Friday, June 1, 2012


For many, the name Colette conjures vague images of a French dancer with a questionable reputation...and didn't she do some writing? In the U.S. she is best known for Gigi, published in 1945 when she was seventy-two. There were over fifty novels written before that.

Colette was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette on January 28, 1873 in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, France. Her father, Jules-Joseph Colette, retired from the army and worked as a tax collector. Her mother, Adele Eugenia Sidonie Landois, Sidoa wise, down-to-earth Maman—became known to many through Colette's stories, My Mother's House and Sido. 

Her first books, the Claudine series, were published between 1900 and 1903 under her husband Henri Gauthier-Villarspen's pen name  "Willy".  She was 20 when she married Henri, 14 years her senior. It was said that he locked her in a room, refusing to release her until she'd written a few tantalizing chapters of her escapades at boarding school. There were five books in the series from which came a line of Claudine products. Everything from cigarettes and perfume to chocolates and cosmetics made Gauthier-Villars a wealthy man. Things did not go as well for Colette who divorced him in 1906 and supported herself as a dancer and a mime in Parisian music halls.

You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.

She reportedly pained over every word, and yet her writing flows sensually whether the topic is food, a garden, or a lover. It is, no doubt, that sensuality that stokes her reputation. At a time when women were told to learn to write like men, Colette was unapologetic about her gender or the passion of her writing. She wrote with the same intensity that she lived, and she lived a remarkable life. She was equally adept at stunning descriptive prose as she was at sometimes vicious humor. Her words entice you to love and hate as she does, yearn for a visit to her childhood home, learn French, or join a group of friends for a long dinner instead of the brief encounters so common these days.
Her efforts did not go unacknowledged. She was the first woman admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy and in 1953 was elected to the Legion of Honour. She died in 1954. I've done a great deal of reading by and about Colette, but she was complex, and it is difficult to judge from her writings what is autobiographical and what is fiction. What I do know is that her writing engages me on many levels. I'll let you judge for yourself. 

Bella Vista

The night was murmurous and warmer than the day. Three or four lighted windows, the clouded sky patched here and there with stars, the cry of some night bird over this unfamiliar place made my throat tighten with anguish. It was an anguish without depth; a longing to weep which I could master as soon as I felt it rise. I was glad of it because it proved that I could still savor the special taste of loneliness.

Bygone Spring

Everything rushes onward, and I stay where I am. Do I not already feel more pleasure in comparing this spring with others that are past than in welcoming it? The torpor is blissful enough, but too aware of its own weight. And though my ecstasy is genuine and spontaneous, it no longer finds expression. "Oh, look at those yellow cowslips! And the soapwort! And the unicorn tips of the lords and ladies are showing!..." But the cowslip, that wild primula, is a humble flower, and how can the uncertain mauve of the watery soapwort compare with a glowing peach tree? Its value for me lies in the stream that watered it between my tenth and fifteenth years. The slender cowslip, all stalk and rudimentary in blossom, still clings by a frail root to the meadow where I used to gather hundreds to straddle them along a string and then tie them into round balls, cool projectiles that struck the cheek like a rough wet kiss.


My thoughts turn to the house, to the fire and the lamp; there are books and cushions and a bunch of dahlias the color of dark blood; in these short afternoons, when the early evenings turn the bay windows blue, decidedly it's time to be indoors. Already on the tops of the walls on the still-warm slates of the roofs, there appear with tails like plumes, wary ears, cautious paws, and arrogant eyes, those new masters of our gardens, the cats.

A long black tom keeps continual watch on the roof of the empty kennel; and the gentle night, blue with motionless mist that smells of kitchen gardens and the smoke of green wood, is peopled with little velvety phantoms. Claws lacerate the barks of trees, and a feline voice, low and hoarse, begins a thrilling lament that never ends. 

 My Mother's House

It was not until one morning when I found the kitchen unwarmed and the blue enamel saucepan hanging on the wall, that I felt my mother's end to be near. Her illness knew many respites, during which the fire flared up again on the hearth, and the smell of fresh bread and melting chocolate stole under the door together with the cat's impatient paw. These respites were periods of unexpected alarms. My mother and the big walnut cupboard were discovered together in a heap at the foot of the stairs, she having determined to transport it in secret from the upper landing to the ground floor. Whereupon my elder brother insisted that my mother should keep still and that an old servant should sleep in the little house. But how could an old servant prevail against a vital energy so youthful and mischievous that it contrived to tempt and lead astray a body already half fettered by death? My brother, returning before sunrise from attending a distant patient, one day caught my mother red-handed in the most wanton of crimes. Dressed in her nightgown, but wearing heavy gardening sabots, her little grey septuagenarian's plait of hair turning up like a scorpion's tail on the nape of her neck, one foot firmly planted on the crosspiece of the beech trestle, her back bent in the attitude of the expert jobber, my mother, rejuvenated by an indescribable expression of guilty enjoyment, in defiance of all her promises and of the freezing morning dew, was sawing logs in her own yard.

The Vagabond

Come now, this won't do. I'm too clear-sighted this evening, and if I don't pull myself together my dancing will suffer for it. I dance and dance. A beautiful serpent coils itself along the Persian carpet, an Egyptian amphora tilts forward, pouring forth a cascade of perfumed hair, a blue and stormy cloud rises and floats away, a feline beast springs forwards, then recoils, a sphinx, the color of pale sand, reclines at full length, propped on its elbows with hollowed back and straining breasts. I have recovered myself and forget nothing. Do these people really exist, I ask myself? No, they don't. The only real things are dancing, light, freedom, and music. Nothing is real except making rhythm of one's thought and translating it into beautiful gestures. Is not the mere swaying of my back, free from any constraint, an insult to those bodies cramped by their long corsets, and enfeebled by a fashion which insists that they should be thin?"

The Ripening Seed

All that could be seen through the window was the August tide, bringing rain in its wake.  The earth came to an abrupt end out there, at the edge of the sand hills. One more squall, one more upheaval of the great grey field furrowed with parallel ridges of foam, and the house would surely float away like the ark…but Phil and Vinca knew the August seas of old and their monotonous thunder, as well as the wild, white-capped seas of September.  They knew that this corner of a sandy field would remain impassable, and all through their childhood they had scoffed at the frothy foam-scuds that danced powerlessly up to the edge of man's dominion.

The Pure and the Impure

Voluptuaries, consumed by their senses, always begin by flinging themselves with a great display of frenzy into an abyss. But they survive, they come to the surface again. And they develop a routine of the abyss: 'It's four o clock. At five I have my abyss...'

 Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.


Lea, leaning on her elbow, looks at him. In the merciful half-light, she shows what a pretty fifty-year-old woman, well cared for and in good health, can show: the bright complexion, somewhat ruddy and a bit weathered, of a natural blonde, shapely, solid shoulders, and celebrated blue eyes which have kept their thick chestnut lashes. But she is now a redhead, because of her hair, which is turning gray.

She loves to chat in bed, almost invisible, while her magnificent arms and expressive hands comment on her wise words. Nearing the end of a successful career as a sedate courtesan, she is neither sad nor spiteful. She keeps the date of her birth a secret, but willingly admits, as she settles her calm gaze on Cheri, that she is approaching the age when one is permitted little comforts...

Cheri was made into a film in 2009

I write with my senses, with my body...all my flesh has a soul.

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