I can’t help but get personal about Colette. For me, she’s where my whole adventures into the world of Left Bank women started. Without her writings, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today. She was my gateway drug, and I return to her work at all times of my life – for comfort, for questions, for joy and sorrow.
I first discovered Colette aged 14, when I bought a classic orange and cream penguin edition of The Vagabond. All the vital Colette ingredients are contained in this slim volume that tells the story of divorced writer Renee Nere who (like Colette) earned her living performing mime on the music hall stage. The novel is packed full of colourful and vividly imagined music hall characters who slip in and out of the narrative as swiftly as they fall in and out of Renee’s life. There’s the dog trainer, the acrobats, the incorrigible Jadin, tubercolic Boty, and fellow mime, trainer and partner-in-crime Brague. The novel features all of Colette’s trademarks: her love of food, her understanding of animals, and her sensual empathy for love, lust and loss – themes and styles that repeat throughout her mind-bogglingly long career.
I was hooked. Next I read The Claudine Novels, and fell head over heels in love with the sparky, feisty and unabashed heroine. Soon I was scouring second-hand bookshops for whatever Colette I could get my hands on – Cheri, Gigi, The Ripening Seed, The Other One – as well as her short story collections such as The Rainy Moon.
So, who was Colette? Unlike many of her Left Bank contemporaries, Colette did not come from a wealthy or privileged background. Born in rural France to a doting mother and a distant father, she married young to the much older publisher and man-about-town ‘Willy’. The two moved to rue Jacob, at the heart of Paris’ bohemian Belle-Epoque scene.
The marriage was not a happy one. Willy was unfaithful and boorish, and his behaviour and sexual proclivities pushed Colette into a rumoured nervous breakdown. It was while recovering from her illness that Willy suggested she joined his silent army of ghostwriters. She obliged, and Claudine was born. Colette gives a full and often disturbing account of her first marriage in My Apprenticeships. A modern reader can’t help but notice the domestic abuse red flags that flair throughout – making it an intimate and uncomfortable read.
Of course, Willy being Willy meant that Colette was never recognised as the author of the Claudine books, or the Minne novels that followed. It took divorce and a lengthy court battle before she was able to assert her name on her work.
After she left Willy, Colette embarked on a stage career – performing in music hall mime. One controversial performance of La reve d’Egypte featured her passionately kissing her known lesbian lover, Missy, on the stage – leading to a riot in Montmartre. In her non-fiction work, The Pure and the Impure, Colette explores with insight and perspicacity the gay and bisexual world of modernist Paris that she both inhabited and observed. The collection also includes a fascinating essay on the Ladies of Llangollen.
From her music hall novels to her memoirs, journalism and essays, by the 1920s Colette was recognised as one of France’s most important writers. But it is probably for Cheri that she is best known for – a novel which shows a writer at the height of her powers.
In my mind, Cheri is Colette’s masterpiece. I may return to the comfort of Claudine or the wit and sorrow of The Vagabond more often. But with Cheri, Colette brings together all the themes that make her novels and short stories so rich. In the tale of a young man leaving his much older lover, she mixes in sensuality, sex, food, pleasure, loss and sorrow. It’s a tale about ageing and youthful selfishness, the selfishness of love. What I love in Cheri is the richness of detail, the indulgent descriptions of rooms and clothes and meals, as well as the wonderful characterisation that shocks and surprises you. It’s a novel I return to with years apart, and each re-reading rewards me in a new way.
So, let’s raise a glass of Burgundy to Colette, served with a delicious old-fashioned roast chicken, best enjoyed after a walk in the woods with someone you love.