Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Colette's Tendrils of the Vine - I no longer enjoy a happy sleep, but I no longer fear the tendrils of the vine - with a digression on Philippe Delerm

On with Colette.

The Tendrils of the Vine

I borrowed the original cover from Wikipedia.  Colette is at this point, and for a long time to come, calling herself “Colette Willy,” even though she has divorced the odious Willy.  Professional names have their own logic.

This is a collection of short pieces: some stories, some sketches, a couple more dog-cat dialogues.  Even the stories are not so plotty.  The title piece, two pages long, begins with a just-so story, why the nightingale sings at night, so that now:

He sings just to sing, he sings such lovely things that he does not know anymore what they were meant to say.  But I, I can still hear, through the golden notes, the melancholy piping of a flute, the quivering and crystalline trills, the clear and vigorous cries, I can still hear the first innocent and frightened song of the nightingale caught in the tendrils of the vine…

So this fable is about Colette, about her escape into the difficulties of freedom.  “I no longer enjoy a happy sleep, but I no longer fear the tendrils of the vine…” (tr. Herma Briffault, from The Collected Stories of Colette).  Many of the little pieces are about Colette.

The French tradition is more attached to the prose poem, whatever that is, than any other I know, and I often find it useful to think of Colette as an author of prose poems, whether they are published as two-page units or as elements of novels or memoirs.  Extractable descriptions of sensory experiences, often visual, are what I find best in Colette.  Charles Dantzig, in the entry on Colette in his Selfish Dictionary of French Literature (2005) writes that “I love better her eye than her belly” (p. 235), meaning her appetites and pleasures, and I agree, but this is a matter of taste, and the more I read her the more I appreciate her sensory exuberance in whatever form it takes.  It puts her a line with Proust, against the anti-rhetorical Cartesians that wrote so much of the French literature of the time, even if that other stuff is easier for the poor schmoe working on his French.  Too many words rather than too few.

Tendrils of the Vine reminded me strongly of the work of Philippe Delerm, a junior high French teacher who had a big best seller with the 1997 The First Swallow of Beer and Other Minuscules Pleasures (La Première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules), a collection of thirty-five one- or two-page pieces about positive sensory experiences.  Note that the title piece is not about the pleasure of beer, but of the first swallow, the immediate anticipation, taste, and muscle action.  Two pages on that is a lot of words.  My other favorite, that I remember clearly, is about the pleasure of the banana split, not so much about eating it, but about the irresponsibility of ordering it in the first place, and watching it being brought to the table.  Delerm has made a career out of these little things – the other book of his I have read is It’s Always Good (C'est toujours bien, 1998), the same concept but directed at 10-year-olds (my reading level at the time was that of a 10-year-old), the pleasure of the evening of the last day of summer vacation, like that.  I guess we have this kind of thing in English, but much less of it.

Tendrils of the Vine is for some reason the representative Colette book on a curious and fascinating “100 Books of the Century” poll created by the newspaper Le Monde in 1999.  Now that I have read a dozen or more Colette books, it seems like an arbitrary choice, but perhaps I would feel that way about many of them.

I thought I was going to get to the music hall book today, but I guess not.


  1. Nice connection with Delerm. He has also written art related historical fiction. (About the Pre-Raphaelits and the Skagen painters)

  2. I should try one of Delerm's novels. I thought the sketches were excellent, full of insights and good writing. It is not a form that is common or well-developed in English.

  3. There was a little flourish of this kind of thing in English, contemporaneous with Colette: I am thinking of, e.g. Chesterton's Tremendous Trifles essays or Logan Pearsall Smith's Trivia, Edwardians making something jollier, more domestic—that is, British—out of the flaneur in very short forms (both titles give the game away). It doesn't seem impossible that one or both of those guys read Colette, probably with equal parts interest and eyeroll.

    This is a great blog, by the way—I don't know if my slow chronological crawl through the archives over the last year and a half showed up in the metrics in any way, but I've been benefitting from it. Couldn't say why I'm confessing it here.

  4. The one-pager somehow never sticks in English. Or no one quite moved it up to the kind of art that survives, like Robert Walser did. Or newspapers did not publish it. Or there is always lots of it and I don't happen to know about it.

    Thanks for the kind words! To my knowledge the blog has no metrics that measure anything but bots, so I never know what is going on with the old pieces. Some of them are not so bad. I appreciate the comment, thanks.