Colette is possibly the only well-known woman writer of modern times who is universally referred to simply by her surname, tout court. Woolf hasn’t made it, even after all these years; Rhys without the Jean is incognito; Nin without the Anais looks like a typo. Colette, Madame Colette, remains, in this as much else, unique.
Colette did not acquire this distinction because she terrorised respect language out of her peers, alas: by a happy accident, her father’s name doubles as a girlish handle – and a very ducky one, too. One could posit ‘Bonny’ or ‘Rosie’ as English equivalents. It was by a probably perfectly unconscious sleight-of-hand that Colette appropriated for herself the form of address of both masculine respect and masculine intimacy of her period – a fact that, in a small way, reflects the message of her whole career. This is: if you can’t win, change the rules of the game.
Her career was a profoundly strange one and necessarily full of contradictions, of which her uncompromising zeal for self-exploitation is one. Madame Colette, though never quite Madame Colette de l’Académie Française – one game she couldn’t crack – was accorded a state funeral by the French government: this was the woman who was dismissed by her second husband’s aristocratic family as a cunning little striptease artist overeager for the title of baroness. As Madame Colette, she first appeared on pin-up pictures: ‘Our pretty actresses: Madame Colette of the Olympia’. And, in these pictures, taken in her late thirties, she is very beautiful and sexy indeed; she looks out at you with all the invitation of the stripper: ‘You can call me Colette.’
The artificial creation of a sense of intimacy with Colette herself is one of the qualities that gives her writing its seductiveness. She certainly wasn’t on the halls all those years for nothing, although the extent to which a wilful exhibitionism kept her on the boards (against the advice of the majority of her critics) well into her fifties may be connected with a capacity to embarrass which often frays the edges of her writing.
‘You can call me Colette’ isn’t a statement of the same order as ‘Call me Ishmael.’ The social limitations to experience in a woman’s life still preclude the unself-conscious picaresque adventuring that formed the artistic apprenticeships of Melville, Lowry, Conrad, while other socio-economic factors mean that those women who see most of the beastly backside of the world – prostitutes – are least in a position to utilise this invaluable experience as art. Norman Mailer has said that there won’t be a really great woman writer – one, you understand, con cojones and everything – until the first call-girl tells her story. Though it’s reasonable to assume that, when she does, Mailer won’t like it at all, the unpleasant truth in this put-down is that most women don’t have exposure to the breadth of experience that, when digested, produces great fiction. (Okay, so what about the Brontës? Well, as vicar’s daughters in a rural slum parish, peripatetic international governesses and terminal consumptives, they did have such a variety of experience. So.) But the life of Colette was as picaresque as a woman’s may be without putting herself in a state of hazard.
Her first novels, Claudine at School and its sequels, appeared with the husband’s name on the title-page. The peculiar Willy, one of the best-publicised bohemians of the Belle Epoque, ensured that the little Burgundian village girl, Colette’s favourite disguise, encountered at an impressionable age not only numerous whores of both sexes but also everybody – Proust, Debussy, Ravel, you name them. When Willy left her, his wife found herself in the unusual position of having written a number of best-sellers for which she was unable to take any financial or artistic credit. To earn a living in the years before the First World War, she felt she had no alternative but to go on the halls. As she could neither sing nor dance, she performed as a sex-object and subject of scandal – and not a particularly upmarket sex-object, either. Since Willy had enjoyed sexually humiliating her, no doubt there was a special pleasure in exploiting her sexuality whilst herself secure and unavailable. After Willy, she took refuge in the bosom of the lesbian establishment of the period. Our pretty actress had an aristocratic protector, the Marquise de Mornay – nothing unusual about this, not even the sex of the Marquise, in those permissive times. Then came a Cinderella-esque marriage to (Baron) Henry de Jouvenal, editor of Le Matin, later a politician of considerable distinction. One thing about Colette interests me: when did she stop lying about her age? The voluptuous dancer was pushing 40 when she married De Jouvenal: ‘But the registry office has to know your age,’ she complained to a friend. There comes a time when a woman freely publicises her age so that people can say: ‘How young you look!’ It seems to have come later than most to Colette, but when it did, she gloried in it.
In tandem with this characteristically, if rather Hollywood, Edwardian career, two writers are growing within her. One writes, in 1910, La Vagabonde, a novel which is still one of the most truthful expositions of the dilemma of a free woman in a male-dominated society. Perhaps because Colette, having the triumphant myopia of a vain woman, refused to acknowledge her society as male-dominated, she sees no dilemma: there is no real choice: one is free. In the same year, the other writer, the one more nearly related to our pretty actress, began work as a journalist for Le Matin, which is how she met its editor. Renée Néré, music-hall artiste, prefers to go it alone in La Vagabonde, but Colette, Colette married and married well. Her marriage also sealed her fate as a journalist, which in turn sealed her fate as a novelist.
Colette became literary editor of Le Matin in 1919, and thereafter was to work almost continuously in newspapers in one way and another, whilst also writing fiction, and acting from time to time. In 1924, after her divorce from De Jouvenal, she started signing her work neither ‘Colette Willy’ nor ‘Colette de Jouvenal’ but simply ‘Colette’. Her third marriage, some ten years later, never made her dwindle into Colette Goudeket, even though Colette was not her own but her father’s name. You can’t subvert patriarchy that easily, after all, even if your father’s name is roughly analogous to ‘Darling’ and he so weak and feckless that you have acquired only the haziest grasp of patriarchal power.
As a writer of both journalism and fiction, she exploits the intimacy of the stripper with her reader quite remorselessly. She trades on the assumption that you are going to care about Maman because this is the unique Colette’s unique Maman. The details of her Burgundian childhood, endlessly recapitulated and, one suspects, endlessly elaborated over the years, are purveyed with such a child-like sense of self-importance, such a naive expectation that the smallest details of the Colette family diet and customs are worth recounting, that it seems churlish to ask: ‘What is the point of all this?’ It is not so much that all her fiction tends to draw on childhood, on the music hall, on the sad truths distilled from unhappy marriages, as that whole short novels – Chance Aquaintances, Break of Day – and many short stories are recounted in the first person of a Colette very precisely realised as subject and object at the same time. In the collection that Penguin publish under the title The Rainy Moon most of the stories feature Colette herself, not always as a major character but never as passive narrator. She always gives herself a part, it is as though she could not bear to leave herself out, must always be on stage.
She stopped writing fiction altogether after Gigi, in 1942 – a Belle Epoque fable of the apparent triumph of innocence, which would be nauseating were it not so cynical. Her later work, until her death in 1954, is mostly a series of extended autobiographical reveries, among them The Blue Lantern and The Evening Star. These and the autobiographical journalism that preceded them – My Mother’s House (given this curious Biblical title in English, in French, it’s La Maison de Claudine), Sido, My Apprenticeships, Music Hall Sidelights – are a peculiar kind of literary striptease: a self-exploitation that greedily utilises every scrap of past experience in an almost unmediated form.
There is no sense of the confessional about this endless flow of memory. Colette never tells you about herself. Instead, she describes herself. Few writers have described their own physicality so often: ‘savage’ child, with the long, blond plaits; bride with the ‘splash of red carnations on the bodice of her white wedding gown’; in dinner jacket and monacle; pregnant, looking like ‘a rat dragging a stolen egg’. And so on. But she gives the impression of telling all, in a literary form unclassifiable except as a version of what television has accustomed us to call ‘fictionalised documentary’. Robert Phelps was able to construct a perfectly coherent autobiography from Colette’s scattered reminiscences, and present The Earthly Paradise as if it were, not an imaginative parallel to her life, but the real thing. All Colette’s biographers, even Michèle Sarde in her recent, exhaustive, life,[*] rely heavily on the sources she herself provides, as if Colette could be trusted not to keep her fingers crossed when she was talking about herself, even when remembering events across a great gulf of years. It is as if her sincerity mattered. Such is the sense of intimacy Colette creates: you feel you know her, because she has said, ‘You can call me Colette,’ although she says this to everybody who pays.
And yet those memories, this experience, is organised with such conscious art, such lack of spontaneity! She must have acquired from Balzac her taste for presenting those she loved best and admired most, including herself, as actors in tableaux vivants, beings complete in themselves, as if unmodified by the eyes of an observer who is herself part of the tableau; she describes finished objects in a perfect perspective, almost trompe l’oeil, stuck in the lucid amber of her prose. Her portrait of her friend, the poet Renée Vivian, in The Pure and the Impure, has the finite quality of 19th-century fiction. ‘I remember Renée’s gay laughter, her liveliness, the faint halo of light trembling in her golden hair all combined to sadden me, as does the happines of blind children who laugh and play without the help of light.’ All that Colette has left out of this portrait is the possibility of some kind of inner life beyond Colette’s imagining which belongs to Renée Vivian alone. This holds true for all the dazzling galaxy of heterogeneous humanity in her fictionalised documentaries. The apparent objectivity of her prose is a device to seal these people in her own narrative subjectivity.
The portraits, of Renée Vivian, of actresses like La Belle Otéro and Polaire, even of Willy and, later, of her own daughter, are exemplary because of their precision, and troubling because of their detachment. Even in the accounts of her beloved mother, Colette’s prose implicitly invites the reader to admire both the quality of the observation and the skill with which a different time and place are re-created; then, with a shock, you realise you have been seduced into applauding, not so much a remarkable woman, as the quality of Colette’s love for her. Colette’s prose is itself narcissistic. Her apparently total lack of reticence tells us, in the end, nothing about her real relationships, and her self-absorption comes to seem more and more a come-on, a device like a mask behind which an absolute privacy might he maintained. Her obsessive love of make-up, of the stage, of disguises, suggests a desire, if not to conceal, then to mystify. The daughter of Captain Jules-Joseph Colette of the Zouaves could die happy in the notion she had never been on first-name terms with anyone outside her immediate family – not even, least of all, with any of her three husbands.
Since she appears to have been a profoundly disingenuous woman, there seems no reason to think she did not die happy in this respect. The best lie is the truth, after all. Colette was indeed her name. Her childhood was spent in rural Burgundy, does seem to have been happy, even if one sister later killed herself and a brother burned all of Colette’s two thousand letters to her mother after that mother’s death: he would not give them back to Colette – perhaps to ensure that some things, at least, would remain sacrosanct from her guzzling, inordinate rapacity for material. This rapacity would grow and grow, would make Colette ransack her own past again and again; once a journalist has established the power-base of a cult of personality, he or she is positively encouraged to trot out their own opinions and anecdotes over and over again.
Colette’s novels are of a different order of reality from her autobiographical pieces. Her novels are fiction and hence truth; the rest is journalism and so may bear only the most peripheral relationship to the truth – the relationship utterly modified by the eye of the beholder. In Colette’s first novel, Claudine at School, she kills off Claudine’s mother before the action begins; Claudine is her alter ego. This is a far more interesting fact than all the obsessive gush about Colette’s allegedly real mother that spills out later in La Maison de Claudine, Sido and Break of Day. Break of Day does not have the fictional dimension even of the Claudine novels; it sets itself up as a fictionalised documentary, using real Provençale locations, ‘Madame Colette’ herself as heroine-narrator and apart from one or two inventions a cast of perfectly real people. Break of Day is also the apotheosis of Colette’s dead mother, whose spirit is invoked in every chapter and whose letters, heavily edited by Colette, feature in the text. But Colette leaves out altogether any hint that her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, is happily esconced by her side, even as she pens a rather moving farewell to fleshly pleasures: ‘I have paid for my folly, shut away the heady young wine that intoxicated me, and folded up my big, floating heart ...’ The absence of Goudeket from Break of Day is as interesting as the absence of the mother from Claudine at School, though in a different way. Break of Day is a conscious decoy.
The extent to which Colette came to believe her own mythology of herself is, of course, another question. Goudeket himself entered into the spirit of the thing whole-heartedly. His memoir of her last twenty years with him, Close to Colette, celebrates her peasant wisdom, her childlike enthusiasm. To him we owe the anecdote of her encounter with the cat in New York: ‘At last someone who speaks French!’ Michèle Sarde repeats this unblushingly, as if it told us something about the wit and wisdom of Colette. But Michèle Sarde has swallowed the mythology whole, too. The anecdote does tell us a good deal about Colette: it shows how wisely she picked her last companion, her Boswell, her public-relations officer faithful beyond the grave. Goudeket rhapsodises: ‘There were so many arts which she had not lost. With her the art of living came before the art of writing. She knew a receipt for everything, whether it was for furniture polish, vinegar, orange-wine or quince-water, for cooking truffles or preserving linen and materials.’ French, he says – she was French to her fingertips, and provincial to boot, even after sixty years’ total immersion in the heady whirlpool of Paris artistic life. French and provincial as Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking – and just as much intended for publication. This ineradicable quality of the fraud, the fake, of the unrepentant self-publicist, is one of the things about Colette I respect most, indeed, revere. Michèle Sarde’s biography, however besotted, however uncritical, however willing to draw illegitimate parallels between art and life, nevertheless demonstrates how it was the passionate integrity of Colette’s narcissism that rendered her indestructible.
It’s possible to see her entire career as a writer, instigated as it was by Willy, who robbed her of the first fruits of her labours, as an act of vengeance on him. A certain kind of woman, a vain woman – that is to say, a woman with self-respect – is spurred on by spite. Had the Rev. Brontë supported and encouraged his daughters’ ambitions, what would the poor things have done then? I don’t think Leonard Woolf did his wife a favour by mothering her. After Colette met kind, sweet, intelligent, loving Goudeket, she wrote very little major fiction.
In Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, there’s a description of a dinner party De Beauvoir attended with Sartre, at which Colette, already the frizzed and sacred cow of French letters, babbling away to les gars about dogs, cats, knitting, le bon vin, les bons fromages and so on, offered De Beauvoir only the meagre attention of an occasional, piercing stare. De Beauvoir thought Colette disliked women. Possibly Colette, never one to be bouleversé by a great mind, and perhaps privately relishing boring a great mind into the ground with nuggets of earthy Burgundian wisdom, was only contemplating the question every thinking woman in the Western World must have posed herself one time or other: why is a nice girl like Simone wasting her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J-P? Her memoirs will be mostly about him; he will scarcely speak of her.
Of course, Colette could no more have written The Second Sex than De Beauvoir could have danced naked on a public stage – which precisely defines the limitations of both these great ladies. However, it is hard to imagine Colette, had she attended the Sorbonne, getting any kind of buzz out of coming second to Sartre in her final examinations – or, indeed, out of coming second to anybody. After all these years, De Beauvoir still appears to be proud that only Sartre achieved higher marks in those first exams than she. What would have happened, one wonders, if she had come top? What would it have done to Sartre? Merely to think of it makes the mind reel. Only love can make you proud to be an also-ran.
But Colette simply did not believe that women were the second sex. One of Goudeket’s anecdotes from her declining years is very revealing. He carried her in her wheelchair into a holiday hotel: the lobby filled with applauding, cheering fans – she was a national institution in France, after all. Colette appeared to be touched. ‘They’ve remembered me from last year.’ This isn’t modesty, though Goudeket pretends to think so. It’s irony, I hope, because, if it isn’t irony, then what is it? What monstrous vanity would think it was perfectly natural for a little old a lady to receive a tumultuous welcome from her hotel staff? Of course she didn’t believe she was really famous, towards the end. She knew she wasn’t famous enough. These are not the passions of a woman who knows her place.
Nevertheless, to believe women are not the second sex is to deny a whole area of social reality, however inspiriting the toughness and resilience of Colette and most of her heroines may be, especially after the revival of the wet and spineless woman-as-hero which graced the Seventies. (The zomboid creatures in Joan Didion’s novels, for example; the resurrected dippy dames of Jean Rhys, so many of whom might have had pathetic walk-on parts in Colette’s stories of Paris in the Twenties.) Colette celebrated the status quo of femininity, not only its physical glamour but its capacity to subvert and withstand the boredom of patriarchy. This makes her an ambivalent ally to the Women’s Movement.
Her fiction, as opposed to her journalism, is dedicated to the proposition of the battle of the sexes: ‘love, the bread and butter of my pen,’ she observes in a revealing phrase. But, in Colette’s battles, the results are fixed: men can never win, unless, as in the story ‘The Képi’, the woman is foolish enough to believe that a declaration of love is tantamount to a cessation of hostilities. In the brief, fragile, ironic novels that are Colette’s claim to artistic seriousness – Ripening Seed, The Vagabond, Chéri and The Last Of Chéri – the men are decorative but useless. The delicious adolescent, Phil, in Ripening Seed, lolls at ease on the beach while little Vinca arranges their picnic: her role is to serve, but this role makes him a parasite. The beautiful (and, like so many of Colette’s heroines, economically self-sufficient) lady who seduces him, whom he calls his ‘master’, is not really Vinca’s rival at all, but her fellow conspirator in the ugly plot to ‘make a man’ of Phil, with all that implies of futility and arrogance and complacency. Renée Néré, the vagabond, tenderly consigns her rich suitor to the condition of a fragrant, unfulfilled memory, since that is the only way she can continue to think kindly of him. She knows quite well that the truth of the fairy-tale is: kiss Prince Charming and he instantly turns into a frog. Léa simply grows out of Chéri, which is tough on Chéri.
The two ‘Chéri’ novellas probably form Colette’s masterpiece, although they are now so ‘period’ in atmosphere that the luxurious Edwardian décor currently blurs their hard core of emotional truth. As they recede into history, the décor will disappear, and we will be left with something not unlike Les Liaisons Dangereuses. They are her masterpieces because they transcend the notion of the battle between the sexes by concentrating on an exceptionally rigorous analysis of the rules of war. Léa’s financial independence is, of course, taken for granted: otherwise, in Colette’s terms, there would be no possibility of a real relationship. Julie de Carneilhan, a brief novel about upper-class alimony published in 1941, is interesting in this respect because it deals specifically with a woman as an economically contingent being. I suspect this is what Colette meant when she said it was as close a reckoning with the elements of her second marriage as she ever allowed herself: De Jouvenal was theoretically in control of their joint finances for the duration of their relationship. Without financial resources of her own, Julie is duped and stripped of self-respect, finally taking refuge with her brother and father – an obvious fantasy ending to which the shadow of approaching war promises an appropriately patriarchal resolution. Curiously enough, another war, the First World War, provides the watershed between the two ‘Chéri’ novellas; released from the maternal embrace of Léa, anyone but Colette would have thought the trenches would make a real man of Chéri. But she knew it wasn’t as simple as that.
The Chéri novels are about the power-politics of love, and Léa and Chéri could be almost any permutation of ages or of sexes. It is not in the least like Der Rosenkavalier, although we first meet Léa in her graceful late forties, some twenty-five years older than her boy lover. They could both as well be men; or both women. Psychologically, Chéri could just as well be Chérie and Léa Léo, except that we are socially acclimatised to the sexual vanity of middle-aged men; a handsome, successful, rich 50-year-old Léo might well feel that, after an affair of six years, Chérie, at 25, was getting a touch long in the tooth for his tastes. But even the age difference is not the point of the stories; the point is that Léa holds the reins of power. The only person who could film these novels with a sufficiently cold and dialectical eye is Fassbinder and he is the contemporary artist whom, at her very best, Colette most resembles. Not that she was a political person at all, in the Fassbinder sense.
Given the thrust towards an idealised past of the major part of Colette’s work, it is disconcerting to find that the moral of the Chéri novellas is: memory kills. When Chéri goes to see his aging mistress after the war and an absence of seven years, he finds, not the faded, touching ghost of love and beauty – no Miss Havisham, she – but a fat, jolly altogether unrecognisable old lady, quite unprepared to forgive him for once having flinched from her wrinkles. No tender scene of a visit to Juliet’s tomb ensues, but a brisk invitation to grow up and forget, which Chéri is temperamentally incapable of accepting. A bullet in the brain is the only way out for Chéri. Léa was forced to reconstruct herself as a human being in order to survive the pain of Chéri’s first rejection of her; the reconstructed Léa destroys Chéri by its very existence. Colette’s ‘personal’ voice is altogether absent from this parable. All the leading characters are either whores or the children of whores. They are all rich. If Colette set in motion the entire Colette industry in order to create for herself the artistic freedom and privacy to construct this chilling account of libido and false consciousness, it was all abundantly worthwhile.
Penguin continue to reissue translations of most of Colette[†] by a variety of hands, some of them, especially Antonia White’s (the Claudine books), conspicuously handier than others. These slim volumes are currently dressed up in melting pinks, tones of mauve and almond green not unlike the colours of Léa’s knicker drawer. The exquisite period photographs on the covers often turn out to depict Colette’s own foxy mask, done up in a variety of disguises: a sailor suit for Gigi; full drag for The Pure and the Impure. The Women’s Press put a charcoal drawing of the geriatric Colette, foxier than ever, on their edition of Break of Day. The cult of the personality of Colette, to which Michèle Sarde’s biography is a votive tribute, continues apace, although it detracts attention from the artist in her and turns her more and more into a figure of historic significance: the woman who did, who occupied a key position in a transitional period of social history, from 1873 to 1954, and noted most of what happened to her down. Her achievement as a whole was extraordinary, though – apart from the Chéri novels and one or two others – not in a literary sense: she forged a career out of the kind of narcissistic self-obsession which is supposed, in a woman, to lead only to tears before bedtime, in a man to lead to the peaks. Good for her. I’ve got a god-daughter named after her. Or rather, such are the contradictions inherent in all this, named after Captain Jules-Joseph Colette, one-legged tax-gatherer and bankrupt.
[*] Colette: A Biography by Michèle Sarde, translated by Richard Miller (Morrow. $12.95).
[†] Among the most recent are:
My Mother’s House and Sido, translated by Roger Senhouse. 208 pp., £1.45, 26 June, 0 1400 2535 9.
The Rainy Moon and Other Stories, translated by Antonia White. 352 pp., 95p, 27 November, 0 1400 2843 4.
The Vagabond, translated by Enid McLeod. 192 pp., 95p. 24 April, 0 1400 1494 2.
The Pure and the Impure, translated by Herma Brisault. 144 pp., 93p, 24 April, 0 1400 3235 X.
Ripening Seed, translated by Roger Senhouse. 128 pp., 8Sp, 24 April, 0 1400 1359 8.
My Apprenticeships etc., translated by Helen Beauclerk. 224 pp., 90p, 27 November 1979,01400 2408 5.