Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Colette's music hall, and some more animals - green like a sick leaf, green like a bitter lime

I should try to go faster than one Colette book a day.

Backstage at the Music Hall

Colette was a touring actress for a while.  I am amazed by how much writing she did while acting, but a common theme of her writing about the music hall scene is how boring it is.  Many of the sketches in this fascinating little book are about performing as work, as a job, and many others are about her co-workers. 

Hélène is not a real dancer, but a “little piece who dances.” 

She made her music-hall debut last season, in a revue, and as her first attempt, she “flung” at her audience two scabrous little ditties, putting them across at the top of her band-new, unsophisticated, brassy voice, without any of the simperings of false modesty, but with a perfectly straight face, and with an aggressive innocence that enchanted…  She boasts of being a “hard worker,” and sticks to her ungainly, plebeian name.  (“The Hard Worker,” tr. Anne-Marie Callimachi)

I see a lot of vocabulary in that passage that is not among the 1,000 most common words in French.  The translation, and most of the book, can be found in The Collected Stories of Colette (1983, ed. Robert Phelps), a book that perhaps hurts Colette as much as it helps.  The author of charming little thematic collections is crammed into a 600-page monster, the stories incomplete and arranged in a scheme that I have not figured out.  The music hall stories are all together, at least.

Someone should publish new editions which are just the original books with the original illustrations in the original order.  That is all I ever want.  Use the original typeface and page layout while you are at it, please.

The earlier novel The Vagabond (1910) is based on the music hall experiences, too, but I have not read it.

La Paix chez les bêtes (1916) – The Peace at the Home of the Beasts.  What was in this one?  Lots of animals, cats and dogs and more.  For two pages, Colette describes butterflies (“The Butterflies”):

The “citric” butterfly turns there, green like a sick leaf, green like a bitter lime, it flies away if I move, watching the least movement of my hands. The red sylvan creatures, the color of the dirt, rise up in a cloud before my steps, and their tawny lunules seem to spy on me.

My translation, I guarantee a bad one because I do not understand everything I wrote in English, much less in French.  Colette is in her prose poem mode here.  For some reason almost none of the contents of this book are in The Collected Stories.  Are these ever pure Colette.

Do I have room for one more?  The next book I have read is Chéri, which is in a new phase, so no.  Tomorrow, the beautiful young men.


  1. Enjoying following you through Colette's books. But yes - a new collection of translations with illustrations just as she published them would be perfect...

  2. Thanks!

    Illustrations, covers - but I am a historicist, really, always curious about the thing as it was. Except I also want notes.

  3. A Russian publisher has put out handy little paperback editions of Nabokov's stories by reprinting the original collections. No notes, but I can get commentary elsewhere. I snapped them up.

  4. I should say that the books I am imagining do not exactly exist in French, either, although many Colette books are available in cheap paperbacks, and what must be close to everything is available in four volumes of Pléiade editions.