Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Women of the Left Bank series part 3: It all started with Colette

Other posts in the series:
Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide
Having a drink with Janet Flanner

It all started with Colette for me – this obsession with Left Bank women that put me on the path to writing my book. To be precise, it all started in Barter Books in Alnwick, and me picking up a Penguin edition of The Vagabond.  You know the type, orange and cream, with a black and white illustration on the cover, in this case of a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman brushing her hair at a dressing table, a top-hatted gentleman by her side.

‘What do you think of Colette?’ I said to my well-read uncle. 

‘I haven’t read her,’ he replied. ‘But those books were written when people didn’t have television.’

So I bought it. Immediately I was swept up into Rene Neree’s world of the fin-de-siecle Parisian café-concert and music hall, a disastrous marriage behind her and an ill-fated love affair with the ‘Big Noodle’ throwing her carefully-structured life and carefully-controlled emotions into confusion. Through the evocative descriptions on the yellowing pages, I could smell the sweat of the rehearsal studio, feel the emptiness of her big bed, the heat of the south coast’s sun on the crowded train, hear the shouted commands of her dance teacher/partner, the throaty singing of Jadin – every sense tingled and responded to this extraordinary, tiny novel. 

I was hooked. I wanted to gobble up every word Colette had ever written (and she wrote A LOT). So I turned to the Claudine novels. They were a revelation. Fifteen years on, these are the books I still return to when I need to read something that feels like a hug in a cosy blanket.

From the moment I joined her wandering alone through the tall woods outside Montigny, I fell head over heels in love with Claudine. I was enthralled by her naughty antics with her school friends as she flirted and frolicked with dubious doctors, seductive teachers and bumbling assistant masters (as an aside, I overheard a conversation in Paris where a woman introduced a man called ‘Antonin’. It took me straight back to Colette’s line about the Antonin Rabastens – ‘one simply can’t be called Antonin!’) After she quitted the woods of Montigny, I longed for Claudine’s Paris, observed from her room on Rue Jacob as she fell for the handsome Renaud. I read about her feeding grapes from her mouth to her lover Rezi and about the awakening of her friend Annie from her horrible marriage. The novels are a wonderful and honest depiction of a young woman’s budding sexuality.

Next came Cheri, The Pure and the Impure, Gigi, The Cat, The Break of Day, The Ripening Seed – as well as her short stories, most notably The Hand. I devoured Colette’s novels and stories. I scoured second hand bookshops for forgotten memoirs and novels that I hadn’t yet discovered. To me, Colette was my key to the world of the senses, she was my escape from boring late nineties/early-noughties Bristol, my teacher of what it was to be a woman. Through Colette I learnt about sex and costume and food and animals and jealousy and dizzying love and dizzying lust. I learnt about opium and cross-dressing and madness and the joy of being outside in the woods. 

For Christmas in 1999, I was given Judith Thurman’s excellent biography of my favourite writer. And that’s when I discovered just how much The Vagabond, the Claudine novels and much more of Colette’s writing were essentially autobiographical. Somehow this made it even more thrilling. 

Colette had a most extraordinary life. Born in 1873 in Yonne, she moved to Paris when she was twenty with her older husband, Willy. Mostly forgotten now, Willy was a huge success in turn of the century Paris, the quintessential man about town with his top hat and tache, publishing novels that he never wrote under his name. Instead, he employed a factory of ghost-writers, turning out saucy, sexy texts that fitted neatly into the whirlwind of Belle Epoque Paris. 

The marriage was not wholly happy. Willy was not a faithful husband, and Colette had affairs with women (including Natalie Barney who was a life long friend). She had some kind of nervous breakdown and there’s some suggestion she contracted an STD from Willy as a result of his infidelities. As she recovered from one bout of illness, Willy suggested Colette tried writing something for him to publish. 

Colette famously describes this incident in My Apprenticeships. She bought herself some school exercise books and wrote a memoir of her school days. Willy read it, and rejected it. The books were put away and not mentioned again until a while later, when they were found in a drawer. On second reading, Willy decided there was something there. He asked Colette to spice them up a bit, and a hit was born. 

And that’ Colette writes ‘is how I became a writer.’

Claudine at School and its follow-ups were all published under Willy’s name and they were HUGE! The naughty schoolgirl with her big white collars and jabots became a national obsession. The books were performed as plays with Polaire and her 16-inch waist taking on the title role. Paris was hit with  Claudine fever. Willy needed more to fuel the fire, and so allegedly he locked Colette in her room until she delivered the goods. She wrote and wrote – and got none of the credit. Meanwhile, Willy got richer and richer off his wife’s labour. 

Eventually the pair divorced and a bitter legal battle on who owned the rights to Claudine followed. But it wasn’t until Willy’s death that Colette succeeded in getting his name removed entirely from the books and was able to claim sole authorship. 

After her divorce, Colette began a long affair with the Mathilde de Morny, known as Missy and immortalised – along with Renee Vivien, Natalie Barney and a whole host of gay and lesbian personalities – in Colette's stories about gay and lesbian Paris, The Pure and the Impure. But without the security given to her by marriage, and unable to claim the recognition she deserved as author of the Claudine and Minne books, she needed a new way to support herself. So she took to the stage – training as a mime and a dancer. It was these experiences that led to the creation of Rene Neree in The Vagabond – a character she returned to throughout her writing career as another foil to herself. 

Colette excelled as a mime – but her career was not without controversy. In her performance of La Reve d’Egypte she caused a riot when she kissed Missy on stage. 

Missy and Colette split up and she married again – this time to Henri de Jouvenal who edited Le Matin. She embarked on a journalism career, reporting throughout the First World War. Her journalism is often forgotten but an important part of her writing that deserves celebrating. The marriage didn’t work out – Colette had an affair with her stepson and de Jouvenal wasn’t exactly a great husband – and the pair divorced in 1924. She married for a final time in 1935, to Maurice Goudeket, and the pair stayed together until her death. 

Her career in the music hall and her incredible (in the true sense of the word) marriage to Willy led to Colette collecting a host of experiences in the Parisian demi-monde of dancers, prostitutes, singers, gay and lesbian men and women, cross-dressers and drug addicts that she would draw on to create some of the most exciting and original literature of the 20th Century. Her writing is truly sensual – not just in a sexual way, but in her appreciation of ALL the senses and all the experiences that stimulate the senses – from the Asti and shrimps that Claudine gobbles down on the night she realises she is in love with Renaud, to the drawing of the gardens in A Retreat from Love, to the descriptions of physical longing and satisfaction with a new/existing lover. 

As well as sensuality, Colette is one of the truly great writers of animals. From Saha the eponymous cat in The Cat, to Claudine’s Fanchette and Rene’s bulldog – animals and their sensibilities and personalities are beautifully – but never sentimentally – drawn. In fact, with Saha the opposite is certainly true, as this beautiful demon wreaks destruction on the failing marriage of Camille and Alain. 

Cheri is probably her most famous work, and it is Colette’s masterpiece. Written whilst she was still married de Jouvenal in 1920, the novel tells the story of Cheri’s separation from his much older lover, Lea. Having always believed their relationship to be casual, it is only when Cheri marries that the pair realise they have been in love. But when Cheri goes back to Lea, he sees her as an old woman and leaves her for good. 

Cheri is spoilt and beautiful, charming and cruel, unbelievably selfish and immature. And yet, through Colette's sensitive and evocative writing, you understand why Lea loves him, and why he loves Lea. 

What makes Cheri so good is what makes all of Colette’s novels and short stories so wonderful – her gift at writing the senses, and her ability to conjure up passion, loss and resignation, of wanting what one can’t have, of longing, and of satisfaction followed by dissatisfaction. Cheri is a beautiful, stunning novel that captures in a short volume the depth of Colette’s brilliant gift. 

I loved Colette as a teenager and I still love her now. I love her daring. I love how she refused to conform – how she refused to bow down to Willy’s stealing of her talent. I love how when the chips were down, she did whatever she could to survive, and that meant dancing and writing. I love how she was determined to live a life that was true to herself. And I love her short hair, and how she looks equally gorgeous in a tux as in a Grecian dress…

Life was so important to Colette. This matters, because in so many ways her marriage to Willy threatened to drown her life. She writes about the lethargy of being married to him, the laziness and the loss of her sense of self. So when she was given the chance to live again, to live her life, she took it and she never let it go. 

Colette’s absolute need for life is perhaps best expressed in Shari Henstock’s description in her superb book, Women of the Left Bank, of Colette’s relationship to Renee Vivien – the alcoholic, anorexic lover of Natalie Barney who died aged just 32. She explains:

Natalie Barney claimed that Vivien’s life was a “long suicide” from which she tried to save her, and Colette, whose will to live was so strong, could not understand the nature of her young neighbour.’

Henstock goes on to say that through writing:

Colette discovered…that writing was an essential act of creativity bearing direct relation to her womanhood, a way of discovering herself as a woman’ 

You can understand this when you read Colette’s work. Every word she writes sparkles with life and self-discovery. She is not necessarily a happy writer, and her books aren’t happy books. But they burn with a desire to live. I think that is what makes them so attractive and how, even now they are out of fashion, they still burst with excitement and energy to a new and returning reader.  

Colette isn’t widely read any more and a lot of her books have fallen out of print. But you can still find them, in second-hand bookstores around the UK. I am so glad I did. 

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