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.