Reading: Colette (1873-1954)

Gabrielle Sidonie Colette was born in Saint Saveur en Puisaye in Burgundy. Colette was thus her family name, not her given name, even though Colette is also a feminine given name.

Brought up in the country by close-knit parents concerned for her well being and for her development, she acquired a strong sensory appetite. She appreciated flavours, for her mother was both a good gardener and a good cook, and she appreciated the changing smells, from evening to morning, in the woods and in the meadows, in sunshine or in rain; she appreciated the animals, especially cats which she kept around her all of her life. To read Colette is to drink, to eat, to breathe, to caress.

Her appetite for life pushed her at age 20 “to follow a star” to Paris life. She married a fashionable figure of the literary scene, Henri Gauthier-Villars, nicknamed Willy. Following his advice, she wrote novels romanticising her childhood memories, The Complete Claudine (1900-1903) with Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie. However this literary man was also a business man. Willy, recognising the value of the connection, published them under his own name. Then it turned out that this business man was a ladies’ man. He neglected her.

In 1906, divorce brought freedom to Gabrielle Sidonie. It was then that she became a mime artist, a dancer, an entertainer in the music-hall. She went on tour all over the country meeting many people. However, the books which she published between 1908 and 1914 were the result of her reflections on desertion and loneliness; they were Tendrils of the Vine (1908), The Vagabond (1910), The Shackle (1913).

With the arrival of the First World War, Colette earned a living writing in several newspapers, Le Matin, Le Figaro, La Vie Parisienne, brilliant articles, columns, and theatrical reviews.

Peace restored, she resumed the writing of her literary works for a living. Cheri, Green Wheat, Break of Day, and The Cat explored the temptations of life. Both of them, temptation and life, are important. To what extent and in what way can we let ourselves be tempted without risking our lives?

If Colette knocked down the barriers of polite society early on in order to slide into the margins, she was not looking to lose sight of herself. She built her very being by watching the many facets of life illuminate. During the course of her travels she grew. She is a literary guide in the labyrinth of the human spirit.

Elected as a member of the Academy Goncourt [1] in 1945, she died at the height of her literary glory on 3rd April 1954 in Paris. France gave her a state funeral recognising the extent of her literary works. As she used to say, tongue in cheek: “French is quite a difficult language. It’s after writing for just over 45 years that you begin to notice that.”

The Pure and the Impure

“Perhaps one day they will see it as my best book”, Colette wrote to Maurice Goudeket, her third husband. Let’s assume that she was in the best position to say this, and let’s make it our task to seek to understand why she said it. She was in her sixtieth year in 1932; this is therefore a mature work.

We enter into parallel worlds, that of opium, of alcohol, of forbidden love. It is about forming human relationships. At the end of the story, we understand that it is about self love. Each person is trying hard to make themselves loveable by acting in a way that they believe makes them lovable. Some go into a trance in order to rid themselves of their inhibitions, or to provoke others, or to get over their own troubles. Yet, throughout the book, Colette shows us that these trances don’t equate with natural behaviour, whether it be instinctive or authentic. As for herself, she recognises aspects of human nature and praises their beauty. That is the pure side. To make it best stand out, she shows the side that is also essential, the so-called impure side.

To enter into the book, we push open the door of an opium den in Paris. It is a secret world, but not very, since Colette meets there, not surprisingly, a fellow journalist and novelist. She meets there Madame… Charlotte. Pseudo-marginality, a fake name, a false paradise.

Charlotte’s secret escape to the opium den is not fulfilling. The two women talk. We realise that there is something missing in Charlotte. Following a disappointment, she has retreated within herself. She no longer gives herself to anyone, body and soul. She refuses to come out of this state of sentimental reclusion, but she is really hoping to.

– Madame Charlotte, what you are “really” missing… are you looking for it?

She smiles, her head tilted back, revealing under a dim light the underside of her pretty, short nose, her slightly chubby chin, her gapless set of teeth.

– I am not so naive Madame, not so debauched. What I am missing, I can do without, and that’s all there is to it. Don’t give me credit for it, no… but something which we know well from having possessed it, we are never really deprived of it.

To get into this book, Colette offers us the key of her own experience.

“I set sail, when I think of Charlotte, on a sea of memories of nights when neither sleep nor certainty reigned. The veiled face of a slender lady, disillusioned, acquainted with deceit, with delicacy, is appropriate for crossing the threshold of this book which will speak sadly about pleasure.”

‘Artificial paradises’ are false ideas that we invent about liberated sensuality. It is not a question of institutional morality. Pure pleasure is a primordial, infallible instinct. The attraction of ‘these pleasures which we name lightly, physical’ – the word is Colette’s – is inexorable.

In this word inexorable, I bring together the array of forces to which we know only to give the name “senses”. The senses? Why not the sense? It would be discrete and sufficient. Sense: five other sub senses venture away from it, and it calls them back with a jolt – like itchy light ribbons, partly like grass, partly like the tentacles deployed by an underwater creature.

Senses, uncompromising lords, ignorant like the princes of bygone times, who learned only that which was necessary: to conceal, to hate, to order… It is you however that Charlotte, asleep for a peaceful night, subdued by opium, used to keep in check, assigning arbitrary limits to your empire; but who then, even Charlotte, is capable of defining your unstable boundaries?…

Through images of alcohol, of donjuanism, of homosexuality, it is not a book that takes a position between good and evil, nor even between good and bad – in it we meet a misogynous Don Juan. It is a music that maintains our conscience alert to prevent it from falling asleep in pre-molded ideas.

PUR … the short explosive consonant, the doleful ‘U’, the crystal clear ‘R’. It used to awake nothing in me, except the need to hear again its distinctive sound, its muffled echo like a drip which drops from and into invisible water. The word ‘pur’ has not revealed to me its true meaning.

[1] Academie Goncourt – Prestigious institution created to honour living figures in the French literary world.

[2] Donjuanism – the idea of being a ladies’ man; the term is derived from the name of the legendary Spaniard Don Juan.


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