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This tribute to Colette is an idea I had after cracking open a book I hadn’t looked at since the 80’s The Vagabond.

I was introduced to her in Southern California by an older friend, which began with the innocent loan of The Vagabond, and ended with my reading until I’d made my way through her entire oeuvre, which includes some 50 volumes.

Along the way, I became enamored of Paris, married a Frenchman — disastrously — and eventually became a writer myself, looking back at Colette with some mixture of skepticism, nostalgia, and love, which is also the way one sometimes regards old friends who become enemies. Or perhaps in the acrimony of a bad marriage, Colette’s own contributions to my life became for a time somewhat tarnished.

Nevertheless, Colette lived a remarkable life.

Growing up in the countryside of Burgundy, raised by a woman who rightly looked upon her daughter as her greatest achievement, she went on to marry a Parisian — Willy — who would lock her up in an attic, and force her (child-labor-style) to produce some talented, and entertaining adolescent books exploring the saucy adventures of one Claudine

The Claudine books Willy signed his name to, refusing Colette’s authorial rights, which made him a fortune, and a personage in Paris, and Colette a kind of literary slave and ultimate arm-candy.

Eventually they divorced, and she went on to write under her own name, tread the theatrical boards, and become one of the first entrepreneurs of that era — creating her own line of make-up, and merchandizing products the way major stars do today, with her ‘Claudine’ & ‘Colette’ brands.

She was the first woman inducted into the esteemed Academie Goncourt in Paris, but is known, if at all in America as the author of Gigi, a play which launched Audrey Hepburn‘s stunning career on the stage and screen, and Leslie Caron‘s career in film.

Actually, it was Colette who discovered Audrey Hepburn … Spotting the gamine ballerina at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco, she pronounced: ‘Voila! There’s our Gigi!’

C’est tout! A star was born.

I could go on about Colette for quite some time, if for no other reason than her life is so storied … She wrote beautifully, she lived dangerously, she loved outrageously — while sometimes embracing the most time-worn cliches, yet somehow making them seem exquisitely her own.

And she died at peace with champagne on her lips, and a priest’s blessings on her soul.

Not bad for a woman whose very presence in France, not unlike other revolutionary figures in Arts & Letters, provoked debates about the condition of the human soul.

From the juvenilia of Claudine to the full-bodied and wry observations of Lea about her own Cheri, Earthy Paradise — an amazing collection of writings — forms her autobiography and temple. Edited by Robert Phelps, it is a testament to her generous life, capacious person, fine sensibilities, and implacable reason.

Above, a film poster remembrance from Stephen Frear’s effort, and Colette’s most famous creation from the Parisian demimonde — Lea’s Cheri — the young lover who cannot live without his older courtesan. How very French!

An excerpt about writing from The Vagabond follows. No comment needed, Colette speaks for herself, as ‘Renee Nere’. A stirring testament to ‘the old scar that writing represents’, this translation by Enid McLeod is still a bit flowery for my tastes but never mind … The book was chosen in France as one of the best twelve books of the 20th Century.

Read from one of the links below to learn more, and check out Antonia White‘s translations.

I love this photograph … Colette looks like she is in exile, a refugee in her own life.

“To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play round a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts and adorning it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turn into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.

Gigi

Gigi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To write is to sit and stare, hypnotized, at the reflection of the window in the silver ink-stand, to feel the divine fever mounting to one’s cheeks and forehead while the hand that writes grows blissfully numb upon the paper. It also means idle hours curled up in the hollow of the divan, and then the orgy of inspiration from which one emerges stupefied and aching all over, but already recompensed and laden with treasures that one unloads slowly on to the virgin paper in the little round pool of light under the lamp.

To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, over-driven by the impatient god who guides it — and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that bloomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.

To write is the joy and torment of the idle. Oh to write! From time to time I feel a need, as sharp as thirst in summer, to note and to describe. And then I take up my pen again and attempt the perilous and elusive task of seizing and pinning down, under its flexible double-pointed nib, the many-hued, fugitive, thrilling, adjective … The attack does not last long; it is but the itching of an old scar.

It takes too much time to write. And the trouble is, I am no Balzac! The fragile story I am constructing crumbles away when the tradesman rings, or the shoemaker sends in his bill, when the solicitor, or one’s counsel, telephones, or when the theatrical agent summons me to his office for ‘a social engagement at the house of some people of very good position but not in the habit of paying large fees.’

The problem is, since I have been living alone, that I have had first to live, then to divorce, and then to go on living, To do all that demands incredible activity and persistence. And to get where? Is there, for me, no other haven than this commonplace room done up in gimcrack Louis XVI? Must I stay forever before this impenetrable mirror where I come up against myself, face to face?

Tomorrow is Sunday: that means afternoon and evening performances at the Empyree-Clichy. Two o’clock already! High time for a woman of letters who has turned out badly to go to sleep.”

From The Vagabond by Colette. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1955

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