Friday, March 9, 2007

The Other Colette

I've been continuing to muse about the mantitty thing, and how easy it is for an image to become drained of content, reduced to a cipher (in Jane’s word), and pressed into service as a Pavlovian signal to a well-trained market segment.

Which has led me to think how popular erotic writing has been received in other cultures, through other traditions.

And to reread, after some years, the essay called "The Gynaeceum," that Dominique Aury (the Frenchwoman who wrote Story of O) devoted to the work of her countrywoman Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.

First, though, a little bit of background about this Colette, who, by the time she died at 80, had had three husbands, male and female lovers both, received a host of literary honors, and had written enough to fill 80 volumes. When she died in 1954, she received the first state funeral the French Republic had ever given a woman -- not to speak of one who'd devoted her brilliance and prodigious energies to writing about sex and love.

Her sensibility is as foreign to our present-day romance novel ethos as you can get. But how much we could learn from her -- especially with Aury as our guide.

For example, about writing about physical beauty. Colette rarely stopped at hair and eye color; she didn’t depend upon catchall words like “curves” for women, or “sculpted” for men. There's also "the texture and glow of the skin, the slowness or rapidity of gestures, the quivering of eyelids, the redness of the face, the smell of perspiration." We see these women with the eyes of a male lover, but also with those of another woman, a "rival and confederate" might see them, expending their healthy solid energies to make the best of what they've got.

There are few happy endings here. For Colette, love is as ephemeral as youth and necessary as air; the wiser and more successful of her female characters hoard their jewels, bank their money, invest in real estate; a secure, supportive, lifetime romantic love relationship is almost an oxymoron. "Gigi" - where the rich man falls in love and marries the would-be courtesan - might be her best-known story, especially in the U.S. But it’s unlike any other she wrote.

Colette’s men are rarely heroic. They may be handsome, worldly, glamorous, but they usually have a little bit of the ridiculous about them - as well they might (and the stories are clear about this), in a world that accords them so much unearned privilege. And so, as Aury says, one of Colette's women will "laugh in his face... give him laxatives, make a list of his inadequacies... make fun of his timidity and are astonished at neither his stupidity nor his meanness," even as as she yields, "disheveled and half undressed, to the scoundrel with whom she's in love."

It’s a world for realists. A romantic sensibility will be shattered; almost no one acts on principle. As her biographer, Judith Thurman, put it, "There was not an idea that could carry Colette away, or a sensation that couldn't." Life isn’t fair, endings probably won’t be happy, but no one wrote as compellingly about what Thurman called “the secrets of the flesh.” It’s a world where you don’t doubt for a moment that nothing is more necessary than pleasure.

In fact, it's a world that would be unbearable if it weren't for the solid abundance of the simple, physical pleasures it yields -- sex, and all the rest of it as well. Which is another thing we could learn from Colette, which is how to show our characters at home:

Where lodgings are concerned it must by admitted that Colette's heroines can make a home of anything, even little furnished ground-floor flats near the outer boulevards... horrible studios perched up in the sky....

Aury writes of "the dressingrooms, or bathrooms, reassuring, comforting places, aggressively clean, white, arms, severe, but full of complicity, as hairdressing salons are full of complicity, severe, comforting, and for the same reasons." What kitchens there are "are always orderly and one obviously enters them with pleasure either to open a tin of fish and make cheese sandwiches... to iron a blouse."

I want to go there. I love being there. I'm in awe of her power to create this world, where, as Aury concludes, there is

...nothing, no halo, no secret [to distort] them. Only her accurate glance, only her accurate words shed a blow over the most ordinary things; morning rain, well-washed stuff, fair hair, beads of sweat on a lip, the ashes of a wood fire.

Which is why, though I find her daunting in her hard-headedness and elusive in her attitudes toward happiness, I always return to the writings of this brilliant sensualist, who wrote with her appetites and derived what Aury called "a modest morality" from it, and whose world will never drain and diminish to cipher.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pam! I read some Colette short stories when I was 14 so I dont have much to offer except to say that the last time I read Gigi, I thought it was the most cynical story I ever read, where before I thought it was sweet and romantic. At that time, I thought I was just in a bad mood but I guess I was understanding the subtleties of Colette's sensibilities from what you wrote.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Hi Seton. And yet in "Gigi," there's all the wonderful stuff about preparing the potatoes for dinner. No matter how cynical the women are, or how they have to watch their backs, there's always this solid, sensual relationship with the world of THINGS. (Oh, and I love the touch that in "Gigi," Gaston is the sugar king... I mean that's where his family got its money.)

Kate Pearce said...

Oh my goodness-she sounds fascinating. More books to add to my TBR pile!

Elizabeth Parker said...

Pam, what a marvelous post. You've captured Colette and made me run to buy all her works. I'm licking my chops at the thought of getting "into her." Thanks.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Kate and Elizabeth. So glad to be spreading the word about this superlatively sexy but not at all comforting author. The Thurman biography (which I linked to in the text) is terrific as well.

Jane Lockwood said...

Colette is one author I read as a teenager who I'd love to read again now and probably will after having read your post. I very much enjoyed Thurman's biography.
One of Colette's favorite sayings that has stuck with me (and I'm paraphrasing although I'm sure the original was much more elegant) is that there is much craft in a well-made pair of shoes as in a well-written page, which I think says so much about her.

Pam Rosenthal said...

My favorites, I think, are The Vagabond and the Cheri books. Also the erotic observations and memoirs in The Pure and the Impure, and anything she wrote about her mother, Sido.