‘Chéri’ and ‘The End of Chéri’ 
by Colette, translated by Paul Eprile.
NYRB, 236 pp., £13.99, November, 978 1 68137 670 7
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‘Chéri’ and ‘The End of Chéri’ 
by Colette, translated by Rachel Careau.
Norton, 336 pp., £21.99, May, 978 1 324 05205 0
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‘Think Pink!’ Kay Thompson exhorted, playing a singing Diana Vreeland in Funny Face (1957), one of several Hollywood movies of the postwar period set in a pasteboard advent-calendar Paris, with Leslie Caron or Audrey Hepburn as the elegant, monstrously innocent gamine. ‘Pink for shoes! Pink for hose! Pink for gloves and chapeaus!’ The song, disappointingly, fails to mention the special status of Pompadour pink, formulated at Sèvres in 1757 to please Louis XV’s favourite mistress and adviser. Both courtly and whorish connotations suffuse Colette’s Chéri novels of the 1920s – the French word rose is warmer, deeper, more ambiguous, in the way of floral perfumes, ‘corrompus, riches et triomphants’.

The next American-in-Paris project was Gigi (1958) – with Maurice Chevalier in a boater singing ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ – adapted from Colette’s novella of 1944. Anita Loos’s Broadway version had already made a star of Hepburn, discovered – so the story goes – by Colette herself in a hotel lobby at Monte Carlo. The Hollywood Gigi, however, was Caron. Colette tells an implausibly happy story, in which a retired courtesan grooms her teenage granddaughter to follow in the trade – scorning opals, eating songbirds, avoiding almonds (‘They add weight to the breasts’). It was first published in a pro-Vichy collaborationist journal, not long after Colette’s third husband, Maurice Goudeket, who was Jewish, had been arrested and held by the Nazis for seven weeks. ‘One can’t overlook Colette’s complacence, not simply toward politics, but toward the more fundamental forms of ethical maturity,’ Judith Thurman wrote in her 1999 biography. Colette neglected her only daughter, born in 1913, when she was married to her second husband, Henry de Jouvenel, though she had plenty of time for Henry’s son from his first marriage, Bertrand, whom she seduced in 1920, when he was sixteen.

Is Gigi the reason English-speaking readers don’t much bother with Colette? Lydia Davis suggests it might be, in her introduction to Rachel Careau’s new Chéri. Another reason may be the quality of some of the translations of her work: Roger Senhouse’s widely used version from 1951, as Careau points out, has phrases like ‘Oh, my sainted aunt’, not to mention ‘a Chinee’. In her introduction to Eprile’s rendition, Thurman blames a generational narcissism which blocks readers from seeing the ‘dangerous heretic’ hiding in plain sight: ‘I’m always disheartened when a cool French girl enamoured with Georges Bataille recalls Colette as someone whom Nana read sous le bonnet – under the hairdryer. Or when an old actor who once emoted Phèdre natters on about her cats.’

‘What is the heart, madame?’ Colette once reported that a woman had asked her – a woman she had just heard pretending to sob, ‘like the notes of the nightingale’, to gratify a much younger lover in a glass-roofed opium den in Paris. ‘It’s quite accommodating. It accepts anything … But the body … Ha! That’s something else again!’ The Pure and the Impure (1932) is Colette’s memoir of her years as a young woman in the Paris of the Belle Époque: sex, drag, public performance, nudity (but never opium, cocaine or ether – she was a fitness freak when she was young). Why Colette, why now, doesn’t seem to be the question, or why it’s the Chéri books that are being retranslated first. Why only two, why not an infinity of Chéri and Gigi, Minne and Mitsou, Renée, Claudine?

Chéri (1920) opens in the boudoir of Léa de Lonval (née Vallon), a beautiful, clever and charming courtesan who is nearing fifty (Colette was fifty and ‘eating like a monster’ when she took the part in the stage play in the 1920s; Michelle Pfeiffer, also fifty, was, as ever, Michelle Pfeiffer in Stephen Frears’s film version of 2009). The curtains are pink, as are the paper shades on the electric sconces and the ‘ravishing’ flesh of the nymphet in the painting on the wall. And Léa’s dressing-gown, and her underwear, and the strawberries she eats for lunch, with a glass of dry Vouvray, from ‘a faience dish the colour of a wet green frog’. And the lustre, at least in some lights, of the 49 pearls on her necklace – ‘the pitted pearl, the slightly ovoid pearl and the biggest pearl’, the ‘matchless shade’ of which ‘stood out’.

In the reader’s first glimpse of him, Chéri is dancing in front of the rose-coloured curtains, ‘all black, like a graceful devil’, the pink light making a pink spark play on his teeth and eyes. He’s grabbed the pearls and is parading in front of the full-length mirror, ‘a very beautiful, very young man, neither tall nor short, his hair tinged with blue like the plumage of a blackbird’ – a young man as imagined by an ‘erotic militant’ who has decided what she likes. As the child bride of the much older, ‘heavy-cheeked’ and ‘bulbous’ ‘Monsieur Willy’, the pen name of Henry Gauthier-Villars, Colette had received ‘a number of pearls for her bridal necklace’: one for each of the bestselling naughty-schoolgirl novels she had written for her husband’s ‘factory’, published and marketed under the ‘Willy’ imprint. You can see the pearls sometimes, in the early photographs, around the time Monsieur Willy got her to cut her hair.

Chéri and The End of Chéri are usually reckoned Colette’s masterpieces. She published them in 1920 and 1926, turning fifty in between. The characters first appeared in her weekly column in Le Matin: the once great beauty, dashed against the ‘barrier reef, mysterious and incomprehensible’, of her ageing body; the staggeringly beautiful, abysmally lost young man. Both novels are exquisite in structure, sparse and lacy, every detail in a web of other details, merciless, precise; the timeline is a bit shaky, but the symmetry doesn’t fail. The first book is set in 1912, a cloud of pink with a rather dashing blackish squiggle; the second in the Great War’s aftermath, a spreading black blot. In the first book, the point of view is most often that of Léa, and tells how she came to seduce this ‘bratty nursling’, almost by accident, when she was in her early forties and he was just nineteen; the second looks at things as Chéri sees them. ‘When other people say: “There was the war,” I can say: “There was Léa.”’

Chéri’s world is the world of the much later Gigi, the demi-monde of dancers, actresses and prostitutes who made for themselves one of the few livings available to women in the Paris of the early 20th century, indulging the fantasies of rich men. It was a world Colette knew well from the years she had spent on the arm of M. Willy, and even better after she left him and took to the boards herself. The matriarchs of the Chéri books have made great successes of their sex work, and of their subsequent investments – the pink diamond and the sugar-cane plantation, the petroleum shares and cunning loan hedging – and live in luxury, with hairdressers and manicurists and masseurs, aged brandy, fine wines. Their pasts, however, render them unacceptable to polite society, which means they have been stuck with one another, bored and mutually resentful, for decades of dreary luncheon parties and bridge parties and bezique parties, ‘their usual malice and idle chitchat … financial papers in the morning, exchanging spiteful gossip in the afternoon’.

Chéri’s mother, Charlotte, is a former child dancer, now ‘a pudgy little canine’, who hosts a seemingly endless Mad Hatter’s tea party in her hideous Neuilly mansion for a small and shrinking social circle. Chéri never stood a chance, it is suggested, ‘by turns neglected and adored’ by his mother, her servants, the kindly ladies who offer ‘all the joys of a debauched childhood’, treating him like a baby one minute, a gigolo the next. He has a mean wit and can be handy with an account book, but has never learned the habit of reading and can barely write. Mother and son share a campy-bitch routine that is not unaffectionate, but not exactly loving either: ‘Why not one of those rubber dolls they make for sailors?’ is Charlotte’s suggestion at the height of Chéri’s desperation. ‘He approved of this … coming from a professional,’ is Chéri’s laconic, desolate response.

In the first book, the rosy-fingered idyll is interrupted by Charlotte’s plan to marry her son to Edmée, the beautiful, rich young daughter of the scheming Marie-Laure. Edmée is sensitive and astute: ‘He knows nothing,’ she thinks, ‘about plants or animals. And sometimes it seems like he doesn’t even know what it means to be human.’ So Chéri can’t stand her, and takes to wandering around his childhood haunts by night: cafés, brasseries, an opium den where he sits enraptured by the fake pearl necklace worn by La Copine, an exhausted dope fiend.

Léa, meanwhile, organises her linen cupboard, travels to Biarritz, dallies with a man or two, considers starting a restaurant with her savings, then decides it sounds like too much work. ‘Let’s go buy some playing cards, some fine wine, some score sheets for bridge, some knitting needles, all the baubles it takes to fill a big hole, everything you need to conceal that monster: the old woman.’ Or, this is what she’s thinking until the night Chéri comes back to her, and her bedroom is again ‘richly coloured like the inside of a melon’. She has lived to nag him again, just like in the old days, about his coated tongue and his rhubarb laxatives. But he watches her, in the light of morning; he has already seen her ‘double chin and ravaged neck’.

Chéri is back with Edmée in the sequel. She is running a hospital for veterans with war wounds, and sleeping with the chief of staff. ‘You look like a badly frosted cake!’ she says to her pink and white and blue-tinged husband. ‘A cake that looks unwell.’ Charlotte has moved into black-market import-export, and has a plan to develop the thermal baths at Passy. At a loss with her ailing son, she offers to set him up with Léa – the first time the two have met since the end of Chéri. And the postwar Léa de Lonval, Chéri finds, is ‘a serene disaster’. Her hair is grey, no longer hennaed, and cut like Charlotte’s. She has jowls, she wears a loose long coat and jabot: ‘In short: a healthy, mature woman … liberated from struts and stays.’ She’s with a friend, some princess or other, and they talk about men as if they were ‘horseflesh’ – ‘Connoisseurs of meat on the hoof’. ‘I loved you. And loved you well,’ Léa says to Chéri, unaffectedly. ‘It’s nice that you’ve remained good friends,’ the princess says.

Léa advises Chéri to get his urine tested. Maybe it’s his kidneys, or maybe he just needs a decent dinner: she can take him to a bistro on the Gobelins. She smacks her lips at the thought. ‘Romanticism, nervous breakdowns, disgust with life: it’s in the stomach. All of this: it’s the stomach. Even love!’ ‘I wonder how many times she put her corset on, took it off, then bravely put it on again?’ Chéri is thinking as he stares at her. ‘How many mornings did she change the shade of her face powder, rub her cheeks with a new kind of rouge, massage her neck with cold cream and a chunk of ice wrapped in a handkerchief, before she resigned herself to having her cheeks shine like patent leather?’ He can see how she’s straining to hold in her solid belly. He notices how she’s fiddling with her string of heavy pearls. ‘What must you think of me?’ he asks, to stop himself falling on his knees and howling. ‘Right now, you strike me as the type that leaves a box of cakes on the hall table on his way in … and picks it up again on his way out.’ And that, pretty much, is the end of Chéri and Léa, though the novel has still to sink through another fifty graceful yet mournful marble steps.

Colette​ – the lone patronymic was her idea; she had been calling herself Colette since school – was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, an unglamorous village in Burgundy, in 1873. Her mother, Sido, came from a family of chocolate traders – not all of them white – and had been married off to a dissolute local landowner by her older brothers. Jules-Joseph Colette, known as ‘the captain’, was her second husband, and had been made a district tax collector in compensation for the loss of a leg while fighting for Napoleon III. He pottered and dabbled in local politics and natural history and did a bad job of managing the family finances. He died, still meaning to start on his memoirs, in 1905.

Sido-Gabri, also called Minet-Chéri, ‘used to scamper about like a little rabbit’ with her older brothers – a half-sister, Juliette, would kill herself in 1908 – and had the run of her parents’ library: ‘Voltaire in marbled boards, Balzac in black’. She was never sent away for an education, in part because by that time her parents had lost their money. The progressive anti-clericalism of the Third Republic, which the Colettes enthusiastically supported, had in any case led to the establishment of free and secular universal primary education across the provinces. Sido-Gabri, like her heroine Claudine, joined ‘the daughters of grocers, farmers, policemen and, for the most part, of labourers’ to struggle with square roots, similar triangles and Dangerous Liaisons levels of sexual intrigue.

It says something super-sad about me, I think, that I never knew about Colette when I was younger. The Chalet School, yes, What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables; Enid Blyton after Enid Blyton, Upper Fourth at Malory Towers, Claudine at St Clare’s … Claudine, as happier readers will know, is the name Colette gave the free-spirited authorial stand-in of the four novels she ghosted for M. Willy – Claudine at School (1900), Claudine in Paris (1901), Claudine Married (1902) and Claudine and Annie (1903). A fifth, Retreat from Love (1907), written as Colette and Willy were moving towards their final separation, was signed by ‘Colette Willy’ alone (though the tale was as salacious as anything Colette had ever done with Willy at her shoulder; she had an ‘uncompromising zeal for self-exploitation’, as Angela Carter once said). Could it be that Colette was actually censored from Aberdeen District Libraries in the 1970s? We should have been doing her for French O Grade. We could have learned so much it would have been so good to know.

‘Like having my skull opened with a tin-opener,’ Carter said about reading Baudelaire as a teenager. Discovering the Claudine books, even at my age and with my Bataille phase far behind me, I recognised what she meant. What is known and not known, shameful or not shameful, permissible and impermissible: it’s all done differently in Colette. She was reading Balzac from the age of seven – ‘Balzac was for her a world whose streets and houses were all familiar,’ as her third husband put it – so she would obviously need to move to Paris. Was marrying her off at twenty to a sleazy purveyor of pornographic postcards really the only way to manage this? Willy, fourteen years her senior, was a compulsive financial risk-taker and equally unrestrained in his womanising, with, his wife noticed, a particular interest in le vice paternel (Thurman thinks he also gave her gonorrhoea). ‘It is true that, at first, ridden by youth and ignorance, I had known intoxication – a guilty rapture, an atrocious, impure, adolescent impulse. There are many scarcely nubile girls who dream of becoming the show, the plaything, the licentious masterpiece of some middle-aged man.’

It was, she always said, his idea that she start writing. He suggested she write down her school stories – ‘Don’t be shy of the spicy bits’ – which he then embellished with Naughty Nineties sexploitation. And yet, the first Claudine book runs like the clearest water. Here she is, our heroine, motherless and sweet fifteen, the only daughter of her kindly, oblivious malacologist Papa; very proud of her long, curly chestnut hair – it gets the chop in Claudine in Paris – and the contrast it makes, ‘by no means unattractively’, with her eyes. Her main collaborator, ‘the lanky Anaïs’, is a ‘vicious … toady’, who eats the stationery, ‘pencil stubs, filthy black India rubber, charcoal and pink blotting paper’; Dr Dutertre, the wolfishly handsome district superintendent, pats and strokes and threatens worse. Claudine, however, has eyes only for ‘that charming little bird’, Mademoiselle Aimée, the assistant teacher, who has been seduced already by Mademoiselle Sergent, the plain-but-stylish headmistress. Exams are sat, green woods and hills are rhapsodised, an exhibition of needlework features a surprising quantity of chemises and beribboned knickers. The candour, the curiosity, the wit, the bubbling prose, are a joy.

It’s true that bits of all the Claudine books are silly, contrived, unsavoury, even rancid – particularly the character of Renaud, the much older ‘cousin-uncle’ whom Claudine pashes on, then marries, then shares, for a while, with a woman called Rézi, an episode based on a real-life intrigue that caused enormous real-life scandal and distress. It’s a relief for everybody when the maturing young author gains the confidence, by the fifth book, to kill off her ageing cousin-uncle-husband: ‘His death gave me the feeling of having attained a kind of literary puberty, a foretaste of those delights allowed to the praying mantis.’

It’s even truer that even the worst of the Claudine books has plenty in it that is fresh, surprising, brilliant. Nothing embarrasses Claudine, as the admiring narrator says early in the fourth book, while our heroine is munching on her sixth lobster sandwich, before embarking on a romp that takes her to Bayreuth, which smells, we are told, of cabbage, and where the celebrities spotted promenading include Polaire, the nip-waisted French-Algerian actress most famous for playing Claudine on stage. In the fifth book, the guest star has become ‘Willette Collie, playing the Little Faun’, leaping about ‘like a demon, wearing a bathing suit’. ‘My judgment,’ Colette herself wrote later, ‘on all the Claudines is still severe. They frisk and frolic and play the giddy girl altogether too freely … I do not like to rediscover … the suppleness of mood that understood all too well what was required.’

In 1901, Willy spent some of the Claudine money on a country house in the Franche-Comté, which Colette adored and where she spent her summers, on her own, mostly, with Kiki-la-Doucette, her angora cat, and Toby-Chien, her little dog. The story that Willy would lock her in until she had written her daily pages seems unlikely: he was usually in Paris, for one thing, being seen at all the right places, developing his other Willy projects with his other writers, creating Claudine stage plays, Claudine soap and lotions, Claudine ice cream, cigarettes. Polaire popularised an easy-to-copy Claudine look – chopped hair, dark dress, little boots, big white collar – and Willy had wife and star photographed together in Claudine garb, with him and his jowls and stick and top hat in the middle. Every brothel, according to Thurman, had at least one Claudine for client delectation. Willy was deluged by ‘sinister adolescents’, desperate to perform for him – Claudines, every one.

Colette, in the meantime, was becoming aware ‘of a new strength … growing in me that had no connection with literature’. She built herself a gym – bars, rings, a trapeze, a knotted rope – and took dance and mime lessons. ‘It had seemed to me that I was exercising my body in much the way that prisoners, though they have no clear idea of flight, tear up their sheets and plait the strands together.’ In 1905 she performed in public for the first time, at one of Natalie Barney’s Paris-Lesbos garden parties. It was through Barney that she met the lover who offered her an escape hatch from her marriage, Mathilde de Morny, marquise de Belbeuf, known sometimes as ‘Max’ but usually referred to in biographies as ‘Missy’. It’s impossible to know how Missy would have chosen to be identified, had a choice been on offer. Biographers call her ‘she’ and ‘lesbian’ and ‘transvestite’, but this could be because they are unaware of transness, in its many modulations, then and now. Colette, in any case, luxuriated in her new-found queerness, wearing men’s suits, like Missy did, and a bracelet proclaiming Missy as her owner. Her mother was far more enthusiastic about this relationship than she was about her daughter’s other beaux.

‘A woman of letters who has turned out badly’ is the way Renée, the heroine, describes herself in The Vagabond (1910), Colette’s novel of her years as a music-hall artiste. She was already a pariah, thanks to the Claudine scandals and the association with Willy. She was divorced from him now, running around with ‘inverts’ and dancing with very few clothes on, pretending to be a faun. Renée remembers ‘the voluptuous pleasure of writing, the patient struggling with a phrase until it becomes supple and finally settles down, curled up like a tamed animal’. It’s clear, then, that she misses it. ‘The only real things are dancing, light, freedom and music,’ she thinks a little later, while performing. ‘Nothing is real except making rhythm of one’s thought … The beauty of a perfected gesture, the rightness of an expression of horror or desire.’

The drama of The Vagabond is the heroine’s struggle between the pride she takes in her art and the loneliness that tempts her to give in to the attentions of the rich (and significantly younger) stage-door suitor she privately calls ‘the Big Noodle’. But, actually, for much of the time she was working as a performer, Colette was supported by Missy, who bought her a country house in Brittany – the place in Franche-Comté having been repossessed, Colette was horrified to discover, at around the same time Willy sold off the rights to her books – and joined her in a performance at the Moulin Rouge in 1907, under the cunning stage-name of Yssim. Yssim played an amorous Egyptologist, Colette a diaphanous striptease mummy. The audience was planted with Missy’s estranged ex-husband’s friends and hirelings, and the pair battled bravely through the ensuing riot. Missy never took the stage again.

Colette used Missy as a model for the character of Margot, ‘the younger sister of my ex-husband’, in The Vagabond: ‘At least Margot loves me in her own way, her discouraged and discouraging way, though prophesying that I shall come to a wretched end,’ by which she means another man, just as bad as the last one. Sure enough, Colette ran off the minute she met the man who would become her second husband, without a backward glance. ‘The melancholy and touching image of two weak creatures,’ she writes in The Vagabond about the very thought of ‘two women enlaced’. They ‘have perhaps sought shelter in each other’s arms, there to sleep and weep, safe from man who is so often cruel, and there to taste, better than any pleasure, the bitter happiness of feeling themselves akin’.

Colette returned to Missy twenty years later in The Pure and the Impure, in the guise of La Chevalière: ‘Anxious and veiled, never exposed to the light of day, the androgynous creature wanders, wonders, and implores in a whisper … If jovial, the androgynous creature is a monster. But it trails irrevocably among us its seraphic suffering, its glimmering tears.’ Is this a reparation of some sort, or merely another round of exploitation? In Colette’s work, it was so often both. And yet, La Chevalière is also ‘the person who has no counterpart anywhere’ and whose smile is ‘so difficult to depict, so difficult to forget’.

‘An exquisite or troubling dehumanisation, like vibrations of the cosmos’: this is Julia Kristeva on Colette. ‘Tendrils of the vine,’ she elaborates, after a piece Colette wrote in 1905, when she was still with Willy. ‘A genre she has made her own.’ ‘The Tendrils of the Vine’ is an Oscar Wilde-ish just-so story about how the nightingale found its voice: to save itself from death by suffocation from the plants that would grow all over it if it were ever to stop. The prose itself is ‘hooked’, as Kristeva puts it, sprouting out all over. And through and around the entire oeuvre, ‘a hallucinatory, Art Nouveau life-form’, in the words of Terry Castle, proliferates ‘new vinous shoots, brusque outgrowths and curling tendrils for more than five decades’.

Colette seems barely to have noticed when her mother died in 1912. But she returned to ‘the presence of her who, instead of receding far from me through the gates of death, has revealed herself more vividly to me as I grow older’ in My Mother’s House (1922) and Sido (1929), the memoirs that gave rise to the legend of Sido as what Thurman calls ‘a Burgundian Martha Stewart’. They are beautiful and classical and probably less orotund if you read them in French.

But sometimes, something else happens, something mysterious, and especially in La Naissance du jour (1928), translated by Enid McLeod as Break of Day. Colette appears in her house near Saint-Tropez, tending her animals and her garden and going through her mother’s letters: ‘Now that little by little I am beginning to age … I wonder whether, if she were to return, she would recognise me … She might if she came back at break of day and found me up and alert in a sleeping world, awake as she used to be, and I often am, before anyone.’ ‘Almost anyone’, that should read. Because there’s a man there, handsome and strong and much younger. He’s a neighbour from down the hill. Vial is much younger than Colette, and a Colette fan, a Colette groupie, even. He’s hoping to have an affair with this beautiful, beloved writer, and all that happens in the novel is that Colette considers whether to take him up. ‘Is suffering so very serious? I have come to doubt it. It may be quite childish, a sort of undignified pastime.’ ‘The other day they found an old person dead and quite dry, like a dead toad burned up by the midday heat before a bird of prey had time to gut it.’ ‘I remember very definitely that when I was wretched … my animals loved me less. They scented my grief, that great admission of failure.’ ‘Love, one of the great commonplaces of existence, is slowly leaving mine.’

Colette was by this time living with Goudeket, her third and final husband, who would take care of her and push her wheelchair and hold her on her deathbed in 1954 in her flat in the Palais-Royal. He said once that Chéri was for Colette ‘a chrysalis, representing her constant attempt to bridge the gulf between animals and humans’. ‘Monstrosity begins where there arises connivance with animals,’ as Break of Day has it, at its most aphoristic. ‘Any man who remains on the side of men has reason to shrink from a creature who opts for beasts.’

‘She was a terrible woman,’ Martha Gellhorn said in the 1990s. ‘Absolute, utter hell. She hated me at first sight, that was obvious.’ This would have been in the 1930s, when Colette was first married to Goudeket, and Gellhorn was in love with a now respectably-in-his-twenties Bertrand de Jouvenel. ‘She was lying on a chaise longue … with green shadow on her cat’s eyes and a mean, bitter little mouth … And Bertrand just adored her all his life. He never understood when he was in the presence of evil.’ She ‘looked me over maliciously’, Gellhorn continued, then ‘insisted’ Gellhorn pencil her eyebrows in a thick black line. The Goudekets had just tried and failed to establish a beauty salon business, selling Colette-branded soaps and face powders, as Willy had with Claudine. Colette thought she could make her own potions from recipes she’d learned from Sido, and that her speed and skill at slapping on a Little Faun face, or a sexy Ancient Evenings, qualified her to do makeovers. But she must have been aware that her sort of beauty was not at all what the modern woman wanted, that the only sure anti-ageing treatment is the one accepted, finally, by Chéri.

‘Well, I did it,’ Gellhorn says. ‘Why? Because she told me to. And it was three days before some kind, candid friend said to me: “My dear, what dreadful thing have you done with your face?”’ ‘The spotlight,’ Colette had written a few years earlier, ‘always explores the same sector of a woman’s life, that sector tortured by bliss and discord.’ But it’s not there that she keeps her really ‘important and obscure secrets’; it’s not there that she weaves her ‘darkest plots’. ‘Solitary … It’s a beautiful-looking word, with its capital S rearing like a protective serpent.’ And off she goes again, with Maurice, probably, carrying the bucket, searching for that ‘quilt of seaweed’ with which to mulch her tangerines.

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