Colette Short Fiction Analysis

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Colette drew only a hazy line, or area, of demarcation between her fiction and her reflections. Many of her short fictional pieces are indistinguishable from lyrical autobiography, which is the case with her Claudine novels. It is not really possible, or advisable, to differentiate, or try to differentiate, with precision her “short fiction” from her novellas, her reminiscences, her lyrical descriptions, and her accounts of persons and places. She has a primitivist tendency—many would call it a gift—for experiencing gardens, flowers, pets, and even objects as extensions of both herself and the vital aura of her physical existence. She took no pains to distance herself from her narratives and expositions, and she has been compared to Marcel Proust in her projection of her own person and persona into her fiction. Often in her work, Colette assumes the position of her reader’s confidant, speaking in such a way that the reader becomes party to her activities, fictional or otherwise. Her milieu is regularly the ambience of private places and native haunts. She does not translate philosophy, economics, politics, or religion into fictional prose. Her concern is the profound complexity of simple human relationships—parents and children, lonely individuals, lovers, entertainers, and friends.

“Clouk”

An early set of sketches forms the story of “Clouk” (identified as “Clouk/Chéri” by Colette in her 1941 set of papers) and describes the lovesickness and loneliness of a wealthy young man whose adenoidal condition results in a nasal sound that becomes his nickname. His love for Lulu, a seamstress’s assistant who becomes a popular entertainer, persists after she has left him and as he gradually loses his small circle of friends, to whom he and his reactions become increasingly tedious. His self-deception and growing introversion produce for him a chrysalis of security within which he encloses himself. From this cocoon, no less than Chéri, the very handsome young hero of two novels will fly off in beauty. Colette speaks of this metamorphosis in the imagery of the pale small slough of a skin from which a resplendent and diabolic snake emerges. There is in this imagery a vestige of Colette’s own ophidian and entomological nature. Molting, she passed from dependence upon her husband Willy to the clever and self-sufficient sophisticate who wrote the Chéri novels and The Ripening Seed. The beauty that she found in life, however, was in some way the beauty that she, as a delicate butterfly, had embryonized. Maurice Goudeket describes one of her last gestures as a winglike fluttering of her hands, and her last word, “Look,” embraced the room in which she lay dying, with all of its contents, including a box of butterflies. To read Colette is to see her constantly in all that she describes, especially in her description of Clouk.

Colette gives to the spoken word an organic life that removes the genetic boundary between human and animal, as well as that between narrator and character. Her early short fiction includes a number of dialogues, many with one voice suppressed, others with narration that combines stream-of-consciousness progression with direct discourse, and still others recording the conversation of animals. Human characters in these dialogues have such mundane identities as masseuse, godchild, hairstylist, or saleslady.

The Letters

A “letter” to her friend Valentine is signed “Colette Willy” and takes up the matter of Colette’s appearances in mime drama with “Missy.” The “letter” recapitulates Valentine’s disapproval of Colette’s nudity on stage. The incidents are part of the author’s actual history, but the letter is a work of fiction. Where other writers produce autobiographical fiction, Colette may be said to produce fictive autobiography....

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There are at least ten other short works addressed to, or focused upon, “my friend Valentine,” and they pulsate with gossip. One work begins with quotations from an unsigned letter to Valentine and gets caught up in the events of a harvesting of grapes. Another describes Valentine’s undressing, applying makeup, and dressing in front of Colette; the rites of fashion are infused with an air of homosexuality that is implicit with both calm intimacy and incipient dissatisfaction, a kind of jealousy on Colette’s part. One very short story opens with Valentine’s comments upon her recent haircut and goes on to encompass a dialogic disquisition on hairstyles and hair; it is concise, devoid of any suggestion of plot, and, in its patent mundanity, a work of fiction resonant with the dimensions of vanity. Colette’s specialty is an appreciation of the profundity of mundane femininity.

“The Tendrils of the Vine”

Colette’s fable about the tendrils of the vine was first published in Le Mercure musical on May 15, 1905. It would much later be included with, and provide the title of, her 1908 collection of short stories, The Tendrils of the Vine. The tale begins with a third-person narration about a nightingale that sings to stay awake in order not to be caught and bound by the tendrils of a vine. Colette then speaks in the first person as an observer of the nightingale. She concludes with an identification of herself as the nightingale, whose song is her self-confession. Just like the nightingale, Colette loses happiness and pleasant sleep, along with the fear of the tendrils of the vine, which in Colette’s case stands for Willy’s dominance. The story reflects the inception of Colette’s move away from dependence upon Willy.

“The Tender Shoot”

In this allegory of a vine, a plant is personified. In two later works, The Ripening Seed and the short story “Le Tendron” (“The Tender Shoot”), humans may be said to be “plantified.” The “tender shoot” is a sensually uninhibited country girl of fifteen and a half years who responds to the eroticism of a man almost fifty-two years of age; she fears only the ill will of her mother, and, when she and her lover are surprised by her mother, she joins her mother in an attack upon the man. The story antedates Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) by at least a dozen years, and it differs from Lolita in length, in the girl’s retention of her virginity, and in having been written by a woman; the theme, however, is identical for each work. The statement inherent in Colette’s personification of plants and plantification of humans is that the pliancy and tenderness of life can persist only as traces in the toughness and coarseness upon which survival depends. Something of this statement obtains as well in the two dialogues between Toby-Chien, Colette’s bulldog, and Kiki-la-Doucette, her Angora cat, which are included in The Tendrils of the Vine and which remove the barriers between the animal and human worlds.

“Love”

“Amour” (“Love”), one of the stories in Music-Hall Sidelights, offers a characteristic relationship in Colette’s work: Gloria, an English dancer, and Marcel, a stage-door Johnny, fall in love; Gloria wants to prolong the idyllic movement toward intimacy, and Marcel wants to abbreviate it; when finally Gloria is ready to terminate the flirtation by capitulating, Marcel has terminated it by departing. Here, again, Colette rehearses a very ordinary relationship by presenting its surface in such a way as to furnish the reader with an experience of the profound dimensions of averseness that inform every attraction of one human being to another.

This is carried on in a story such as “Matinée” to reflect the attitudes of performers to each other, one performer’s (the narrator’s) distance from her colleagues, and the extrapolated distance of the matinée audience from the performers. “Lola” is a story about a performing dog, the titular character, whose concession to the narrator ranges from reserved approach, as the narrator seeks to feed her, to resentful capitulation, as the narrator purchases her. Lola, the dog herself, expresses the nature of her capitulation in the concluding paragraph. “Le Laissé-pour-compte” (“The Misfit”) is a moderately longer story than others in the volume and outlines in unsentimental narrative the loneliness of a young song-and-dance woman, billed as Roussalka, who is contemned and avoided by her family (eight acrobats) and her fellow performers; she asserts her integrity by eating plums alone in a stifling boardinghouse room and shooting the pits at the grave markers and chapel of a neighboring cemetery. In “La Fenice,” the narrator becomes depressed as she watches the women performers in a small Neapolitan café (called La Fenice, that is, “The Phoenix”); she envisages the return of the women to their grimy lodgings and, although there is a raging storm outside, leaves the café to brave the elements in a carriage. The fabulous bird that gives the café its name and the story its title is reduced to the brief glow of a candle in an entertainer’s fireless room and the monotonous repetition of the acts from day to day. Yet this very repetition ensures the renewed vitality of the burned-out entertainers who know a constant renaissance from the ashes of weariness. Music-Hall Sidelights also provides more of Colette’s dialogues-for-one: for example, “L’Accompagnatrice” (“The Accompanist”), which is a telephone message by a woman whose aspirations for the stage have been defeated by out-of-wedlock maternity, and “Nostalgie” (“Nostalgia”), the telephone tale of a woman whom the theater has passed by.

“Monsieur Maurice”

A story entitled “Monsieur Maurice,” published well before Colette met Maurice Goudeket and in no way suggestive of him, appears in her 1924 collection The Other Woman. It exemplifies her handling of narration from the male perspective: Maurice Houssiaux, attempting to dispose of two women candidates for an unneeded stenographic position, hires the elder candidate after she recalls his activities and mien as a young man. The recollection by the little gray-haired lady works upon Monsieur Maurice more effectively than the deference shown by the very attractive younger candidate. All the stories in The Other Woman are quite short.

Most of the stories that are representative of Colette’s mature years are, like “The Tender Shoot,” comparatively long, stories such as “Bella-Vista,” “The Kepi,” “L’Enfant malade” (“The Sick Child”), and Gigi, which is properly a novella, a brilliant celebration of the world that Colette knew during her twenties. Gigi is an ingenue who comes of age during the fin de siécle, the last decade of the nineteenth century. Gigi’s real name, Gilberte, sounds an echo of Proust’s Gilberte Swann. There is as well in Gigi some strain of the tender shoot that captivates mature men. Where Gigi, however, is delightfully atavistic, “Bella-Vista,” the title story of her 1937 collection, is truer to the depths of Colette’s thought.

“Bella-Vista”

“Bella-Vista” dramatizes the tension that informs “les mystérieux attraits de ce que nous n’aimons pas” (the mysterious drawing-power of what we do not like). Colette writes here in first-person narrative, using her own name, about her early springtime stay at a villa on the French Riviera while she awaits the construction of the villa that will be hers. Two women, Madame Suzanne and her American partner, Madame Ruby, run the Bella-Vista, where a mysterious Monsieur Daste is also a guest. M. Daste’s strange but unadmitted antipathy to animals is sensed by Colette’s dog Pati and culminates in his murder of first one and then nineteen parakeets. M. Daste is in every respect the antithesis of Colette, yet Colette knows that she must in some way incorporate her antithesis, her dark side. The strange relationship of Suzanne and Ruby, the alternation of beautiful and bad weather, and the malevolence of M. Daste work a kind of spell upon Colette, who decides to leave Bella-Vista, however, only when she realizes that she is no longer enjoying herself. Just prior to her departure, she learns that Madame Ruby is a man named Richard, who is being shielded from police arrest by his consort, Madame Suzanne, and who has impregnated Lucie, one of the maids. The ending is not so much a surprise as a fitting resolution of the visiting Colette’s uneasiness and suspicion.

“The Kepi”

“The Kepi,” again a title story (this time of a 1943 collection), also involves the young Colette as a character and as still married to Willy. She meets a middle-aged writer, one Madame Marco, who is having an affair with a younger man, Lieutenant Alexis Trallard. During a session of love, Marco, in wrinkled chemise, puts the lieutenant’s kepi on her head and gives it a provocative tilt. She is suddenly startled at the expression on Alexis’s face. Although he says nothing, the lieutenant makes it clear that the affair has ended. The separation is gradual but definite, and Marco ceases to have a lover. It is the complex dimensionality of this apparently superficial and trivial bit of play that illustrates the tension beneath the surface of every individual’s living existence. Colette captures it by having herself assume the role of her reader and encapsulating a reader’s reaction to Marco’s story, for Marco tells her story to Colette. Robert Phelps adjudges “The Kepi” as “probably the least sentimental love story ever told.”

“April”

Phelps adds that “Avril” (“April”), which is included in In the Flower of the Age but originally was a chapter excluded from The Ripening Seed, is probably “the truest” love story ever told. The adolescents, Vinca and Philippe, who have grown up together and take for granted a mutual commitment to love, are on the point of consummating their affection when, in the wooded area in which they find themselves, they come upon a mature couple in the act of love. Philippe suffers a wave of shame, which propels him into removing Vinca from the scene so that they may rejoin the bicycle caravan from which they have been briefly separated and regain the security of innocence, although they can no longer possess their own innocence.

“The Sick Child”

“The Sick Child” is the last story that Colette wrote, and it is one of the most magical of her works of short fiction. In it, a dying boy achieves glorious experiences through feats of imagination, all of which cease to be tenable by him once his illness is reversed and he is returned to the prospect of living. The association of the unhindered imagination with the world of death and the recognition of the bleakness incumbent upon the obligations of living constitute Colette’s most affecting theme.

In all of her short fiction, as in her novellas and novels, Colette probes, with a deftness that seems effortless and inevitable, the subtlest and, at the same time, the most profound synapses of human affection.

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Colette Long Fiction Analysis