- The Collected Writings by Laure, translated by Jeanine Herman
City Lights, 314 pp, $13.95, August 1995, ISBN 0 87286 293 3
When André Breton proclaimed in 1922 that poetry ‘emanates more from the lives of men – whether or not they are writers – than from what they have written or from what we might imagine they could write’, it is unlikely that Laure, then 19 and cloistered in the bourgeois family estate, would have got wind of it. Yet in many ways she was the embodiment of Breton’s pronouncement. Indeed, most people, if they know of Laure at all, know her not so much for what she committed to paper as for her tortured, inspired relationships with several prominent French intellectuals, most notably Georges Bataille. And although this edition of her collected writings seeks to correct that impression, its ultimate effect is only to reinforce it. By the time one emerges from this compilation of autobiographical and biographical sketches by and about her, of poems, scattered notes and fevered letters, one can’t help feeling that her true masterwork was her ability to make others react to and remember her.
Which is not to say that Laure didn’t take her writing seriously. On the contrary, poetry and autobiographical fragments were a way to exorcise otherwise inescapable demons, though the very act of writing ‘contributed to giving her mental pain the intensity of a furnace’. Rather than see literature as the path to glory or to wealth, Laure produced much of her work in secret, apparently with little thought of publication: even her lover Bataille saw almost none of these pages during their four years together. Only on her deathbed did she reveal their existence, expressing the wish ‘that her testimony not remain uncommunicated ... as only that which exists for others can have meaning’. The task of bringing these texts to light fell to Bataille and Michel Leiris, another intimate of Laure’s. That was in 1938, when family censorship kept most of them from being published. The first comprehensive volume of Laure’s work appeared, thanks to the efforts of her nephew, Jérôme Peignot, in 1977.
Born Colette Laure Lucienne Peignot in 1903, Laure spent most of her childhood and adolescence in her parents’ estate in Dammarie, just outside Paris. Jérôme Peignot describes Dammarie as ‘a pleasant place. In front of the house, a great lawn surrounded by stately chestnut trees slopes down to the Seine. One might think of Renoir or perhaps also Pissarro.’ But ‘rather than the extravagant luminosity of the Impressionists, it would be more accurate to evoke the false bourgeois tranquillity painted by Vuillard.’
Laure’s childhood had been anything but idyllic, however, and behind her own descriptions of it we can hear the restrictive admonishments and stony silences of the upper-middle class in post-World War One France. She wrote that her mother’s situation ‘allowed her to close herself off in total distrust of anything that was not Family and in complete ignorance of anything that could be cheerful, active, engaging, lively, productive, or even simply human’. Laure’s early years were further damaged by bouts of tuberculosis and, far more so, by the wartime deaths of her beloved father and three of her uncles – a calamity to which the not quite adolescent girl responded with a mixture of iciness and desperation:
I forced myself to picture the faces of the cadavers but their names came to me in a song, a very cheerful tune that ended like this:
They are dead, dead, dead
André and Rémi ...
They are dead, dead, dead
Papa, André, Lucien and Rémi ...
After a long period of mourning, she
thought it would be good to go to school. What had changed? Hadn’t we been crying for months and months? Why not go out? But I was reprimanded, ashamed of my act, which was ‘heartless’. So I stayed there with my mother whose sobs redoubled at each visit ... There was something overwrought in all of this that did not suit me. I felt ashamed of my dry eyes and then atrocious remorse for not suffering enough.