I came across Colette quite by accident. I was sixteen, on a family holiday in France, and my aunt bought a copy of Chéri. It was a fantastically ugly copy, too. France is notable for so much beauty in landscape, fashion, architecture and so on, but makes an exception when it comes to publishing, where covers are starkly blank except for the rudimentary information of title and author, or else primitively adorned with chunks of paintings. Even a detail from a famous Impressionist painting can look odd and illegible when cropped and chopped and ever so slightly blurred. Well, my aunt’s copy of Chéri had part of a black and white still from a film adaptation, bordered either side with stripes of violent yellow and green, and the edges of its pages were stained a deep saffron. Eight years later, when it came to writing a dissertation for the Mphil in European Literature course I was following, I remembered that hideous book and forgot everything but the romance of the name, Colette. I hadn’t read Marguerite Duras, either, and I thought she was probably interesting, too. So, there is every reason to believe in guardian angels.
Colette is primarily an extraordinary stylist. Her prose is an exercise in the art of giving pleasure, with sumptuous silk and brocade sentences no matter what she is describing – family, food, love, cats, friendship, travel, every foible of the human heart. Looking through Colette’s eyes at the world is an enchanting experience; I wanted to inhabit her head, to eat up that delicious gaze of hers. I read somewhere that she is the writer most other writers wish they could be, and it’s easy to see why. No matter what her subject, she coats it in a veneer of sensuous beauty, which is perhaps how come she got away with her often scandalous topics, daring to say more about love relationships that any author who preceeded her.
For beauty does not preclude folly, stupidity, caprice or selfishness in Colette’s novels. Her gorgeous backdrops are in conscious contrast to the bad behaviour that plays out in front of them. Her characters fall prey to all sorts of weakness, but they do so with Colette as their generous narrator, compassionate to their good intentions and pressing needs, wise over the ridiculous mistakes they make. Most of all, Colette had the courage and the ability to create strong women. Whilst generations of male writers before her had felt obliged to kill off or at least cripple any woman character with the audacity to dominate a narrative, and to commit her inevitable errors in the public view, Colette brushed them down, sent them on a trip and had them laughing, at least for the show of it, before a couple of chapters had passed. The art of the survivor can be a rare one in the literary world, where suffering is often misread as profundity. The graceful grit that Colette’s women embody is a breath of fresh air and a more accurate portrait of female reality than that awful but insistent image of the romantic victim.
So Colette creates a world that the reader longs to be part of, but more than any other writer, that world feels dependent on Colette’s being there. She often played the character ‘Colette’ in her novels, short stories and essays, and that character was a witness, a companion, a bystander. Reading Colette was like having her alongside you, filtering the world through her dry, witty sense of humour, her cheekiness, her cool appraising wisdom. You knew she was irreplaceable, necessary, to what happened on the page. Falling in love with Colette is almost a prerequisite of reaching the end of one of her books.
What a surprise I had, then, when years after the PhD and the teaching, I read Judith Thurman’s excellent biography of Colette. I had believed, naively but trustingly, in the absolute identity of Colette the narrator and Colette the woman. The real life Colette was something of a shock; sharp-tongued and bad-tempered, constantly worried about cold hard cash, low in self-esteem, stubbornly lacking in self-awareness, a neglectful mother. For a while, my faith in her wavered.
But the reality check that was often a feature of Colette’s ruefully laughing narratives, the sort of reality check that I had learned to appreciate at least in part through reading her writing, reasserted itself in my appraisal of her. Colette was not interested in paragons; she did not write about perfect women because she was altogether more earthy than that. In her work, the brave face was more beautiful than the saintly one. What properly mattered in her work was performance and transformation. Her characters acted things out, tried different skins, reinvented themselves with single-minded determination because they knew that change was the essense of life. It was not about what you were or what you did, but who you could become and what you could learn. Colette took the woolly mess of her experience and spun gold threat from it, and if writing, the kind of writing that makes the reader feel alive in a sharper, fiercer way, is not about this, then I don’t know what it is about.
Loving Your Post. 🙂
I think this is my favourite of your posts so far. I love it. It’s wonderfully well written, captures the spirit of the writer and gives peasures to the reader as well. It also makes me want to read all of er books I’ve already read again and read those I haven’t. Thanks. A truly lovely post.
Caroline, thank you SO much – you made my day with your comment! I do love Colette, so she is easier to write about than some!
I agree with every word you have written, and I’m envious of your ability to write it so well! Passionate, sensous and yet so unsentimental. A fantastic writer in every respect and I love her realistic characters (and animals) and never, ever wanted them to give up their failings for only through experimentation (and failure is absolutely a part of that) comes true success. I first read Colette when I was 14 I think and by 18 I’d read everythig that had been translated into English and was readily available. She is one of the very, very few writers whose books I re-read and probably the only dead writer I’d like to have met.
Dead Puss, what a great comment. You discovered Colette earlier than I did, but like you, once I’d read her, I never wanted to stop. I completely agree that it is that unerring, unsentimental but compassionate realism that powers Colette’s narratives and give such a sheen to her characters. Have you written about Colette on your blog? I’d love it if you’d direct me to the relevant posts if so.
Not very directly, but there is this Colette inspired post:
PS, not “dead” yet! :-))
What a marvelous memory of first learning about Colette! The book cover does sound completely horrendous but also unforgettable! It is hard sometimes to reconcile our impression of who an author is through her fiction and who she turns out to be in real life. Why can’t they always be as wonderful as we think they are? But then being surprised by the truth also has its pleasures.
Stefanie, it was the ugliest book cover ever! But then, it did stick in my mind! I was never so surprised about a writer as I was to learn about Colette. But once the initial shock had passed, I felt that the narrator’s voice in her writing was even more special, because it meant she knew what she ought to think and feel, and she had sympathy for her characters when they, quite truthfully, could only be human too.
I find that quite often something about a ‘hero’ ór ‘heroine’ ín the world of writing jars. But their work has to be a product of all their experiences and behaviours – so be it.
scriptorsenex, I’m not quite sure I follow you here – do you mean that it feels wrong to you when readers especially love certain writers? If so, you had better be warned, my friend, I have another two of these posts to write on Kafka and Willa Cather! I confess, I do have authors I particularly admire, but it’s not something I’d wish to demand from anyone else – just a personal quirk!
I loved this post! The more I read about Colette, the more I want to bury myself in her work and the Thurman biography (which I started reading a couple of days ago but then put aside for lack of time – it’s one of those books I want to give my full attention to and savour slowly…). I’ve got Le blé en herbe lined up on my shelf too, but would you believe it, the last time I looked for Chéri in a bookshop it was not to be found! I still haven’t figured out if it’s because it is so popular it is always sold out, or if on the contrary, it has become one of the rarer works only connoisseurs ask for…
No Chéri??? Oh my goodness, I do hope that means there’s a reprint underway – it would be awful for that to become a rare book! I completely agree, the Thurman is a book that requires time and attention for it rewards them both. One of the best big biographies I’ve ever read, I think. And I’m so glad you love Colette – she really is wonderful!
I have only heard about Colette, through various other writers, and references. I think I owned one of her journals that got lost i one of my moves. I think I have been afraid to read her because she is ‘literary’, and it sounds awful for an English major to say this, but I don’t like reading literary novels unless they have a twist to them. I do enjoy classics, which I think – find – different to literary novels (a topic for another day!) lol. There, I said it! And that said, Colette is still someone I want to read one day. Your post makes me want to try her, again. Just to see if I will like her writing. It’s interesting how the earthiness of her writing, the sensuality, has made her work dismissed as not serious literature, and yet it lives on, through readers. I do like the idea of strong female characters, so I am curious now. Thanks, this was an excellent, thoughtful, insightful post, litlove.
Oh Colette is far more of a classic than a literary novelist! Honestly, she is a very easy read – try a short story of hers first, if you feel uncertain. Or else read her early novels, the Claudine novels, which were considered irredeemable potboilers in their day! It took Colette many years to get herself accepted as a serious writer by the French establishment, and to this day she remains a woman of scandal in many people’s monocled eyes! She is definitely worth a try, although if you don’t like her, I promise I won’t nag!
You’ve sold me on Colette. (Adding to the list together with Rilke.) I’m always fascinated to see the parallels and differences between the authors’ lives and their novels. I think I was also a bit intimidated by Colette’s literary reputation. But I’m all for characters reinventing themselves (and for defying stereoptypes) and perhaps it is the beautiful writing style that will clinch it for me.
She is a properly easy read. For you, Pete, I’d recommend Claudine Married, as it is a wonderful portrait of early marriage, warts, flaws, stunning sensuality and all. I confess I do get very interested in the way writers turn life into fiction, but I think that’s possibly just my rampant curiosity which is something I ought not to admit to as much as I do! Would love to know what you think of Colette – and you can dislike her, we’ll still be friends!
I wrote my masters thesis at Harvard in psychology on the writing identity of Colette. I found it recently and tossed it in a pile and would have to start searching again, but I’m sure I won’t like it now, years later. I was enamored of her as well and read all her books. You’ve made me curious to find and read that damn thing. What you write only amplifies that in fiction-memoir, which most memoir is, the protagonist is not the real person in the real world. We create our own fictions of ourselves.
Squirrel, I did not realise you had written on Colette! Do you remember what the topic was? Only I’m sure a psychological approach would have been marvellous. And yes, Colette is so very useful for that self-created-through-creativity approach. I was interested in gender identity when I was writing about her work, which is a variation on the same theme.
What a lovely post–it’s obvious Colette holds a special place in your heart and though I’ve only read a couple of her books (am lucky to have so much more to discover still), I agree wholeheartedly that she is an amazing writer. In a way it’s unfair to judge a writer when we read a bio like Thurman’s (as good as am sure it was). No one can truly get inside the head of another and it seems bad to judge someone outright based on things we read not knowing all the circumstances. As curmudgeonly as she may have been, as imperfect, you have to give her credit for the books she wrote and the stories she tells–it can’t have been out of the need solely for cold hard cash that she created those worlds–they must have come from somewhere deep inside–she must have had a huge softspot–and her books are your proof. (You make me want to pull one of her books from my shelf right now–very bad since I am determined to finish books between now and the end of the year…not start them!)