such a thing as emotional culture shock exists, Colette had it.

To add insult to injury her husband, Willy, ran a publishing factory, signing his name to a host of books and articles produced by other writers. At his suggestion, Colette had produced a 600-page manuscript of lightly fictionalised adolescent adventures. Willy had been disappointed in it and left it to languish in a drawer. In years to come it would turn out to be the first bestseller that France had ever known, but for now he rejected it out of hand. This double betrayal left Colette horribly miserable, and she succumbed to an illness it would take her the better part of a year to shake off.

Not long after she turned 29, Simone de Beauvoir was admitted to hospital with severe pneumonia and a collapsed lung. The other lung was also damaged, and if it failed to hold out, she would die. She was suffering from emotional and creative exhaustion, having worked hard and played hard ever since she had met Sartre, a little less than a decade earlier. She was teaching, writing a book of novellas (that would never get published) and maintaining a taxing social life. She and Sartre had fallen in love but Sartre’s philosophical commitment to freedom meant he did not believe in marriage. Beauvoir, deeply romantic but entranced by the idea of freedom after her restricted and conventional upbringing, had taken the very brave step of embracing his beliefs. For a woman in this era, whose value would have been determined by her marriage, we cannot underestimate how courageous and subversive this act was.

But in practice, the commitment to emotional and sexual freedom was extremely difficult to maintain. Shortly after they had embarked on their relationship, Beauvoir became close friends with a young woman she taught, Olga Kosakiewicz. Olga was dazzled by the brilliance of Beauvoir and Sartre and hypnotised by the glamour of their unorthodox liaison. Sartre fell in love with her in a more physical way, and although Olga would always resist him, they moved her in with them and lived a ménage à trois that caused them all great suffering. Sartre told Beauvoir everything, thinking this to be some sort of purification of his soul and a validation of their exceptional love. He told her that with Olga, he ‘experienced alarm, frenzy and ecstasy’ and recounted every detail of what went on between them. Beauvoir wrote that ‘The agony which this produced in me went far beyond mere jealousy’. She wanted to deal with whatever Sartre threw at her, to be worthy of his love. But the comfort she derived from hoping that Olga would be a passing phase made her question the solidity of Sartre’s love for herself, Simone. ‘At times I asked myself whether the whole of my happiness did not rest upon a gigantic lie.’ Her illness grew out of the turmoil these tangled relationships created in her.

I was 28 years old, almost 29, when I fell ill with the viral pneumonia that would become chronic fatigue. Of course, this means nothing at all, it’s simply a coincidence. But I couldn’t help being struck by it, as I was reading the biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Colette I already knew about. Thankfully Mr Litlove was not a philanderer, but I was exhausted by work, and by the new ménage à trois we had with our baby son. When I realised Beauvoir had fallen ill at the same age, I could not help but marvel at the way books continue to offer such unexpected solidarity. For the first time, I realised that that unfortunate episode in my life put me in exceptionally good company. I found I minded it a whole lot less, viewed from that perspective!


25 thoughts on “In Good Company

    • Just saying! *snort* That made me laugh! Although I do try to tell Mr Litlove that a certain amount of lying around HAS to be done for writing to come out okay. I’m working on him with that one! 🙂

  1. Does this mean you are going to try fiction again, as both of these women did? Perhaps you just needed to go through these parallels. Didn’t both of them write great books after their illnesses? Just noticed the picture of Colette reminds me of one of you with an unfortunate admirer, posted here briefly some time ago. Perhaps reincarnation is true! Guess I was once a cowherd or some such!

    • Dear Bookboxed, I do happen to be, ahem, about 70,000 words into a novel…. not that it’s necessarily any good, mind. But I am actually writing one. I adore the idea that I was Colette in an earlier life – oh if only!! Fancy you remembering that photo; it was rather amusing, though. If you were indeed a cowherd (which I doubt), I’m sure you were a perfectly magnificent one. 🙂

  2. The beauty of literature–knowing we are not alone and that others have gone through similar experiences–somehow it makes it all just the tiniest bit more bearable. Like Stefanie says–you are in good company.

  3. When things are at their bleakest finding a hand that we can hold, wherever it may come from, is a support beyond measure. Hold tight and they will keep you afloat.

  4. Despite the reasons, it is wonderful to find yourself in such good company. I’m fascinated with the lives of both Colette and Simone de Beauvoir. I remember reading l’Invitée and discussing with my book group this awful story of having to live with your partner’s mistress while trying to explore/accept the idea of ultimate freedom. I also think she was quite brave to publish the novel when she did – in that sense being brutally honest with her self and her public. Did Colette ever have such an outlet?

    • Michelle – interestingly (and in fact, I hadn’t really put two and two together until I read your comment) Colette did use her Claudine novels in just the same way. Claudine Married was pretty much a translation into fiction of real life almost as Colette was living it. In the case of both Colette and Beauvoir, unbearable relationships became the stuff on which they cut their teeth as artists. Beauvoir was far more honest than Colette, though, who did like to create a lovely performance out of whatever she wrote. I couldn’t agree more – they were amazing women!

      • You remind me that I really should read Colette in entirety. I’ve only read bits and pieces of her work (while in undergrad) but feel that I’m missing a major writer… and a major French writer at that.

  5. And I’m very excited to read your upcoming essays in Cerise Press – I love this journal, love their work. (And we may be sharing space in the Spring 2013 issue, because I have a translation in there!)

  6. These two literary figures sure are inspirations. I’m always amazed at how some creative and talented people can still remain productive despite their disability, Michael J. Fox came to mind. He’ll have a new TV series come 2013. My heart goes out to you for having had to live with chronic illness, but that could well motivate us to seize the day and the moment whenever we can. I can see you’ve been doing just that. I wish you all the best.

    • Arti, I don’t know how they do it! Katherine Mansfield is always the writer that springs to mind, oh and D. H. Lawrence I suppose, both of them fighting tuberculosis. Oh and Kafka, too! Really, the number of writers who managed to defy their ill health is incredible. Thank you for your lovely comment.

  7. While nobody can aspire to illness, the rest of their lives is such an inspiration and should give you some hope at least. I knew about their illnesses in vague terms but never had thought about their age at that time.

    • Well, I knew about Colette, but had no idea that Beauvoir had suffered similarly and at almost the same age – not to mention, also from the experiences her man had put her through. They are both of them exceptionally inspiring, I quite agree!

  8. Such an interesting post.
    It’s funny really, both women always struck me as so strong, I never imagined them to fall ill or suffer from a man that much. I wonder now whether Deidre Bair plays this down in her biography. She made Beauvoir sound very complicit.

    • It’s the Curse of Deirdre Bair! I shudder to think what she made of Beauvoir, as her behaviour could easily be seen in a very negative light. Although to my mind, that would deny it any of the complexity that was undoubtedly in Beauvoir’s mind at the time, and which came out in her novels. And I know just what you mean – both of them were very strong women.

  9. How absolutely fascinating this all is. I really must read some Beauvoir. I don’t have anything intelligent to write, sorry, but I did want to express my enjoyment somehow.

  10. It’s nice to hear of brilliant people who have walked a similar path to ours. I’m not surprised by the company you keep but sorry that you became ill at such a young age.

  11. It appears I’m of the age to be worrying about impending illness. 🙂

    I wonder why it is that the truth in that Colette quote arouses a sort of dread in me, a horrible claustrophobic sense of association. I instinctively dislike being relegated to one of those axiomatic ‘young people’. What does that say about me? Narcissist, I suppose. 😉

    It’s interesting, because surely the longing to be unique, or special, to be blogged about when you’re dead, is just as strong as the sort of longing for company that you describe. I wonder which of these impulses is the stronger?

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