Monday, October 25, 2021

Beginning a run through some Colette books - "I will dance nude or dressed, for the sole pleasure of dancing"

Since the Zola novel was dragging on so long, I thought, why not mix in a French book that is light and elegant and short and easy?  Some Colette, for example?  Light, elegant, short, but honestly just as difficult as the Zola, with lots of slang, regionalisms, and advanced vocabulary.  But shorter, I remembered that part correctly.

A few years ago there was a craze for autofiction, mostly British as I remember, both the craze and the books.  I read a number of professional reviews of who knows which books which made a number of claims about the innovations of the current books, all of which, every time, made me think “Have you not read Colette?  She was doing that a hundred years ago.”  More people should read Colette. 

My impression is that those who do read Colette agree with me, whether they prefer her or her sentences.  She wrote memoiristic fiction and fictionalized memoir, so her personality is everywhere in her work.  I am more interested in her insight into animals, including the human type, and her poetry, those surprising words that make her more difficult than she first seems.  But she makes a good imaginary friend, the kind who might be hard to take in large doses but is wonderful to meet once in a while.  She does all the talking.  She has been doing such interesting things.  Her actual life was preposterously eventful.

I’ve read quite a lot of Colette since I started studying French seriously, and thought it would be a good idea to write some kind of overview.  This and subsequent posts are the shallow version of that idea.  Let me load up Colette’s French Wikipedia entry.

The Claudine books come first, Claudine at School (1900) and three more.  I have not read these.  They were published under the name of Willy, Colette’s odious but seductive husband, the greatest hack of turn-of-the-century French literature.  They somehow seem compromised to me, and their subject is certainly soapy stuff, a roman fleuve of marriages and affairs and so on.  Or so I understand.  They’re likely better than I think.

Retreat from Love (1907), now this I have read a couple of times in English.  It is the last Claudine novel, and Colette’s declaration of independence from Willy, dumped and divorced, her reclamation of the characters.  The book is quite close to plotless and full of the kind of thing I call “lovely” writing, especially all of the extraordinary descriptions of animals.  I wrote a piece about Retreat from Love four years ago, and wrote a bit about its animals long before that.  I apparently had more to say about Colette before I had read many of her books than I do now.

Seven Dialogues of the Beasts (1904, Barks and Purrs in an old translation), expanded to Twelve Dialogues and arranged in other ways.  The stories are literally dialogues between Colette’s Chartreux cat Kiki and brindle bulldog Toby.  The animals weather a storm, meet a puppy, meet a turtle, and cope with a late dinner.  Toby is a bundle of anxiety; Kiki is an ironist. 

The dialogues are as charming, or twee, as they sound.  I read them in a school edition, collège (junior high) level – what lucky students to have this book forced on them – visible here.  What I loved about the edition – about French literary education generally – is that it has an entire section on the literary tradition of talking animals {“Words of the beasts” / “Paroles de bêtes”), with texts from Aesop and Perrault and so on.  Then it has another section about dialogue as a stylistic device.  The French teach literature by surrounding it with more literature.

One of the dialogues, “Toby-dog Speaks,” from a bit later (1908), post-Willy, turns out to be a key Colette text.  Anxious Toby reports to Kiki a monologue Colette directed at him.  The story is really a Colettian manifesto for a new life, written in the form of a dialogue between a cat and a dog.

“You hear me,” She cried, “you hear me, brindled toad, big-hearted little bull! I will not go to the premieres any more – except on the other side of the ramp.  Because I will yet dance in the scene, I will dance nude or dressed, for the sole pleasure of dancing, adapting my gestures to the rhythm of the music, turning, burned by the light, blinded like a fly in a sunbeam… I will dance, I will invent beautiful slow dances where the veil sometimes covers me, sometimes envelops me like a spiral of smoke, and sometimes stretches behind me like the sail of a ship…  I will be the statue, the living vase, the leaping beast, the balanced tree, the drunken slave…”  (translation, such as it is, mine; all ellipses in original)

And that is just what Colette did, or was doing.  Is this ever autofiction.  The dog-cat dialogue turns out to be a flexible form.

Tomorrow, Colette in the music hall.


  1. The French teach literature by surrounding it with more literature.

    Well put, and true -- it occurs to me that my high school French classes (taught by an actual Frenchwoman, Mme Ruegg, with dictées and all the trimmings) were the best preparation I had for becoming a reader of literature (English classes were certainly no help).

  2. The dictée is about as close a close reading as I can imagine.

    It is not as if a concept like "Menippean satire" is forced on the 7th graders. Rather: talking animals, look what writers have done with talking animals! Natural, logical.

  3. Autofiction doesn't seem to me to have disappeared entirely, alas. (Though some of it can be OK.) And Canadians like it perfectly well: Sheila Heti, et al.

  4. No, but I think the odd craze for it dissipated. I am not sure what caused it. Knausgaard or something.

    1. Knausgaard could exhaust any number of impulses.

      I haven't read any of Cusk's Outline trilogy, but it also sometimes flies under the banner. Though for that matter I see even her most recent book is something different.

  5. Yes, at that time I read what felt like an enormous amount about Cusk for some reason, and her reviewers were among the most ignorant about earlier literature. Maybe they were all very young.

    1. I actually read Outline and wasn't that impressed: "the structure (a series of interactions in which interlocutors and their experiences are carefully described but the narrator is left mostly a blank) is interesting, but not so interesting that we can’t tear ourselves away, and none of the characters have distinctive voices — they all sound like the narrator."

    2. I have only read excerpts of Cusk, and was only impressed by the essay where she pretends to be or actually was the world's worst book club member, outstanding humiliation comedy either way.

      Happily, I have forgotten exactly what claims the reviewers made, but it was not ideas about the quality of Cusk's books that caught my attention but rather that her books were innovative. And every specific "innovation" was an antique.

      Colette gives characters distinctive voices, even, though the most common voice is her own, so she is way ahead there. But she is observant about the details of the world, and enjoys describing the ways people speak.

    3. I read some earlier Cusk, which didn't make a strong impression and didn't keep me reading.

      'none of the characters have distinctive voices--they all sound like the narrator' certainly would describe my impression of How Should A Person Be?

      However I will admit to reading and enjoying Chris Kraus' I Love Dick and the three characters did not all sound alike.

  6. Since I'm reading Proust at the moment, I guess that also might be auto-fiction - though since Proust denies me the validity of using my knowledge of his life to inform an understanding of his work, I guess I'll never know.

    Of course, Lucian was writing auto-fiction back in the 300-400s AD (or whenever) - as well as post-modernism, Menippean satire, and perhaps even stories about talking animals.

    The Claudine books were the first Colette I read, and I remember them as highly enjoyable (perhaps they appeal more to an adolescent though). I find her difficult too in French, and will put off reading her for now - but one day I intend to read them all.

  7. I should read Claudine à l'école at least. For one thing, it's a school novel, a whole 'nother French obsession.

    I am sympathetic to the idea that innovation is mostly implicit in the form, so one can always go back further and find whatever it is. Almost always. The talking animals must go back to the dawn of human thought. Stories about the story-teller, too.

    I count Proust as some kind of autofiction, although a screwy kind, yes.

  8. At least Cusk's "autofiction" (which I tried and didn't really find my thing) is very clearly written / polished. What put me off even trying Knausgaard was that he bragged about just writing as fast as he could and never mind editing or craft.

    I have not read Colette. I'm still not sure it would be my kind of thing either but I am much enjoying your posts about her!

    1. I have no intention of trying Knausgaard (life is too short), but I wouldn't take what he said about his process all that seriously. Writers lie/exaggerate a *lot* about anything to do with writing (e.g., Nabokov claimed Joyce hadn't had any impact on him); it's obviously a self-protective mechanism, but it still muddies the waters, and I'm always surprised people take it as seriously as they do.

  9. The COlette book I would recommend to you, Rohan, is My Mother's House (1922), memoiristic childhood vignettes built around Colette's mother. Lovely, lovely, lovely. I should get to it soon - only 6 books to go! But I thought this whole thing would take three days.

    I take writer's statements of process seriously, but as fiction. Another text to interpret.

    Colette was essentially trained in a literature factory, as a hack, and she has some hackish tendencies, sometimes writing fast and leaning on her talent. But often, thankfully, not. I often contrast her with Proust (two years older), whose method was so different. I should write about that today, come to think of it.

  10. Colette was essentially trained in a literature factory, as a hack, and she has some hackish tendencies, sometimes writing fast and leaning on her talent.

    Also true of Chekhov; it took him a long time to get past that. I'm always amused by people who claim every one of his hundreds of stories is pure gold (or even worth reading if you're not a specialist).

  11. Great post.
    You know what I think about these dreadful school editions but I understand why you find them interesting.

  12. It is as if the school editions are written for me! Not for those poor children. Someday I mean to take one of the books I brought home and show it off.