The Collected Stories of Colette by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, ed., and with an introduction by, Robert Phelps. Highly recommended.
According to the introduction, this collection represents 100 stories taken from a dozen volumes published during Colette’s lifetime. They are categorised as “Early Stories,” “Backstage at the Music Hall,” “Varieties of Human Nature,” and “Love.” Some, like the Clouk/Chéri stories, appear to be fiction, while many, like “The Rainy Moon” and “Bella-Vista,” seem to be taken straight from Colette’s varied life and acquaintances.
Whether writing fiction or chronicling fact, whether writing in the third-person omniscient or in the first person, Colette herself is always a character — rarely as an influencer, that is, one whose actions or choices drive the plot. Colette’s preferred role is as observer — and it is one for which she is well suited.
An inveterate sensualist and a former music-hall performer, Colette integrates her characters (real and fictional) with everything around them — their clothes (costumes); their abodes, dressing rooms, and haunts (sets); and their neighborhoods and towns (theatres). Much of Colette’s writing, no matter how mundane the surface subject, is about art — the art of living and, notably, the art of loving. In “My Goddaughter,” the subject tells her godmother how she injured herself with scissors and a curling iron and recounts her mother’s reaction. “She said that I had ruined her daughter for her! She said, ‘What have you done with my beautiful hair which I tended so patiently? . . . And that cheek, who gave you permission to spoil it! . . . I’ve taken years, I’ve spent my days and nights, trembling over this masterpiece. . . .'”
Colette is attuned to everything, every sense, every nuance. “A faint fragrance did indeed bring to my nostrils the memory of various scents which are at their strongest in autumn.” (“Gibriche”) “. . . set in a bracelet, which slithered between her fingers like a cold and supple snake.” (“The Bracelet”) ” . . . the supper of rare fruits, an orgy of ice water sparkling in the thin glasses, as intoxicating as champagne . . .” (“Florie”) “Peroxided hair, light-colored eyes, white teeth, something about her of an appetizing but slightly vulgar young washerwoman.” (“Gitanette”)
Colette does not pretend to be an objective observer of human behaviour; she does not hesitate to express to the reader her weariness with certain individuals or situations, and her stories of her vain, pretentious, overbearing friend Valentine reveal her jaded and waning affection. She knows this woman so well that she sees her almost as Valentine sees herself — a drama queen acting out stories, roles, and games without depth of feeling for them. “What Must We Look Like?” becomes Valentine’s driving philosophy, to which Colette responds with “a mild, a kindly pity.” In “The Hard Worker,” Colette says, “I can see she does not hate him, but I cannot see she loves him either.” What Colette sees — and does not see — is to be respected.
Some stories, such as “The Sick Child,” are vivid and imaginative and reveal Colette’s amazing ability to think and dream like a gifted child. “The Advice,” with its mundane beginning and premise and twisted, horrifying ending would enhance any collection of gothic or mystery tales. Other stories, like “Gibriche,” several of the other music-hall stories, and “Bella-Vista,” tackle topics that even today remain controversial. “Bella-Vista,” in which Colette’s moods seem to wane with every familiarity achieved with her hostesses, offers an ending that is heavily foreshadowed throughout but is surprising and gruesome nonetheless.
Most of the stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, seem to come from life in one way or another. The quantity of stories and the quality of the collection reveal the incredible scope of experience of Colette, the dry, often weary yet obsessive observer, interpreter, and chronicler of human nature. As Judith Thurman says in her introduction to Colette’s work, The Pure and the Impure, “This great ode to emptiness was written by a woman who felt full.” As well she should.
27 May 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf