Literary Seductions: Colette — The Consummate Courtesan

"What an interesting life I had.  And how I wish I had realized it sooner!"

-- Gabrielle-Sidonie Colette (1873-1954)

Portrait of Colette

Portrait of Colette

If there was only one truth to survive the extraordinary life of the French writer Colette, we would find a wealth of inspiration and encouragement in her astonishing response, after seeing a movie about herself: “What an interesting life I had.  And how I wish I had realized it sooner!”

Wouldn’t we all and don’t we all!

Write those two sentences down on Post-It notes where you can see them and repeat aloud for as long as it takes, until it feels like your own thought.  Colette lived for words, but she had many lives—like the old lady cat lover she became. When we wind her thread back we discover in the subtle nuances of her writing, a sly curvature of composition that made her the myth creator. Using her pen as a wand she performed magic for over fifty years. 

The writer, Colette at her desk

The writer, Colette at her desk

Words are one part of writing, but style is quite another.  Writers speak of finding their voice. Colette found hers by becoming the consummate courtesan of Life.  Her mythologized perfect lives of a happy schoolgirl, dance hall performer, and courtesan/seductress became so intertwined with her real life that she, herself, couldn’t unwind them.  And why should she even try? We are all our own creation.  We are all our finest work of art.  And if we are not, then perhaps it is time to remember that we are Artists of the Everyday. Time once again to pick up the brush, or the pen, or the pot, or the pan or the spade.

“Be happy,” she advised young women and writers.  “It’s one way of being wise.”  I am only starting to realize that this advice is not age specific.  So this week let us try to find small ways each day to be happy in honor of April’s enchantment.

But before we delve further with Colette’s sleight of hand, let me tell you about a book which has given me such pleasure and insight over the years that I want to press it into your hands and send you home to begin page turning.  It’s the British lecturer and writer, Frances Wilson’s enthralling Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers, which you’ll need to source second hand but it’s so worth the search.  Wilson coined the term “literary seduction” giving expression to the magic between reader and writers that ends in courtship, such as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett or W.B. Yeats and his young wife “Georgie” in the autumn of his years.

However, literary seduction also aptly describes the swooning way that we fall in love with certain books.  It should be an easy thing, really, the reading of a book.  You pick a book up, open it, fix your gaze, and begin.

Well, maybe so and maybe not.  As a reader, I’m very hard on books, but never publicly. I’m a Babe raised to remember “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” For a couple of years when I was starting out I was a free lance arts critic, but the barbaric and unnecessary cruelty that some reviewers spew out so that they sounded clever, breaks fragile hearts and that is so unnecessary.   Each day we all have enough slings and arrows to bear.  I didn’t last in that job for very long.  It reminds me of the time when I took private fencing lessons in New York with a very brilliant French coach but after a few lessons he told me I could never be a fencing champion because I lacked the killer instinct. If I couldn't be the best, why was he wasting his time teaching me? "You hesitate at the kill. This is instinctual. I can do nothing for you.  This is not your skill. This is not your sport. This is not your art."  Forbidding me to take lessons, it only made me love fencing more.  

But back to books.  It’s got to be love at first sight for me.  I need to be bowled over by an author’s insight, to wonder how I lived before this book explained it all to me, or how the author knew me so well.

In reality, while there is often a mystical bond between writer and reader, the truth is the author is just trying to figure out his or her own life, on the page, not mine as the reader.  But the alchemy that occurs when the reader recognizes her own life on the page—well, that’s what I mean when I describe a cherished writer as a literary seduction.

 My favorite way to trigger a literary seduction is to read biographies of the writer I’m interested in first, if there are any and then her books in order of their writing.  The older the bios, the better for me, as are old newspaper and magazine interviews and of course, the internet makes this research so much easier. Older articles provide unexpected color about the writer, because it’s the culture that the writer is living in and through that gives so much insight.  Here’s the New Yorker’s  Janet Flander describing Colette in the June 1, 1935 issue:

“Colette, the famous French writer, who is coming here on the Normandie, [a famous French ocean liner] is never called anything but Colette, but her full name is Madame Gabrielle-Sidonie Colette.  She is now in her early sixties, a plump, short, determined, witty lady with a friendly alto voice, fine gray eyes, moss-colored, curly, short hair, and a tendency not to care much what she wears so long as it’s comfortable and includes a gay scarf.  For forty years, she has been a notable figure about Paris, famous for her dinners and her mots justes…

Called Frances’s greatest woman writer since George Sand, Colette is also known as France's most famous literary cat-lover since Baudelaire.  She has had dozens of cats—Persians, Siamese, alley—and owned an ocelot, but it bit everyone but her and she had to rid of it…

She writes her books in long-hand and is eccentric about the paper she uses.  She has always bought it by the pound, once in any color but white, but now only blue or green because these shades are easier than any others on her eyes…Colette collects glass canes, ships in bottles, Chinese nuts, anything carved in small hard stones and Louise-Philippe floral paperweights, of which she has one of the finest collections there is.  She will tolerate only one kind of wallpaper, a glace chintz.  When she went to Claridge’s to live at one time, they had to put glace chintz paper on the walls for her."

Now, I ask you, doesn’t this tell you almost all you’d need to know about the woman who made both Marcel Proust and Andre Gide (the French novelist and Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1947) weep when they read her work and wrote to tell her so.

Leslie Caron as the young Gigi, in "Gigi"

Leslie Caron as the young Gigi, in "Gigi"

As you begin this month’s exploration of Colette, I recommend Judith Thurman’s extraordinary Secrets of the Flesh:  A Life of Colette which took her a decade to research and write. I love Judith Thurman: she brings such insight and romance to the lives of her subjects.  And then, of course, you move on to Colette’s novels Cheri, The Last of Cheri and Gigi.

Leslie Caron as Gigi

Leslie Caron as Gigi

You will also swoon over Michelle Pfeiffer as the exquisite older woman who teaches a young gentleman about love in the film Cheri, and Leslie Caron is adorable in the Lerner and Lowe musical Gigi (1958) from Colette’s 1944 novella about the grand-daughter of a famous courtesan who is being trained to follow in her Grand Mama’s profession, but ends us having a wealthy, cultured French playboy marrying her when he cannot win her love without respectability.

I would now conjure up for you a box of the French bakery Laduree’s beautiful pastel Parisian macaroons, tea, a glass of pink champagne and a Sunday afternoon in bed.

Oh, my goodness, it feels as if my dispatch is done.  So enjoy April Sundays, my Babe, and sending you blessings and my dearest love,