The 65th Day of 2011
March has arrived and it is Women’s History Month. I would like to believe we don’t need a Women’s History Month – that finally we are integrated into the fabric of history. However, that is yet to be true. We do need to be reminded each March to stop and think about women and our role in the making of history. In March I think about famous women, and the lives of private women who have changed the world, or just one other person’s life.
The second wave of the Women’s Movement brought many women writers and artists out of obscurity and shed light on their work and their contribution to the arts. The French writer Colette did not need a rescue operation. She was a celebrity in her own time. Volumes have been written about her and much of her work is still available. For my taste, too often the writing about Colette centers on her sexual liaisons and not enough on her mastery of language and power of observation. When I’m stuck and can’t imagine writing a phrase, let alone a whole sentence, I turn to Colette. Not because I think I will become Colette, but because she reminds me that style matters, that the right word counts and that attention to detail is essential. In his fine and moving book, Close to Colette, her husband, Maurice Goudeket, wrote this about her craft, the craft of writing, and writing well:
It was not a more noble activity to write than, for example to make a pair of sabots (shoes). Each needed to be performed as well as possible, with care and attention to detail. In general she never classified things and beings in order of merit, considering that they deserved equal attention for different reasons. But just because she considered writing as a task, and because she had all the virtues of the French artisan – humility, patience, self-exaction, pleasure in a well-finished article – she never let a page leave her hands of which she could have thought ‘That will do well enough.’ She always wrote as well as she possibly could, and thus it happened that she produced an immense body of work where you could search in vain for ten lines which do not contain some image full of savoir, some penetrating notation. She was like a provincial violin-maker who, unknown, to himself, was making instruments worthy of a Stradivarius. (pg. 17, Maurice Goudeket, Close to Colette: An Intimate Portrait, Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1957)
Colette died in 1954. During her later years she was confined mostly to her room in the Palais Royal, with a glorious view of Paris. One could not define this as an impoverished living arrangement and Goudeket was attentive and loving. Many years her junior, their relationship was sustaining to her and essential to him. This book, which he wrote after her death stands as a personal record of their devotion to one another and of the possibility, indeed the ability, for two people to make a non-traditional marriage work. What moves me more than anything else about this volume is the expression of his profound appreciation of her as a writer.
Alone in my room I would bend over one of her books with the same enjoyment as any ordinary reader. My love for the woman and my admiration for her work ran as it were parallel. … Today I search for Colette not only in my memory and my heart’s memory but in her books where there is always the glorious chance of finding her on every page. Because she never described anything that she had not observed and because she considered creatures and things directly, without any preconceived idea, no works have better reflected their author. (Goudeket, p. 5)
Women’s History Month, and I find myself quoting not the woman but her third husband! I do so with a specific intent. Colette was about my age when she met Maurice Goudeket and he was about my age when she died at 81. Colette quotations and her works are available widely and she is best left to be discovered by each new reader or rediscovered. Maurice is less well known except as the Husband Of… and I think often misrepresented. He understood her work, he understood what writing meant to her, and he was witness to the effort it took to continue on in pain. He belongs to my fictional or fantasy life because I need to believe in a companion who understands a woman’s work and does not run away (in reality or emotionally) from an unwell woman with a chronic disease. Colette wrote anything and everything, from newspaper columns to film criticism, fiction, diaries, letters and more. (No spoiler alerts here: Choose your own Colette and enjoy).
Colette was unknown to me until my 12th birthday although I had seen the “infamous” film Gigi, which was based on a story written by her. Three years after the movie event, my mother had sufficiently recovered from my father’s choice of birthday celebration. I was then told that Colette, the author of Gigi, was a real woman, and a writer. I wanted to be a writer, but I had wanted to be an actress and a dancer as well. My 12th birthday was a milestone year for me. Several days before that birthday I was diagnosed with an incurable autoimmune disease, then believed to be JRA (Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis). The word chronic wasn’t yet part of the medical vernacular, incurable was a far more threatening word. Despite my mother’s panic, she reached for something to keep me afloat. She introduced me to the aging Colette, the Colette that Maurice knew best.
It is interesting to note that before the American film version of Gigi, there was a Broadway play in 1951, which had a run of 219 performances. Even at 78 years of age, just a few years before her death, Colette’s vision was unclouded. She was out for lunch (in her wheelchair) with Maurice. They saw a young actress filming a scene on location in the lobby of the Hôtel de Paris. They stopped and watched. Colette turned to Maurice: “Voilà notre Gigi pour l’Amérique.” That young actress was Audrey Hepburn.
Colette never stopped writing, despite the pain caused by her illness and her immobility. She called the bed where she spent most of her hours her “raft.” A desk had been fashioned to fit onto the bed so that the writing did not stop nor did the energy of her mind. She could no longer travel nor see the wider world, but she still observed and she remembered. Everyone knew where her apartment was and people came by the building and she saw them from her window. And she saw all of Paris, what she could see and what she could not forget. I wonder what Colette would make of the laptop computer and how much it helps writers like myself? I think she would think it was terrific but I think she would worry about the fact that it can make a writer sloppy. Too fast, too quick, too many gadgets, spelling check, grammar check, etc. What I am sure about is that Colette would not have changed her standards. She is often a haunting presence in my dreams – because unlike Colette I do sometimes release writing that I think will “do well enough.” I know that; I regret it. The Stone Sage Lion knows it when he greets me on a morning after Colette has visited me at night—in my sleep, demanding changes that can’t be made because I rushed something out too rapidly. Writing still matters, through the centuries from bed-raft to laptop hearth.
Good writing matters more than anything, yet I so often fall short of her standard. I fall short of my own standard. Colette persevered through bad even disastrous marriages, she survived dramatic relationships, she broke hearts and she had hers broken. She bore death and loss with epic grief. However, when she couldn’t move without experiencing bone- crunching pain, she was still alive and present to her life and to the reality of love, and all of its possibilities. But through it all, and above it all, was the predominant love of her entire life – the craft of writing. Not arrogant, I’m-smarter-and better-than-you-are-writing (although she was!) but the endless writing and rewriting and thinking and rethinking of it all. This was her enduring and lasting love. The French government granted her a state funeral, held in the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais Royal. She was the first woman in France to be given a state funeral. She is buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery; a pink granite tombstone marks her grave and is inscribed simply: Ici Repose Colette 1873-1954.
About writing she said this: “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his [sic] own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
The year I was born she wrote: “It is beyond dispute that I can fly in dreams. You too. I add ‘in dreams’ because my efforts, like yours, have not succeeded by a sound, a strangled sigh – in crossing the frontier that separates the two worlds, only one of which we designate, arbitrarily as ‘real.’ I can cross a valley; pivot, to turn, on one or other of my flying arms and swop down, head first, feet raised to gain speed, then straighten my trunk to regain the horizontal for climbing or landing. And how I sport with the wind in this entire universe! Entire, because it possesses its pale day-star, its nights less dark than early lights, its plants, its population of the loved dead, of the keenly staring unknown, its animal life especially.”
Fly with me, with us, this March during Women’s History Month. In dreams, and in your prose, you do stay with us. Come to this terrace, and although I can’t promise you one of your beloved living feline creatures, both the Stone Sage Lion and I welcome you. We’ll show you the tricks of the laptop hearth if you will teach me how to be more patient in writing and in life.
©2011 Alida Brill From This Terrace
If you have a favorite Colette quotation or story or fact, leave a comment for us and your thoughts will be posted.